Entering the gallery displaying Mrinalini Mukherjee's sculptures, you are overwhelmed. After all, this exhibition encompasses four decades of the work of the master sculptor, who died earlier this week. Unsurprisingly, there have been several pieces on her work and talent, and glowing obituaries in the media. But the words of the exhibition's curator Peter Nagy, who describes the work of the only daughter of renowned artists Benode Behari and Leela Mukherjee as a 'fearless investigation of materials' and the artist herself as India's 'pre-eminent female sculptor', seem most apt.
Mrinalini Mukherjee, who lived in Delhi, was well-known for her use of dyed and woven hemp fibre, a material considered unconventional (Photo: Subrata Biswas/HT)
The works on display at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) are huge and the medium changes as you walk around - from her early works in dyed and woven hemp, to those done in cast bronze and ceramics, towards the latter part of her life. Gradually, the sense of being overwhelmed starts to fade as the eye begins to trace the features of the humanoid in the huge woven hemp works that, at times, almost threaten to come to life. The figures of tribal gods and goddesses entitled 'Van Raja' and 'Vanshree', that form a big part of Mukherjee's earlier works, come across as some of the more arresting pieces.
At the show, some of the striking pieces include those that depict tribal gods and goddesses in earthy colours, as well as her bronze pieces that are inspired by nature (Photo: Subrata Biswas/HT)
"At a time when people would use conventional and more permanent material such as metal and stone, it was revolutionary for her to experiment with this medium. She was truly an artist who broke boundaries of content, form and material," says Rajeev Lochan, Director, NGMA. What Lochan describes as "revolutionary", Girish Shahane, independent writer and curator, contextualises as "pathbreaking" for her time.
"Her knotted hemp sculptures merged art and artisanship, and drew from Hindu symbolism without remaining trapped within established religious forms. At the time she began working in that form, Indian sculpture was still in the grip of the kind of modernism represented by Henry Moore, Giacometti, and Brancusi."
Also on display are several pieces in ceramic and cast bronze, as the artist shifted her medium to a more "permanent one" in the latter part of her life. Some of these such as 'Forest Flame' in bronze, and 'Netty's Green' in ceramic are as engaging as the woven hemp works, if not more.
Artworks by Mrinalini Mukherjee (Photo: Subrata Biswas/HT)
If reinventing tradition and religious symbolism was her forte, taking inspiration from nature seems to be another highlight of Mrinalini's work.
As one reads the genesis of this inspiration from nature in her own words, quoted in the gallery's press handout - "a response to the vegetation and the flora that I loved in the garden towns in which I grew up" - an eerie feeling envelopes the viewer at the gallery. One wonders what conversations would have ensued about these "garden towns" if Mrinalini had been alive to speak about her work. Perhaps, in that case, it would have been impossible to feel overwhelmed at the gallery.