While growing up Debasish Mukherjee would often embark upon the yearly ritual of visiting his grandmother’s house in Varanasi during summer holidays. In her house, he’d stand in front of her wardrobe and stare in awe. Enchanted by how his dida’s cupboard had varieties of white saris only, folded beautifully and stacked together, he wondered why they were deprived of colour. The reason dawned upon him much later in life — a young girl, the third wife of his grandfather, she was widowed at the age of 29.
Mukherjee, who studied fine arts at Banaras Hindu University, and is now an artist and creative head of a leading fashion label, has put together a tall pile of similar-looking white fabrics, one on top of another, much like his dida’s saris, in Portrait 1 at Akar Prakar gallery. The pile bears black and white digital print of a little girl — a bejewelled “Kumari” as he prefers to call her. On the other side is the portrait of an old widow.
Mukherjee’s latest solo ‘River Song’ is a walk down his memory lane, as he reminisces about childhood and longing for home through 31 works comprising sculptures and installations. Speaking about his choice of sticking to white fabric for his artwork, he says, “I don’t agree with this theory of widowhood. In earlier times, widows were not allowed to eat non-vegetarian or certain pulses like masoor dal because it used to generate heat in the body. These are disturbing reasons. How can you humiliate somebody who has already lost her husband? And you expect that person to be humiliated by every person of the family their whole life?” Mukherjee says that his mother wears and eats what she wishes to, despite losing her husband, unlike previous generations that grew up in the Indian heartland.
The past carries as important a role in Mukherjee’s oeuvre as his last show, ‘The Museum Within’ at the same gallery in 2016, revolved around the country’s heritage sites in a state of neglect. His works carry a deep sigh of longing, and many times are inspired by the years he spent in the railway colony in his hometown Chhapra, Bihar. In his Portrait of a Tree, made by twisting pleated cloth, he recreates the silhouette of a tree that once stood in front of his childhood house. Perched atop, many neighbourhood children would watch Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan on Doordarshan by peeping through his window. “Not every house had a television then,” says Mukherjee.
The idea, according to the artist, stemmed from the space of one’s origin and then missing that space after moving out. Looking back at his 22 years in Chhapra, the Delhi-based artist says, “It’s very strange when you are born and brought up in a particular place and it is not your house. One day you realise it was a quarter and you have to leave and you can’t come back here.”
Chappra, linked with the trade of saltpetre and indigo, was a melting pot for the British, Portuguese and Dutch in the 18th century, who set up their trading stations there. He breathes life into the 22 circular discs made from cloth stretched out on embroidery hoop frames, and creates an uneven surface resembling the crooked lines on our palms, in 22 Moons. He also mimics the flow of a river in River Song, made out of untangling white cotton ropes and weaving them together to make them look like a traditional white and red Bengali sari. A large streak of red runs through its centre. This, for him, is an ode to his mother, whom he had seen wearing the vermillion since he was a child. “When I see my mother, the sindoor is one thing that she would always put. I never saw her without the sindoor till my father passed away in 2016,” he says.
The exhibition is at D 43, Defence Colony, till October 4