Mrinalini Mukherjee (1949–2015)

Mrinalini Mukherjee, 2006. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew.

WHO COULD HAVE IMAGINED that the long-awaited consecration of Mrinalini Mukherjee’s achievement as a sculptor would coincide with a closure of the most final kind—that the perspective opened up by the major exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi of her work in natural fiber, ceramic, and bronze, elaborated over the last four and a half decades, would henceforth also be a posthumous one? Mukherjee was hospitalized two days before the opening of her retrospective in late January and died a week later. The critical acclaim on her home ground came too late, and, mortifyingly, she was no longer there to savor it. Internationally, however, Mukherjee’s work had a succès d’estime much earlier, as evinced by her one-person exhibition in 1994 at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, curated by David Elliott, and her participation in the Paris Biennale (1980), the Sydney and Havana Biennials (1986), the Asia Pacific Triennial (1996), and most recently, the Gwangju Biennale (2014).

She made a remarkable debut in the mid 1970s with her work in jute, or hemp fiber, estranging the material’s traditional artisanal connotations by the playful ways in which she harnessed it as a medium for three-dimensional form. She had a sophisticated understanding of the art/craft dialectic, nourished as it was by the pedagogy professed by her teacher, the artist K. G. Subramanyan, himself a student of Mukherjee’s father, the painter Benode Behari, a luminary at the Bauhaus-inspired Visva-Bharati University founded by Rabindranath Tagore. Given the vitality of the vernacular art traditions in India, the recourse to craft as the basis of a plastic language came naturally to Mukherjee. She certainly didn’t have to take any cues in this respect from her contemporaries in the West (some of the artists associated with Supports/Surfaces in France and Arte Povera in Italy, Simon Hantaï, Richard Tuttle, Jackie Winsor, Eva Hesse) when they variously turned to rope, gauze, wicker, printed textiles, unstretched canvas, knotted or pleated cords, latex, papier-mâché, or artisanal techniques such as tie-dye in their attempts to explore other formal alternatives to an atrophied modernism.

Mrinalini Mukherjee, Adi Pushp II, 1998–99, hemp fiber, 55 x 45".

Mukherjee’s sculptural imagination was profoundly anthropomorphic and unabashedly organic, nurtured by what she had learned from Indian art’s partiality to a voluptuous, iconographic excess (from high temple sculpture to wayside shrines) and by a certain modernist predilection for a more stringent economy of means. It is astonishing how the manually made knot that is the basic micro unit of the sculptural syntax of her works in rope fiber could yield such baroque and imposing floral and arboreal totems. (The human form is invariably an avatar of the vegetal.) Their suggestive folds and rents, protrusions and openings, are poised at the wondrous moment that precedes a dehiscence.

The celebration of eros remained an enduring leitmotif and organizing metaphor of her work when she made the transition from natural fiber to ceramic and then bronze. All three substances are notable for their tactile qualities, and indeed, touch, the physical contact with the raw material, was always a shaping factor in her conception of sculptural form. In her later body of work in bronze, Mukherjee renewed contact with the carnal knowledge that she had always intuited in the organic. The floral and vegetal forms are tremulous and tumescent, stirring free of bark and membrane in an alteration that is at the same time the becoming-sculpture of formlessness. The generative principle is brought to a head in the works that deploy a lingam-like form, but as a very curious matrix indeed, inasmuch as the conventional symbolic association with the masculine has been feminized by the wanton floral caress. More perversely, the male attribute reveals itself to have been enwombed in a reversal of roles as sly as that undertaken by Louise Bourgeois when she titled her conspicuously phallic totem Fillette (Little Girl), 1968. The presiding matriarch of contemporary sculpture would surely have recognized Mrinalini Mukherjee as a fellow “bachelor of art.”

Deepak Ananth is an art historian based in Paris.

See the Summer issue of Artforum for Murtaza Vali’s review of Mukherjee’s retrospective.