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Buddhadev Mukherjee: Portrait of the everyman as an artist

Buddhadev Mukherjee combines whimsy and understatement in his graceful, groovy art

Buddhadev Mukherjee in his Delhi home-studio. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Buddhadev Mukherjee in his Delhi home-studio. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

On a searing April afternoon, the road that leads to the urban village of Maidan Garhi in south Delhi’s Saket area is an unforgiving patchwork of electricity poles, overflowing community bins, potholes, snarled traffic and irate motorists. But Buddhadev Mukherjee is unfazed as he negotiates the narrow, circuitous lanes leading to his studio-cum-apartment flanked by an untamed forest.

When we arrive at the studio, we find it strewn with an assortment of brushes, bottles of colour and ink, large incomplete canvases and square cushions. There’s a fridge, a sloping old-fashioned wooden box which is also a drawing board, and a Chinese paper parasol. Despite this motley arrangement of objects, the place is spacious, uncluttered and squeaky clean, much like the 40-year-old artist’s compositions for the ongoing group show, Dwelling (Part II), at Mumbai’s Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, on its 10th anniversary. The second part of the show, which opened on 30 March, features 12 artists, including Dayanita Singh and Abir Karmakar, who have treated the central theme of “dwelling" as a variant of “home", “habitat", “building", “neighbourhood", “community", “accommodation" and “problems of shelter and belonging", through diverse media such as painting, drawing, videos, sketches, journal entries and photographs.

Mukherjee’s series of paintings, titled In Search Of Each Other and rendered in Chinese watercolour, ink and gold dust on Chinese rice paper, has a lone figure in differing states of psychological and physical abstraction. This everyman with neatly combed hair, rosy cheeks, black trousers and a pudgy physique appears to be prancing from one white sheet to another with a feather-light touch. Here he is perched atop a ceiling fan, looking through a telescope; there he carries an oversized butterfly wing on his shoulders; in others, he moulds his body like an Ensō of Zen Buddhism or tries to probe the intricacies of a switchboard with one elongated chappal-clad foot on the ground. “I always draw human figures. Their energy, character, monologue, body language, and humour...that is my landscape," says Mukherjee, who seeks to bring forth the levity and farce inherent in even the most deprived of settings. “My characters may be choking under the weight of their banal existence or getting smothered with multiple responsibilities, but they don’t look sad."

Mukherjee works from his ‘In Search Of Each Other’ series currently on view at Mumbai’s Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke. Photographs courtesy Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke.

The artist has now lived in five cities, and traced a meandering path to find a visual language which, like his characters, is graceful and groovy.

Poet and culture theorist Ranjit Hoskote, the curator of the show, explains its premise: “Dwelling ranges between the intimate and the panoramic, between the social space of the home and neighbourhood on the one hand and the political space of the nation-state on the other; between abstract evocations of wall, skin, membrane and house, and concretely embodied constructs such as the memorial, the monument, the imagined planetary surface." According to Hoskote, the figure of the “other" is strongly present in Mukherjee’s work. “His works mark the point where the figure embodies a series of situations that range from the whimsical or eccentric to the dissident or contrarian. Dwelling is concerned with questions such as: To what extent can idioms of collective identity accommodate that which is flagrantly Other, which refuses to fit into the system of normative convention?" he says.

But it was never easy for Mukherjee to meet this conspicuous “other", even though its amorphous presence was always floating around a local bus stand or in a bustling market scene in the industrial town of Durgapur in West Bengal where he grew up. The constant churn of humans, flitting in and out of his house in a staunchly middle-class colony peopled with solicitous neighbours and doting relatives, is his most recurrent childhood memory. But his perfecting of the human form began in the bucolic environs of Santiniketan’s Kala Bhavana, where Mukherjee trained as a painter for five years, in thrall of the styles perfected by Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij of the Bengal School movement, which rejected Eurocentricism in order to develop a pan-Asian ideal. His master’s training in graphics at the faculty of arts at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda gave him a solid technical grounding.

It was during a brief stint as an art teacher at a private school in Palwal, Haryana, that Mukherjee started sketching local farmers and barbers. He soon went back to Vadodara for artistic inspiration and began his experiments with lines and layers enmeshed with the human form in a variety of media, including henna, oil and graphics, pouring out his thoughts and anxieties on the canvas. His paintings from this financially difficult period of his life are riotous, a jangle of hard-edged objects, wayward lines and circles effected in deep, dark colours with his sole human figure lost in a maze, visible only as a silhouette or an outline.

It was after his one-and-a-half-year fellowship at the premier China Academy of Art in Hangzhou in 2013 that the varied strands of his artistic trajectory joined together to reclaim, with much sharper clarity, the lost human, now mature, understated and light-hearted. In China, he learnt the art of minimalism and the effective use of white, empty spaces, observing the works of masters from the Ming dynasty. Mukherjee now mostly works with Chinese rice paper and Chinese watercolour to delineate characters in colours which are fluent and subtle.

It was after returning from China that Mukherjee got a solo exhibition with Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke at the India Art Fair in Delhi in 2015, the highlight of his career till date.

Today, Mukherjee faithfully draws strangers on the Delhi Metro on a sketchbook app on his smartphone. He adores the work of artists such as Sudhir Patwardhan, Gieve Patel, Atul Dodiya and Bhupen Khakhar, all painters of people and their milieu.

He doesn’t know how the lone figure in his paintings will evolve with the passing of years and whether the figure will still retain his playfulness in the face of adversity. The one thing he does know is that, as an artist, he will always dwell in the local and the everyday.

Dwelling (Part II) is on view till 27 May at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke in Mumbai.

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