Mrinalini Mukherjee in Memoriam…
Photos : Courtesy of Nature Morte, New Delhi and ram rahman
Each Sculpture was in independent being that had been invested with eros. You had no choice but to contend with their individual presence. Each one was as alive, or perhaps even more so than the viewer. Mrinalini Mukherjee had infused them with tentacular souls. ~They grab you by the labia!” an accompanying writer friend remarked, perfectly encapsulating the hyper-erotic charge that Dillu’s anthropomorphic assemblages collectively evoked.
Why is the measure of love loss?” The unnamed, gender-ambiguous narrator of Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Bot/y asks at the novel’s very beginning, the aphoristic tone preparing us for the imminent death of her/his beloved, Louise and the elegy that is to follow. We are thus reminded that our experience of loss is always relative, hinged as it is to varying degrees of attachment. Love dictates the intensity of the sorrow that engulfs us in the aftermath of loss. Still, I didn’t feel entitled to the grief I felt as Dillu’s corpse lay on a bamboo stretcher, garbed in an ornate red sari, at the centre of the circle of mourning we had formed at the Lodi Road Crematorium. Mrinalini Mukherjee had been active in the art world for more than forty years. As a sculptor, she defied convention and conformity, experimenting with natural fibres as a medium and giving a unique life to her tactile pieces. Despite some forewarning, we were unprepared. We were as guilty as she was, for having taken her life for granted. Like her, we hadn’t heeded the warning signs, the wheezy cough, the raspy voice; both consequences of her nicotine addiction. I had attended artists’ funerals before. In fact, in the course of my six-year-old career as an art writer I’d bid goodbye to more members of the art fraternity than my own relatives. But this was different. Her death was premature, as was Prabuddha Dasgupta’s passing. Except, I knew Dillu, though not even half as well as everyone around me. Still, we shared an intimacy. When I received the tragic news about her lungs collapsing, I felt like I’d been robbed of something precious and irreplaceable. As I watched the wild flames engulf her body I couldn’t hold back the tears.
Oddly enough, I happened to be crying the first time I met Dillu. It was at the now extinct Skoda Prize ceremony in Delhi in 2011, which I was attending as my friend Pablo Bartholomew’s plus one. The function had yet to begin, so I used the time to go to the washroom. When I returned, the entrance had been cordoned off and the gatekeepers, a team of overly made-up women, refused to let me through. They had decided my presence or absence was inconsequential. I had an invite in hand but because Pablo hadn’t officially RSVP-ed, my entry was being withheld. I was 26 then, which meant I took everything very personally. Finally, the Prize director, Girish Shahane, recognized me and requested the iron maidens to let me through. I entered, found Pablo, sat at the table he was seated at, and quietly sobbed, citing humiliation as my malaise. “Dillu, make her laugh!” Pablo said to Mrinalini Mukherjee, who was sharing our table, after introducing us. She smiled politely, unsure what to make of me. Later, when I got to know her better, I realized how silly it was for me to feel so affronted by the treatment that had been meted out to me, considering Dillu had spent most of her life feeling shortchanged by the powers that be in an art world that had such little conception of her true artistic brilliance. She had definitely overpaid her dues, and yet she had to wait until she was in her mid-sixties to finally be offered a retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA).
Who knew ‘Transfigurations’ would be her swan song? When I heard she’d been admitted to hospital and was on a ventilator, I didn’t have the heart to attend the opening. Two days later I couldn’t stop myself from visiting the show. As I pushed through the glass doors that led to the new wing of the NGMA, I gasped. I hadn’t expected to. In fact I cannot remember the last time I had such a visceral reaction to an art exhibition. I gasped, and when I did I could feel the pause of my breath. I knew I had stepped into an original visual paradigm, one that irrevocably marked its receiver. Having spent so many of the previous few weeks lamenting the tedium of viewing art that was either cleverly conceptual or fittingly ‘contemporary’ or the right kind of trendy, I was suddenly aware of being in the presence of art that was shamelessly transcendental. This was no conventional retrospective. It was a revelation. Peter Nagy’s curatorial impulse urged him to denounce the strategy of chronological display in favour of a more holistic narrative that pitted Dillu’s older cotton hemp sculptures alongside the ceramics and the bronzes, thus magnifying for the viewer the already amplified emotion of awe encoded in her work.
