Mrinalini Mukherjee | Nature as art
Mukherjee’s intricately detailed sculptures in bronze stand out for their grandeur and gravitas
As a young girl, Mrinalini Mukherjee wanted to be anything but an artist. Daughter of Benode Behari Mukherjee, one of the modern masters of Indian art, she had seen the hardships of the profession closely, and the life of an artist did not hold any appeal to her. Yet, when it was time to choose, Mrinalini decided to go to an art college.
“I had been sent away to school in Dehradun,” says the 64-year-old sculptor, speaking at Nature Morte gallery in New Delhi, where her latest body of work is being shown. “I thought if I opted for art, I would be allowed to stay at home, in Santiniketan (West Bengal), and attend Visva-Bharati University.” So, after some dilly-dallying between medicine and chartered accountancy, she took the calculated risk of opting for art. “At the time, my aptitude for the subject extended to having a flair for drawings in the biology course,” says Mrinalini, “But I could not keep dithering forever and decided to take the plunge.”
Her father had other plans though. “He asked me to pack my bags and leave for Baroda (now Vadodara),” says Mrinalini. Although Benode Behari had taught at Visva-Bharati, he felt his daughter had more to gain from the ambience at MS University of Baroda, which he had visited a couple of times as an external examiner. “‘If nothing else, at the end of your course you will be able to appreciate my work better,’ he told me,” Mukherjee recalls. “It was a little too late to change my mind. And so I went.”
At Vadodara, where she did degrees in painting and mural design, Mrinalini was put under the tutelage of K.G. Subramanyan, teacher and artist par excellence. But in spite of her mentor’s influence, it was only when she came to fibre, an unlikely medium if any, that her artistic approach took a novel turn.
The next key moment of her career came in 1996, when Mrinalini attended a residency in the Netherlands on an invitation from the European Ceramics Work Centre. It introduced her to a medium that would push her work in another direction. She started making viscerally disturbing sculptures in ceramic. These deceptively botanical mounds conjure up brutally hacked torsos—limbs, genitalia, breasts—ruthlessly mutilated body parts.
“It was difficult to continue to work in ceramic in India,” says Mrinalini. “Primarily because the facilities are not all there or are difficult and expensive to arrange.” It was not possible to fire sculptures in kilns used for pottery and achieve the desired effect. Even fibre presented challenges. It was not easy to dye, “especially, if you needed thousands of kilograms of rope to make the kind of art I was making,” adds Mrinalini. “So, at some point, I started toying with wax and found myself enjoying the medium.”
But the problem with wax was its fragility. “People felt that work made in wax could not be cast well in bronze but I decided to give it a try anyway,” says Mrinalini. The result was riveting. Bronze brought to her work the perfect combination of grandeur and gravitas that makes it so intriguing yet aesthetically appealing to viewers.
Mrinalini’s early work was mistakenly thought to represent Hindu deities simply because some of them had been titled Devi. “I did not use the term in a religious sense,” she clarifies. “For me, the primary inspiration has been, and still is, nature. Nothing else can furnish my imagination in the same way,” she adds.
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