tempera on paper
11 x 16 in. (27.9 x 40.6 cm.)
Executed in 1952
New Delhi, Vadehra Art Gallery, Between Sight and Insight: Glimpses of Benodebehari Mukherjee, 19 January - 22 February, 2019

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Lot Essay

Benodebehari Mukherjee (1904-1980)

Born in Calcutta, West Bengal, in 1904, Benodebehari Mukherjee was blind in one eye and myopic in the other from birth. Due to this visual impairment and his overall frail health, he was unable to pursue a conventional classroom education and was home schooled instead. Fortunately, although he was the youngest of six brothers and two sisters, his family prioritized learning and maintained a stimulating environment for the curious young boy. In particular, his brothers Bijonbehari, Banabehari and Bimanbehari played major roles in shaping his interest in the arts, and were a constant source of encouragement for him. Bijonbehari, a mining engineer by profession, had a passion for painting and was the first person to introduce his younger brother to reproductions of works by masters of Western Art and of the Bengal School such as Abanindranath Tagore, Surendranath Ganguly and Nandalal Bose. His brother Banabehari, a doctor, was also an avid writer and a published caricaturist. It was Bimanbehari, however, who introduced Mukherjee to Kalimohan Ghosh, a teacher at Rabindranath Tagore’s Visva Bharati University at Santiniketan, who helped secure his enrollment there in 1917.

Tagore instantly recognized the intellectual curiosity and indomitable spirit of twelve-year-old Mukherjee. Recalling his initial interview at Santiniketan, Mukherjee wrote, “For a while Rabindranath looked me in the face. He then ran his eyes down to my feet. Then he looked up again at my face. 'Have your eyes been examined by a good doctor?' 'Yes, sir, Maynard-saheb examined them.' 'Here you have to do everything yourself, sweep the room, wash the clothes, clean the dishes, can you do all this?' asked Rabindranath. 'Yes, sir, I can.' 'Have you read any of my writings?' 'Yes, sir,' I answered. I then told him what books I had read in English and Bengali including Michael's Meghnadvadh Kavya and the like. He was a little surprised to hear I had read Meghnadvadh Kavya. He then said, 'Send upstairs whoever has come with you.' Coming down, I gave this message to Kalimohan-babu who then went upstairs. When he came down after a few minutes he placed his hand on my back and said with a smile, 'Well, Gurudev has agreed to enrol you' and to my brother who was with me, he said, 'He gave his consent gladly’” (Artist statement, Chitrakar: The Artist, Kolkata, 2006, pp. 22-23).

Founded by Tagore in 1901, Visva Bharati was based on his unique philosophy of learning, which, unlike conventional educational institutions, implemented an ashram-style system based on studying in close proximity to nature, rejected rigid rules surrounding rote learning, and advocated open communication between teachers and students. In 1919, Benodebehari became one of the first students admitted to Kala Bhavana, the newly created arts faculty at Visva Bharati, run by Nandalal Bose.

Although Kala Bhavana’s pedagogy was rooted in reviving Indian crafts and defining India’s cultural identity, it also had a cosmopolitan outlook and an openness to international art movements and styles. At Kala Bhavana, each student was allowed to work independently and freely with the aim of identifying their individual talents and skills. The faculty’s emphasis on the verbal exchange of ideas through open debates and discussions provided an excellent learning environment for Mukherjee. An avid reader and writer, Mukherjee even became the college librarian. In this role, he took up the task of the arrangement and administration of the Faculty's reference collection, building his scholarly knowledge.

In 1925, after finishing his studies, Mukherjee joined the faculty at Kala Bhavana, living and teaching there until 1948. Alongside his mentor, Nandalal Bose, Mukherjee became a key figure in creating an indigenous art movement in India that originated in Santiniketan. R. Sivakumar refers to this as Contextual Modernism, wherein “artists did not believe that to be indigenous one has to be historicist either in theme or in style, and similarly to be modern one has to adopt a particular transnational formal language or technique. Modernism was to them neither a style nor a form of internationalism” (R. Sivakumar, ‘All the shared experiences of the lived world II,’ Humanities Underground website, accessed January 2021).

Santiniketan provided Mukherjee with a location to produce art, a movement for modern art, and even a muse for much of his early work. In the drawings and paintings he created till the 1940s, Mukherjee focused on rural life in Santiniketan: the landscapes, the flora and fauna, and the daily activities of the Santhal villagers. He identified with the clear parallels between what he saw there and his experiences as a child in Godagadi and Paksi in rural Bengal, which left lifelong memories for him.

While he was at Santiniketan, Kala Bhavana developed a symbiotic exchange with several artists from the Far East, and artistic innovations introduced there by Japanese and Chinese visitors were a notable influence on Mukherjee’s work. He adopted the scroll format and the calligraphic brush technique, and worked primarily on paper, sometimes in a large format, and often using a monochromatic palette, developing a personal visual language. In 1937, he visited Japan to further explore the practice of masters such as Sesshu Toyo and Tawaraya Sotatsu. Mukherjee endeared the Japanese with his knowledge of their artistic practices, and the following year became the first Indian artist to be invited to participate in an exhibition held in Japan, alongside artists such as Arai Kampo and Yokoyama Taikan.

