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Connecting the dots between two artists

‘Nestled’ revisits the nuanced relationship between sculptor and painter Adip Dutta and the late Meera Mukherjee

A detail from Adip Dutta's 'Topographic Spread I (Ramani Chatterjee Lane)', 2020 Ink and brush on paper. Courtesy: of the artist and Experimenter, Kolkata

A unique dialogue is taking place at Experimenter’s Hindustan Road space in Kolkata these days. Sculptor Meera Mukherjee’s kantha or stitched paintings have been juxtaposed with Adip Dutta’s works on paper, sculptures and drawings. It is not just a dialogue between two artistic practices but between a young individual and his mentor who had a tremendous impact on the young mind.

The long association started in the mid 1980s, when Dutta was only 14 or 15. He would go to a craftsperson’s workshop close to his house and play with the mud. The late artist, known for combining folk traditions and craft practices with myriad materials and forms to create a complex visual language, would come in quietly to see the activities at the workshop. Often, they would end up exchanging views.

The members of the team, who were locals of Nolgorhat, then on the outskirts of the city, helped Mukherjee in casting her sculptural pieces. They would come with their wives and children to her workshop at Elachi, Narendrapur. At one point, Mukherjee tried to teach their kids maths and science, but judging their interest, moved on to drawing. She noticed their keen observations of the immediate surroundings, which the children would translate on to paper. She soon started encouraging the craftswomen to create kantha patterns out of these drawings. “A carpet weaver would then make textile pieces out of those patterns. It was amazing how that one visual gave way to another. And I never realised how it percolated into my subconscious,” says Dutta.

Meera Mukherjee, 'Untitled (Kantha)'  Courtesy of the artist, The Seagull Foundation for the Arts and Experimenter, Kolkata
Meera Mukherjee, 'Untitled (Kantha)' Courtesy of the artist, The Seagull Foundation for the Arts and Experimenter, Kolkata

In the mid-1980s, Dutta was taken to her studio by a friend, who was a family friend of Mukherjee's. “There was a spark of recognition. I was drawn, not by the sculptor, but by the person that she was. This was a woman who was extremely independent, stayed all by herself, with a practice that required intense physical work. It was quite an experience to see someone like her at close quarters,” says Dutta.

And now one can witness layers of these conversations on display as part of the show Nestled. While the association ended with Mukherjee’s death in 1998, it has lingered in Dutta’s subconscious. “In the past 12 years, Adip has done several group shows and solos with us. We have had some intense conversations, most of which have been marked with mentions of ‘Meera Mashi’,” says Priyanka Raja, director, Experimenter.

Dutta was to have a solo at the gallery at the end of 2020 but that had to be put on hold due to the pandemic. It was during studio visits to discuss the show that Raja asked to see Mukherjee’s kantha work in his collection. “That’s when ideas fell into place and we decided to bring the two artists together. The architecture of the show is about celebrating that relationship, and about bringing together connections, until now viewed separately,” says Raja. The show, featuring 50 works, has been organised in collaboration with The Seagull Foundation for the Arts, Kolkata.

The 10ft-high rectangular structure, almost like a loom, acts as an anchor, with 30 works of the two artists nestled within it. The show is almost like an archaeological excavation of Dutta’s subconscious, akin to the way he unravels construction sites and urban architecture layer by layer in his practice. “My drawings were earlier black and white. But the tactility of surface, as seen in her dokra work and stitched paintings, remained in my system. I would use ink not as blobs but as dots and fine lines,” he says.

The curatorial note outlines the association between Dutta’s repetitive mark-making within his drawing and Mukherjee’s kantha stitches—flexible, moving, curvilinear lines—where small lines, dots, dashes and points are used as common devices to form the narrative. When he started using colour, albeit carefully, one could see connections in terms of the palette with the kantha. “Other artists would point out these associations,” adds Dutta.

He is not trained within a colonial academic framework of drawing perspective. And Mukherjee responded to that aspect of his work. He would bring in a “felt perspective” from his deep engagement with sites and spaces. “There was no formula, no structure. The work would emerge organically. That connected me with her,” says Dutta.

In his practice, he has looked at objects and sites of construction as spaces and tools of fantasy. “When you see a dug-up site in a middle-class setting, it almost takes one into the pages of a history book, filled with images of archaeological sites,” he says. The stories, both lived and imagined, which emerge from these spaces inform his work.

The 10ft-high rectangular structure, almost like a loom, acts as an anchor, with 30 works of the two artists nestled within it. Courtesy: Experimenter
The 10ft-high rectangular structure, almost like a loom, acts as an anchor, with 30 works of the two artists nestled within it. Courtesy: Experimenter

One can see this magical realism, of sorts, in Mukherjee’s stitched paintings as well. A common yet connected language is immediately apparent between the two in the form of a multiple response to nature, human and non-human forms. “In a nod to Mukherjee’s dexterous handling of bronze, usually depicting scenes from daily life, Dutta’s large bronze tree trunk occupies an anchoring space in the exhibition, linking his sculptural practice to the intricate field of vision in his large paintings on paper that abundantly and profusely refer to the sculpturality of what he sees around him,” states the note. “Mukherjee’s bronze, on the other hand, depicts the scene of a kantha embroiderer giving life to form through her skill on textile, all sculpted through the extremely difficult but completely indigenous lost wax process.”

The folds that one can see in Dutta’s works are as mellifluous as the soft corners that were seen in some of her sculptures. “My studio is very close to Gariahat Road. Over time, I have been responding to the soft architecture of the shanties and hawker carts,” explains Dutta. He started visiting the place at night. Apathy gave way to empathy. The plastic-covered shanties, bathed in dim yellow light, imbued with a slight eerie feeling with the long shadows they cast, created quite an atmosphere and he started drawing them. “You can experience them from multiple viewing points. My Topographic Specimens works are not linear. They are like three-dimensional cartographic drawings,” he explains.

For Raja, this stems from Mukherjee’s belief that there is no one way of seeing drawing. Often, many points of departure come together. A mother and child sculpture by Mukherjee bookends the exhibition, holding forth a relationship and a conversation securely nestled between a cocooned space that both these artists carved out for themselves within each other’s practice.

Nestled | Adip Dutta & Meera Mukherjee can be viewed till 31 March 2021 at Experimenter—Hindustan Road, Kolkata.

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