‘Transfigurations’, Mrinalini Mukherjee’s brilliant retrospective at Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art, was curated by Peter Nagy and, for the first time, brought together the artist’s works in fibre, ceramic and bronze. The daughter of artist Benode Behari Mukherjee, who taught at Rabindranath Tagore’s university at Santiniketan, Mrinalini trained at the Baroda Art School. She took up working with natural fibre in 1971, while studying mural-making under K.G. Subramanyan, at a time when many of her peers embarked upon figurative painting.
Mukherjee’s art proceeds by transformations. The first room was filled with her sculptural variations on biomorphic shapes and floral motives: seated and standing deities, a reclining figure and giant blossoms. Van Raja (Forest King, 1991–94) loomed over this suite of sculptures, his arms stretched wide. Occasionally suspended from the ceiling or hung on the wall, most of Mukherjee’s languid fibre works sag on the floor. Made with no preparatory drawings and installed on a simple armature, her rapturous creatures comprise rough strings of hemp and sisal tied into knots of various sizes. In one of her earliest works, Waterfall (1975), a wooden curtain pole supports a cascade of green and natural fibre. It is Mukherjee’s flattest and most decorative work. Close by, Sitting Deity (1981) slouches on fluffy, hair-like fibres. Its trunk recalls that of Ganesh, the elephant god, although Mukherjee rejected the comparison between her deities and the iconography of specific gods and goddesses. Hers are simply upright yoginis and yakshis – the reclining Purush (1980) is an outlier amongst these vertical, totem-like assemblages.
In one of the side rooms, the pink and lilac vulva-like Aranyani (1996) sat squarely on its plinth. Both flaccid and erect penises and giant vulvas make up Mukherjee’s pantheon of human and divine procreation. Art historian and curator Deepak Ananth has linked the artist’s work to the erotic and political transgression of the dissident surrealist, Georges Bataille. With the exception of Bhupen Khakhar, few Indian artists of Mukherjee’s generation (she was born in 1949) have tackled sexuality in an overt way. Yet bodily drives appear tamed and unthreatening in her art and markers of sexual difference collapse. At a formal level, the artist developed a morphology that bears structural affinities with anti form sculpture. But the comparison only goes so far. Folds and creases spill onto each other in endless combinations, yet hers is a vocabulary of abundance.
As opposed to Robert Morris and Eva Hesse, who worked with materials that were on the whole drained of any colour, there is a unique vibrancy to Mukherjee’s fibre and ceramic work. This show highlights her experiments with different materials, as well as her control of colour. ‘I start with an image in mind, which could be floral or human. The image suggests the colours. I then acquire the material, prepare it for dyeing and start making the armature’, explained Mukherjee in an interview with Chrissie Iles in 1994. ‘Sometimes a particular colour that I want to use suggests the form’, she continued. Ranging from muted yellows and the striking red and black combination of Adi-Pushp I (1997) and Adi-Pushp II (1998–99), to the earthen tones of her unglazed ceramics (Lotus Pond, I–VIII, 1995–96), Mukherjee’s work is an interplay of vibrant natural colours, its warm hues magnified by the dramatic lighting of the exhibition.
Most of the ceramics presented in this show comprise a bulging mound as a base and an accumulation of protruding shapes in deep red and green tones. While individually distinctive, their articulation on low plinths made less sense in this dramatic staging of human-size sculptures. Mukherjee also experimented with large-scale ceramics, but these could not be included in the exhibition because of their fragility. Her new works in bronze signalled a shift towards more elegiac and abstract shapes. A golden stem expands into space balanced on the tip of a giant curved petal (Palm Scape IX, 2015), while flattened square sheets of bronze hug the wall. Here, again, it is the malleable quality of molten bronze that Mukherjee exploits. If her early work was often, inaccurately, construed as craft because of her use of fibre, her bronze sculptures resolutely defy any physical function.
Located at the farthest end of the gallery, Palm Scape IX (2015) is the artist’s last work. Despite her bad health, the steadfast Mukherjee was determined to oversee the installation of her retrospective until its final stages. She was taken to hospital a day before the opening and died a week later. She was 65 years old and her work was at its strongest. This magisterial, beautifully installed exhibition now stands as a tribute to one of India’s most gifted artists.