At first glance, they come across as tribal art. A closer look reveals vivid drawings by children rendered in kantha stitch and handwoven into carpets. These are part of a collection titled Common Ground: Meera Mukherjee And The Carpet Makers Of Muzaffarpur, at the ongoing exhibition curated by Chatterjee & Lal in the design gallery 47/A in Mumbai. The four carpets in the showcase are a shining example of an art practice at the intersection of craft and design.
The late artist Meera Mukherjee (1923-1998) is acclaimed for her bronze sculptures. Her work with carpet makers is not as popular or as prolific, but they encapsulate her many abiding interests; from crafts, social causes, children’s education to embracing marginalised communities in her practice.
These are reflected in the carpets at the show, which opened on 19 November and will go on till 15 January. Each pattern began as a water colour painting by children in Mukherjee’s school Dhanket Bidyalaya, located outside of Kolkata. These were recreated in kantha embroidery—a craft Mukherjee was passionate about preserving. These were then woven into carpets by out-of-work carpet makers in Muzaffarpur between 1986-90. These carpets were sold to her patrons at an undisclosed price and the funds were donated to the carpet makers.
“It (her work with carpets) kind of functions as a community arts project. A lot of contemporary artists now are very interested in exploring how art can relate to larger audiences and communities in a way that perhaps the idea of the artists working separately from society no longer really holds. I think that the younger generation of artists tap into this idea of art spreading its wings into a wider conversation. But, here is Meera Mukherjee doing the same thing more than 30-40 years ago,” notes Mortimer Chatterjee, director, Chatterjee & Lal.
The collection of four carpets has designs capturing a quotidian rural life reimagined in vibrant colours. They depict her signature playful visual language developed through drawings of children envisioned in kantha. One of the carpets has thatched huts with muddy yellow roofs and vibrant orange walls featuring a scene from the kitchen. There are elements that represent a child’s eye for detail, like small plants, most likely tulsi (holy basil), and red snakes. Another carpet has snarling lions and is dotted with blue and red flowers. The third has trees and leaves against a light brown background. The fourth has symmetric designs of palm tree branches with abstract horses and parrots. Each has human figures, perhaps adults and children, that seem to be an integral part of the ecosystem of trees, animals and birds.
Chatterjee mentions three names from contemporary Indian art who, like Mukherjee, have adopted a community-centric approach. There’s the Delhi-based Khoj Studio and Mumbai-based Camp Studio which engage in socially driven collaborative practices. One name that stands out is Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai, whose work Lihaaf (2020) is a large quilt, created by several women in Najibabad, Uttar Pradesh, to represent a woman’s agency at home. Chatterjee says, “When it comes to community-based art practices from South Asia, Meera is definitely a pioneer.”
Common Ground is on till 15 January at 47/A in Mumbai; 11am-7pm; closed on Monday.