Mukherjee also created several frescoes across the Visva Bharati campus, including a mural representing campus life at Cheena Bhavana (the Chinese department), and a meticulous rendering of the Medieval Saints of India which adorns three walls of the central hall at the Hindi Bhavana. This public art programme started by Nandalal Bose, revealed Mukherjee’s virtuoso mural-making skills. Mukherjee was one of the first artists to take up murals as a mode of artistic expression, giving him an opportunity to experiment ambitiously with scale and express himself in a comprehensive, intricate and descriptive manner.

In 1948, after spending more than thirty years there, Mukherjee’s career took him away from Santiniketan first to work as the curator of the National Museum of Nepal in Kathmandu, and later to teach at Banasthali Vidyapith in Rajasthan from 1951-52. He then moved on to Mussoorie, to set up an artist residence along with his wife Leela in 1952, and later moved to Patna to revamp an art school there. It was during this time that his eyesight began to decline rapidly, and after an unsuccessful surgery in 1957, he lost his sight completely. Writing about this, K.G. Subramanyan, an artist and one of Mukherjee's students, noted, “Nothing could have been more tragic for an artist at the height of his powers, but he stood up to it with characteristic stoicism. He did not resign himself to inactivity but diverted his creativity in other directions. He made paper collages with the assistance of his associates; he modelled sculptures with plasticine, clay or wax; he built forms with folded paper (which he later used as the basis for a tile mural); he made drawings and prints” (K.G. Subramanyan, B.B. Mukherjee, Chitrakar: The Artist, Kolkata, 2006, p. 309).

In 1958, Mukherjee returned to Kala Bhavana to teach art theory, later becoming the college’s Principal and Professor Emeritus. His blindness did not diminish his creative spark and drive to produce art. Rather, it encouraged him to work in new and exciting ways with a variety of media, and to adopt and adapt various styles and techniques that he had previously been exposed to. This desire to create resulted in a significant body of felt-tip pen drawings executed in continuous fluid strokes, miniature wax sculptures and iconic paper cut-outs and collages that challenged and changed his viewers’ perception of form, and highlighted his remarkable grasp and control of spatial order and compositional balance. No longer inspired by the empirical world around him, these playful works were inspired by his memories, and have both abstract and representational qualities.

During this period, Mukherjee was particularly attracted to collage, a technique employed by other Santiniketan artists who drew on traditional artisanal crafts. Nandalal Bose, for example, produced numerous collages in a small format using torn shreds of paper that he glued together and contoured with a pen. However, “Mukherjee’s collages, unlike Bose’s, are distinctive for their use of colour and for the fact that they cover the entire surface of the paper. His subjects are once again humans and animals, their interactions and relations, however the forms are built out of different pieces of paper, their representation not conveyed through ink or pencil marks. The works bare intriguing spatial configurations, particularly evident in still lifes that border on abstraction” (S. Jhaveri, ‘Considering Collage in Independent India,’ Jhaveri Contemporary website, accessed January 2021).

Visually, Mukherjee’s collages were reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s paper cut-outs. His colorful, tactile and dynamic arrangements employed geometric shapes with considerable originality, simplicity, and understated sophistication. At times, Mukherjee used newspaper, leather, fabric and beads among other materials to add details to garments or facial features in these works.

In 1972, Mukherjee transformed his large folded paper shapes into a monumental sixty-foot long ceramic tile mural on the wall of the mural studio in Kala Bhavana. This work became the impetus behind a short documentary, ‘The Inner Eye,’ made that same year by the reputed film maker Satyajit Ray, one of Mukherjee’s former students. During this last decade of his life, the artist also received several honors for his work and contributions to education, most notably receiving one of India’s highest civilian awards, the Padma Vibhushan, in 1974, and a Desikottama or honorary doctorate from Visva Bharati in 1977. Mukherjee also continued writing to express his views about art and education, documenting his experiences as a blind artist in the memoir Chitrakar, first published in 1979.

Like Nandalal Bose, Mukherjee focused on addressing issues related to art teaching methods that transgressed the boundaries of conventional curriculums. He was a key figure in creating the educational framework at Santiniketan, and continued to explore the cultural interfaces and common grounds between art and craft traditions throughout his life. As both artist and teacher, Benodebehari Mukherjee became a major influence on several generations of Indian artists including Ramkinkar Baij, Somnath Hore, K.G. Subramanyan, Riten Mazumdar, Gulammohammed Sheikh, A. Ramachandran and Satyajit Ray, who were inspired by his innovative pedagogy, clarity of thought, and versatility.

To date, three retrospectives of Mukherjee’s work have been held in India: first at the Indian Museum, Calcutta, in 1959, then in New Delhi in 1969, and most recently at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, in 2006-07. Over the past few years, the artist’s works have been included in international group exhibitions like Documenta 14 in Athens in 2017, displayed as part of the permanent collection of museums like Tate Modern, London, and presented in important solo exhibitions at Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, in 2019, and David Zwirner, London, in 2020. His works are also part of the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Benodebehari Mukherjee passed away in 1980, survived at the time by his wife, Leela, and daughter, Mrinalini. Christie’s is honored to represent Benodebehari Mukherjee’s life and artistic practice through this important selection of his work spanning five decades from the collection of the Mrinalini Mukherjee Foundation.

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