The most recent show to have opened at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi is Transfigurations, a solo exhibition of sculptor Mrinalini Mukherjee’s works curated by Peter Nagy, founder of the New Delhi-based gallery Nature Morte. On 26 January, just a day before the show was inaugurated by fellow artist Nilima Sheikh, Mukherjee, 65, was taken ill and hospitalized; she died on Monday.

For an artist who lived and worked in New Delhi, Mukherjee’s works are far removed from the urban setting. Nature was the theme she dedicated herself to over more than four decades; she created her sculptures from hemp, ceramics and cast bronze. Nagy describes her as India’s “pre-eminent female sculptor, known for her fearless investigation of material...."

The term “fearless" here is worth emphasizing.

It’s not easy being the daughter of famous artists. But Mukherjee, the only child of Benode Behari and Leela Mukherjee, and the student of another modern great, K.G. Subramanyan, stood her own ground from a very early age. It was during her student years in the early 1970s, at the Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University, in Vadodara, that she happened to discover hemp fibre. It would be her medium of choice for the next couple of decades.

It was an unusual choice. But she had before her the example of her mother, who sculpted in wood, which was not a particularly conventional medium either. Almost yogi-like, Mukherjee dedicated herself, especially through the 1980s and early 1990s, to creating, and recreating, in dyed and woven hemp, rather figurative sculptures that evoked ancient, wizened spiritual beings. The vagina and the penis, starkly apparent in these, are not discomfiting in the least, given a very natural and fluid form rather than the intent to shock. In works such as Purush (1980), Devi (1981), Rudra (1982), Pakshi (1985) and Van Raja (1991-94), all created from woven hemp in vivid, earthy tones, nature remained the dominant inspiration. These hemp sculptures are, and will remain, Mukherjee’s most celebrated works.

While she worked for a time on ceramics, the second most important phase, and experimentation with a different medium—bronze—was in the Noughties. At the NGMA show, in an exhibition hall where the sweet smell of hemp lingers in the air, are two sculptures facing each other, one of her earliest and one of her most recent—Waterfall (1975), in hemp, and Big Flower (2014), in bronze. The show also features a series of bronze panels, Shivling (2014), and another work in bronze, Palm Scape IX (2015).

In these bronze works, though they were vastly different from her early works, Mukherjee retained her central theme. The erotic is ever-present, phallic shapes enfolded in leaves, orifices and other fertility motifs such as the stigma and stamen of flowers abound, as do striking sculptures of birds and beasts.

Mukherjee’s journey, it is apparent, was a deeply spiritual one.

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