‘Outside In’ : An ongoing show offers up a study of contrasts

Detail from 'The Thinker' (1980), Meera Mukherjee. Photos: courtesy Anindo Sen
Detail from 'The Thinker' (1980), Meera Mukherjee. Photos: courtesy Anindo Sen


‘Outside In’, a two-person show on the work of Jaidev Baghel and Meera Mukherjee, blurs the line between artist and artisan

The pairing of Meera Mukherjee with Jaidev Baghel in the Outside In exhibition at the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) in Bengaluru is certainly an intriguing one. Mukherjee was 26 years older to Baghel. When she visited his father, Sriman, in Kondagaon in the early 1960s to learn Dhokra metal casting, Jaidev would have been barely adolescent. While there may be some evidence to suggest that they met, it is unlikely they collaborated or influenced each other during their long careers. The connections are therefore apparent only in their shared metal casting approach using the lost wax method, and the presence of commonfolk in both their sculptures.

The most synergistic pairing, in hindsight, is served as soon as one enters the exhibition. He Who Saw, one of Mukherjee’s early works, is a towering two-metre-high figure. It was inspired by the local deities she saw during her visits to Bastar, and is meant to represent the one who witnessed the creation of the world. Her work is presented alongside Panch Mukhi Vandevi (Five-Headed Forest Goddess), Baghel’s polemic response to the exploitation of the environment in his region, where a glowering five-headed-goddess of the forest foretells the destruction of the world.

Throughout the exhibition, Mukherjee’s firebrand approach shimmers through the dark purple setting of the exhibition. Rain (1980), perhaps the most evocative of her works on show, captures masses huddled against a monsoon downpour. The water fails to pierce and drips down the bodies, its force of nature rendered futile by human solidarity against the lopsided odds. Mukherjee’s virtuoso metal work is epitomised by the way she has made the water glisten on the faces and the bodies, while the formation of green patina has added a surreal layer over time.

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Nearby is Coal Miners (1980), another haunting sculpture made in the same year, which shows the pathos of a densely packed group of miners, exploited under inhuman working conditions. The embroidered kantha works I came across subsequently in the exhibition, albeit exemplifiers of her community-based art practice, struggled to spark a dialogue with Baghel’s works, and would be best experienced in isolation.

Critically engaging with her works remains incomplete without appreciating her journey. She was a young divorcee left to fend for herself in a conservative post-independence Bengali society, who rejected painting and took to sculpture, and looked to indigenous crafts for inspiration—she went against the odds on many fronts and lived life on her own terms.

'Madiya and Madin' (2007), Jaidev Baghel
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'Madiya and Madin' (2007), Jaidev Baghel

Many of Baghel’s works are representations of the men and women from the Madia community, who were the main patrons for Ghadwa sculptors like him. A work that stands out is Madiya and Madin (2007), where he sculpted local gods as a working adivasi couple, bridging folk mythology and the everyday. Lakkad Deo, the woodcutter god, has an axe over his shoulder; Gappa Dei is shown with a basket on her head and a crowbar in her hand, dressed as an adivasi. A closer look at the sculpture also reveals mother earth opening up and reptiles and insects crawling out, drawing attention to our diverse forest ecosystems.

In Tree of Life (2006), another work drawn from folk ecology, Baghel creates the kalpavriksha (a wish-fulfilling divine tree, which is of immense significance in religions such as Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism) but embodied by the Mahua tree. It emphasizes the pivotal role this tree plays in the lives of the adivasi communities of central India. By proclaiming the Mahua tree as their Banyan, Baghel asserts that indigenous people have their own beliefs, rituals and customs whose pluralism need to be acknowledged and celebrated.

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Baghel’s Raodeo (2012-2024) has an interesting story. When the curators visited the late artist’s home in Chhattisgarh earlier this year, they came across his unused moulds. With the involvement of his son Bhupendra, who now runs the workshop, they commissioned this piece, unsure how it would turn out after all these years. The sculpture of the tribal god, feared for shooting weapons at those who dare pass by his side, materialised fairly robustly, perhaps as a defiant metaphor in support of Baghel’s legacy.

The exhibition ultimately ends up as a study of contrasts, rather than welding convergences. While Baghel’s works are rooted in representation of his community; Mukherjee’s are liberated by their depictions of humanity. Her works are more palpable in their subversion and forceful in their expression. Home-schooled Baghel on the other hand walked a fine line between authenticity and innovation. In an endeavour to be better recognised as an artist, he started signing his works, created his own iconographies and explored non-traditional themes. Their works do not stylistically resemble each other—Meera’s exhibited figures are somewhat abstracted, roughly finished and intense, while Baghel’s are more precise, ornamental and serene.

Mukherjee’s works in the exhibition come from the personal collection of Radhika and Abhishek Poddar (who also happen to be founder-trustees of MAP), while the works of Baghel are from a single unnamed Indian private collector. Mukherjee’s works are spread across a wider timeframe; almost all of Baghel’s works on show are from a brief three-year period from 2004 to 2007. While that makes the curation appear convenient and limited, the exhibition does manage to raise germane issues.

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The documentary film accompanying the exhibition highlights the vital need to preserve the artistic traditions of the indigenous communities, without leaving them dependent on the mass market for their survival. Amidst the ongoing centennial celebrations of many male modernist peers, Meera Mukherjee’s has come and gone quietly last year, which makes this exhibition a timely intervention. Perhaps From the Depth of the Mould, the commemorative book on her to be released shortly, will put her life and work in focus once again.

Outside In: Meera Mukherjee and Jaidev Baghel can be viewed at the Museum of Art and Photography, Bengaluru till 20 October.

Anindo Sen is an independent art and culture writer.

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