passages

Mrinalini Mukherjee (1949–2015)

View of “Transfigurations: The Sculpture of Mrinalini Mukherjee,” 2015. From left: Florescence II 1996; Earthbloom, 1996; Florescence I, 1996. Photo: Ram Rahman

HER NAME WAS A TONGUE TWISTER, but everyone knew Mrinalini Mukherjee as Dillu, and that captured her spirit. I first met her at the opening of a show of her ceramic sculptures at the Vadehra Art Gallery in New Delhi in 1997. I don’t remember how, but shortly afterward I was in the habit of hanging out with her and a group of artists, all of us a generation or two behind her in age. But she always seemed to be the youngest of the lot. She cooked Bengali dinners, and we imbibed Kingfisher beers and the sickly sweet rum known as Old Monk, trading gossip and opinions on art. Well traveled and erudite, she was demanding when it came to her own work and how it was to be shown. That’s what we admired most about her: her discipline, her commitment to her practice, her devotion to the sociability of the art world, her passion for art from all over the world.

The idea for her retrospective at New Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art had been floating in the air for a couple of years, so when the official dates were announced only nine months before it was to happen, we felt mentally prepared. With the help of an assistant, she dissected her archives to locate as many fiber works as possible, which she produced from the early 1970s to the late ’90s, and with which she made her mark on the Indian art world. I was well aware of her later works in ceramic and bronze, so the fiber sculptures were our foundation from which we would build the show as a whole, interlacing all three bodies of works to show the amazing consistency she achieved in three very different materials.

Formidable and dogged, Dillu continued working on bronze sculptures as the exhibition’s opening date approached and continued to find long-lost works to add to the show. When her final work, a gleaming bronze resembling the wings of a dragon, or perhaps a schooner aflame, came in at the tail end of our installation, we could only stand back aghast as it seemingly levitated itself into position. The work of a lifetime, richly diverse yet of a singular sensibility, came together into one superbly orchestrated symphony. Art always outlives the artist and usually presents a more sober facade to its audience. Visitors to the exhibition marveled at Dillu’s provocations of hemp, clay, and bronze, appreciated a myriad of references in which she gamboled. Those of us who knew and loved Dillu could see her mischievous humor and sparkling wit dancing throughout her works.

Peter Nagy is the founder of the Nature Morte gallery in New Delhi and curated the exhibition “Transfigurations: The Sculpture of Mrinalini Mukherjee,” which was on view at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi from January 27–May 31, 2015.

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

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