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Turning the body into art

A new book pays tribute to the singular genius of Meera Mukherjee, a pioneer among modern Indian sculptors

Meera Mukherjee. All images reproduced with permission from the book
Meera Mukherjee. All images reproduced with permission from the book

Meera Mukherjee (1923-98) never wanted to be recognized merely as a “woman artist", but in India in the 1950s, when she travelled to Germany to study art, she was uniquely placed among her peers. Divorced, disaffected by academic conventions, and unmoored from her milieu in Kolkata and New Delhi, where she trained under the luminaries of the Bengal School, Mukherjee found her medium in exile. “I knew I wanted to involve myself in creation involving hard physical labour," she wrote years later. “Sculpting was the most natural culmination of this urge."

Even though she isn’t known as widely as she deserves, Mukherjee was one of the pioneers of Indian sculpture. Her reputation was built on bronze casting, one of the most exhausting, and physically damaging, forms, requiring mental rigour as well as immense bodily fortitude. Meera Mukherjee: Purity Of Vision (published by Akar Prakar and Mapin Publishing, in collaboration with Emami Art, and supported by Raza Foundation, 2,950) opens a window into her extraordinary genius, the principles she lived by, and the ways in which her personal choices influenced her art.

With essays by Maitreyi Chatterjee, Shilvanti Pracht, Georg Lechner, Maja von Rosenbladt, Clelia Segieth, Pranabranjan Ray, Geeti Sen and Adip Dutta, prefaced with an introduction by Nandini Ghosh, the book is a mishmash of reminiscences and art-historical analyses. But the 26 photographs included in it, many of them depicting the artist in rare moments of work and repose, and 146 illustrations of her creations, often speak far more eloquently than the textual commentaries.

Although Mukherjee’s story begins, and ends, with Bengal, where she was born, and died, her art contained worlds within it. From patterns made by her mother’s alpona (floor decorations) to the ancient lost-wax process practised by tribal communities in Chhattisgarh and Bengal, she absorbed a range of influences from her life in India. But it was in Europe that she was prompted to look back, critically, at the vast riches that lay unexplored in her country, ignored by the snobbery of academic art and obfuscated by its convoluted jargon.

‘Sitar Player’, bronze

Even in Germany, Mukherjee was frustrated by the abstract terms in which her peers and teachers spoke about art. Every day she would spend hours in class, sketching hard, but Toni Stadler, her teacher who had studied under Renoir, would tear it all up. On the brink of a breakdown one day, she finally begged a fellow student for a block of wood, from which she carved a bowl, the first of her creations that Stadler beheld with a certain degree of admiration. The tactility of that experience became for Mukherjee a template—a lifelong quest to merge art with artisanship.

Most of Mukherjee’s sculptures had an inherent simplicity about them. Men and women toiling, seated or reclining, nursing babies, caught in moments of intimacy and surprise—such scenes became her staple. As an accomplished singer, Mukherjee also created figures wielding the flute, sitar, sarod, or in song. The body as a vehicle of the creative force, the way it wears and tears as it makes art, remained the cynosure of her attention, and also a deeply felt personal truth.

In spite of the challenging scale of some of her work (the 9ft-tall statue of King Ashoka after the Kalinga war, for instance, which is installed in the front lawns of the ITC Maurya Hotel in Delhi), Mukherjee remained actively involved in the process of casting and welding. She travelled to a village outside Kolkata, at unearthly hours, to work with a master welder, who Mukherjee treated with the greatest respect.

Although Mukherjee lived a hermetic existence of Gandhian austerity, she was known for her generosity. She trained women and girls in the villages to harness their inner feelings through the needle-and-thread art of kantha. She also remained acutely mindful of the knowledge systems of the tribal masters she learned from—never abused their hospitality nor exploited their trust. Dissolving the lofty ideals of intellectual labour by the excruciating trials of the body, she cherished a purity within herself that is unique and rare. “If I am an ordinary human being, then I will continue to do ordinary chores, and remain satisfied and happy with it," she once said. “I did not have enormous ambition; I did not wish to become a great artist."

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