Historian Partha Chatterjee distinctly remembers his conversation with MF Husain at Delhi’s Triveni Kala Sangam more than 30 years ago, where he questioned the veteran artist about another master — Sailoz Mookherjea. He had asked Husain if he remembers Mookherjea, to which the artist said, “Of course, I do! He was the first giant to emerge on the Indian art scene after Independence. He was the most painterly of all the painters, including myself”.
Mookherjea died an untimely death at the age of 53 in 1960, but not before leaving his mark on Indian art, though he continues to be under-recognised. At a time when Bengal attracted artists from across the country, Mookherjea moved to Delhi in 1943. “As far as he was concerned, Delhi was virgin territory artistically, though it had been economically and politically ravaged by the British in 1857,” writes Partha Chatterjee in the publication Revisiting Sailoz Mookherjea, which accompanies an exhibition of the same title at Dhoomimal Art Centre in Delhi.
Incidentally, Ram Babu, the-then owner of the gallery, was one of Mookherjea’s earliest patrons in India, apart from foreign diplomats. During his sojourn to Europe in the mid-1930s, according to Chatterjee, Mookherjea had familiarised himself with the works of the Western masters, even meeting “his idol” Henri Matisse in Paris.
The exhibition has 57 works — from drawings dominated by depictions of the everyday, to temparas that reflect Mookherjea’s folk influences. Landscapes and portraits dominate the collection of oil-on-canvas. “There is a limited archive of his work that is available. He was painting what he was seeing around him and the display reflects that,” says Mohit Jain, Director of Dhoomimal Art Centre.
The book shares more details, and apart from the Dhoomimal collection, also includes some works from the collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art. An article written by the late art critic, Jaya Appasamy, reproduced in the publication, divides Mookherjea’s oeuvre into three major periods. She writes, “The earliest paintings are comparatively simple and open, clearly stated and have a plain motif. Among these should be mentioned a few works done in Europe, such as the portrait of the Dutch Girl and Lane in Italy, both done in 1937. The beginning of his Delhi period is also characterised by this austerity, Last on the Field and Buffaloes are fairly typical. The compositions are singularly uncomplex; the subject often a landscape with figures or animals… Sailoz’s second period (1949-50) includes the mature phase of his art and the paintings of this decade represent the consolidation of the style. His work is much more confident and loose, spontaneous and lyrical… In his last years, Sailoz developed a more extreme style, using and accentuating rapidly of manner and uninhibited brush work. The subject matter is virtually abandoned and the colours intermingle without boundaries, there is extensive scribbling on the surface of the picture with the blunt end of the brush. These result in a kind of ‘action painting’ where the frenzy of the artist is recorded as surface texture.”
One of the nine artists whose works are listed as National Art Treasure, Mookherjea died a loner, living in frugal lodgings, and had taken to alcohol. The talented artist was also a much-loved teacher, admired by his students at the Sarada Ukil School of Art on Janpath and Delhi Polytechnic, where he taught in the late ’40s and ’50s. “His drawing was excellent. He always came to the canvas charged, full of energy,” notes Ram Kumar, who was his student at Sarada Ukil School of Art. Arpita Singh recalls how Mookherjea helped her handle the palette knife when she was finding it difficult to use it as a student at the Delhi Polytechnic.
“His works have been coming in auctions but he is largely under-priced. Now, with the book, there is a body of work that we have to work with,” says Jain. With several of his important works in international collections, this, perhaps, is a rare opportunity to view a large body of his work.
The exhibition is on at Dhoomimal Art Gallery, A-8, Connaught place, Delhi, till November 30