This summer, after walking through Tate Modern’s ‘Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs’, I caught myself reflecting less on the spectacular qualities of specific pieces than on the larger struggles and reconciliations of this end-of-career work; the playing-out in paper by an artist who had committed a lifetime to paint. There are unexpected echoes of Matisse’s late shift in direction in the final decades of the life of the Indian artist Benode Behari Mukherjee.
Born in 1904, Mukherjee was one of the first fine art students at Kala Bhavana, part of Visva-Bharati, Rabindranath Tagore’s experimental university in West Bengal. Unlike his mentor, the painter Nandalal Bose, Mukherjee was never preoccupied with nationalist issues; instead, it was nature that commanded his full attention. Like many of his peers, Mukherjee was drawn to the art of the Far East; he visited Japan and China between 1936 and 1937. In 1957, Mukherjee lost his eyesight. He remained extremely creative, however, producing, among many other things, a remarkable series of paper cut-outs. The reliance on direct contact, gesture and intuition became crucial to the artist’s practice in his final years, a mode of working that is recorded in photographs by Nemai Ghosh as well as in Satyajit Ray’s short documentary, The Inner Eye (1972).
Mukherjee’s collages, unlike much of Matisse’s work, were modest in size. However, Mukherjee did share the French artist’s recourse to early memories, which formed the basis of his later works. In the preface to his memoirs, Mukherjee wrote: ‘The closer a man approaches his end, the more he recalls his past; in other words, he looks for himself in the world of memory.’ This chimes with the sentiments of an ageing Matisse, who, writing about getting older, declared: ‘It’s as though my memory had suddenly taken the place of the outside world.’ The local landscapes of Bengal would all resurface for Mukherjee, but were now freed from the obligation to mirror reality. Simplified to an extreme, with intriguing spatial configurations that teeter on the brink of abstraction, these paper reveries transcend the merely decorative. Tactile, inventive and playful, they emanate a sense of great liberation, leaving behind any of the limits imposed by the physical infirmity of their maker.
Received narratives of Indian Modern art, dominated by studies of painting, would be profitably complicated by considerations of such paper-based practices, where a proliferation of new forms of expression were gamely being tested. Last year, two shows in Mumbai, ‘Cut & Paste: Popular Mid-20th Century Art’ at Chatterjee & Lal, and ‘Considering Collage’ at Jhaveri Contemporary, found themselves in conversation with one another, enabling a history of collage on the Subcontinent to be plotted from the 1930s to the present. ‘Cut & Paste’ showcased early-20th-century assemblages from the Shekhawati region in Rajasthan. Trafficking in Hindu mythological imagery of Indian deities embedded in German or Swiss landscapes, these curious collages were a result of the desire among the trader community in the area at the time to strike a balance between religion and a hybrid modernity engendered by the British presence in India. ‘Considering Collage’ identified works made after Indian independence, which included experiments by Boase, Mukherjee, Bhupen Khakhar, C.K. Rajan and the overlooked but important figures of Dashrath Patel and Anwar Jalal Shemza, among others. It also drafted in contemporary artists employing collage, such as the Sri Lankan artist Muhanned Cader, who has just opened his first US solo exhibition at Talwar Gallery in New York.
There is little information about women artists from the South Asian region who have historically worked in collage, besides Nasreen Mohamedi, who engaged with it in the late 1960s. (A rare collage by Mohamedi was on display at a retrospective of her work at Tate Liverpool this summer.) Currently, the work of both Sukanya Rahman and Sheila Makhijani continues to involve collage, as does the remarkable and inspiring practice of 76-year-old Zarina Hashmi. A solo exhibition of Hashmi’s work at New Delhi’s Gallery Espace earlier this year included Folding Houses (2014), consisting of 25 collages, each of which comprised leftover pieces from other projects and reworked the image of a single-storey house. Drenched in memory, Folding Houses is the chronicle of one particular life. As Hashmi poignantly elucidates: ‘Our past never leaves us. We hide behind our memories – until we come to accept that the past is already gone.’