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Opinion | Buddhadev Mukherjee’s elastic people

The Delhi-based artist's standout work in the online show 'In Touch' is a testament to the stillness and deep introspection wrought by the covid-19 lockdown

A crop from Buddhadev Mukherjee's series “Within — Without” (6), 2020; oil on canvas
A crop from Buddhadev Mukherjee's series “Within — Without” (6), 2020; oil on canvas

The people in Buddhadev Mukherjee’s new suite of paintings stretch into valley-like shapes to fill the hours, they knot their arms in a wide circle to contain expanses, they sit on invisible chairs and bear their own load. Mostly, they seem overrun by ennui, like us.

In No.6 of his series Within—Without, there’s more going on. In it, a man and a woman stretch their arms to cover the other’s face. There is a tenderness in it, but also deceit. It is a standout work in the latest edition of the show In Touch ( that was unveiled earlier this week. Mukherjee’s 12 works are Mumbai gallery Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke’s solo presentation in the collaborative online show that is ongoing till 9 November. My picks from the other 11 presentations are the fantastical works by Chitra Ganesh and Manjunath Kamath (Gallery Espace) and the geometrical threadwork of the Oman-born artist Radhika Khimji (Experimenter).

Over the phone from his home studio in Delhi, Mukherjee tells me that No.6 was inspired by the poem Pagli, Tomar Songe by Bengali poet Joy Goswami, a poem which includes, among its imagery, a house with such marital cacophony that even hawks and crows have abandoned its windows. He has been reading a lot of Goswami through the lockdown. It is the sentiment of the poem, a compulsive romantic push and pull, that breathed life into his painting.

From the series “Within — Without” (5), 2020; oil on canvas
From the series “Within — Without” (5), 2020; oil on canvas

The 44 year-old artist has studied painting at Santiniketan and printmaking at the M S University of Baroda. In 2012, he received a scholarship to study at the China Academy of Art, Hangzhou. It was after returning from China that Mukherjee exhibited with Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke at the India Art Fair in Delhi in 2015 for the first time. And he has been working with Chinese rice paper and Chinese watercolour ever since.

The medium for the new series, though, is oil on canvas. There is a languor and contemplativeness in it that is new, the people are elastic, the boundaries between their bodies and the space they inhabit is blurred. In Mukherjee’s earlier In Search Of Each Other series—which a colleague raved about in this paper in 2017—an everyman roamed the house. He sat atop fans, tried to enter switchboards. “Whimsical" and “groovy" were appropriate then, not now. I ask Mukherjee if this is because of the covid-19 lockdown, this lack of movement, this deep introspection. Or is this a continuum?

“Yes, the humour is less obvious," says Mukherjee. “But it is continuous… it is a continuing engagement with the complexity of human relationships, with the position of man in space. There is more depth now. As I went farther and farther, I saw that the humour turned dark."

The artist shares that the lockdown has cut him off from artistic nutrition—observing people in the streets, seeking respite in green and open spaces, conversations with friends. “I do feel claustrophobic. There is a suffocation. We cannot deny it," he says, adding that he is inspired by the works of Sudhir Patwardhan, Jogen Chowdhury, Somnath Hore and other artists who explore the human condition.

His training in Santiniketan makes Mukherjee medium-averse. He was a direct student of Jogen Chowdhury and encouraged to be agile in handling any medium from watercolour to oil to terracotta. Previously, watercolours gave him the lightness he needed. Now, oils give him depth and stillness. The nature of his work demands rooting in a time and mood; Mukherjee doesn’t believe in layering his works over weeks and months. Most of these works, he says, were created in a single sitting. “I am very direct and physical as a painter…. I enjoy that sort of thing, to be spontaneous. There are no layouts for my paintings either."

This is the fourth time that gallerist Ranjana Steinruecke is exhibiting Mukherjee’s work. “The response has been great. We have already sold a few. There have been several inquiries," she says. I should know. I called Steinruecke immediately on seeing No.6 in a digital poster the day before the show opened to the public—and it had been sold (the works are priced at 65,000). “Buddhadev has been working on canvases for a long time and we were waiting for a long time to launch this body. Till now we had only shown works on paper," she says. “The idea of how individuals are coping, the idea of navigating life, is more relevant than ever at the moment."

The writer tweets at @aninditaghose.

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