Categorising it as the eleventh emotion, neuropsychologist Paul Pearsall describes awe as an overwhelming and bewildering sense of connection with a startling universe that is usually far beyond the narrow band of our consciousness. “Any feeling of being more alive that comes from awe derives from the mysterious energy we sense from our connection with whatever it is that inspires our awe.” ‘Transfigurations’ was abound with this mysterious energy, the result of Dillu’s meticulous artistic deliberations. The life-size scale of her sculptures, particularly those made of cotton hemp, contributed grossly to their sheer physicality while their surface and interior textures bore witness to the intricacies of the laborious nature of her intervention. “I like a bigger scale,” she had once said during our interview at her apartment in Delhi. “In the rope I wanted these figures to be larger than life, so I could also be in awe of them. Now with this thing also [the bronze sculptures], I don’t know if awe is the word, but that feeling of awe that you get, I like that. You know you’re making a thing, and in the process you don’t notice what you’re making. At the end of it, you should also feel like ‘I don’t know how I arrived at this.’ That’s the mystery of the process. That’s why you can’t make another one. That’s why they are all one of a kind.”
As I confronted each of her works that had been lit exquisitely, offering the viewer the rare privilege of being able to feast on details, I found myself intrigued by how each sculpture demanded that I engage with its folds. There was no room for callous manoeuvring, for brief indulgences, for surveying glances. Each sculpture was an independent being that had been invested with eros. You had no choice but to contend with their individual presence. Each one was as alive, or perhaps even more so than the viewer. Dillu had infused them with tentacular souls. “They grab you by the labia!” an accompanying writer friend remarked, perfectly encapsulating the hyper-erotic charge that Dillu’s anthropomorphic assemblages collectively evoked. They were all inspired by gestures visible in nature: the bending of flesh, the swelling of aroused veins, rabid tongues of fire, the sinuous spines of vegetal and plant forms, and erect branch-like appendages memorialised in bronze after first being moulded in wax.
The absence of any formal training as a sculptor liberated Dillu from the dogma of material. Her ignorance about formal impossibilities allowed her to push whatever material she adopted beyond its accepted limits, urging it to surrender to her whimsy and in doing so transcend its physical properties in order for it to be transfigured. Her starting point was often accidental, she’d confessed to me. “Because I didn’t know what rope can do, you keep trying so many things, because you don’t know what is the limitation, you have to make your own boundaries.” During her residency at the ceramic centre in the Netherlands sometime in the ’90s, she began to experiment with ceramics. “They were always telling me that you know how to drive our patience,” Dillu said. The staff at the centre was obligated to help every artist realise their work, no matter how outrageous or impractical it may have seemed. “To me they used to say, ‘you want to make these big things, all open-ended forms, and there’s nowhere to hold it’, so you’re always extending the material a little bit beyond what it should be.” When she did her first few ceramic pieces back home in her studio at Garhi, Sankho Chaudhuri paid her a visit. “He came and said, ‘there’s no way this is going to be cast!’ I asked the caster, he said, ‘well, we can only try, everything won’t come.’ But a lot did come.”
Dillu adopted bronze reluctantly, more as a means to an end than for the pleasure of the material.
“Do you remember the moment you first did the wax sculpture, cast it, and first saw it in bronze?” I asked her when we got around to speaking about the lost-wax process.
”Yes. I was a little disappointed,” she admitted. “Because you didn’t get everything?” I asked?
“Because that delicacy was not there. But also I’d made something else, not with the intention of casting. Like somebody said, you should have a separate fridge made for each one and keep it. The idea didn’t excite me, to get separate fridges made to keep each piece,” she explained.
“So you could say the bronze sculptures existed in order to preserve the wax?” I asked.
“No, but now that I’m telling you … now I don’t do the finishing in the wax in the same way, because I do it with the end metal thing in mind. It’s made differently also. There’s no use in my going on doing that finishing in the wax which I don’t need in the metal, I’d rather do the finishing in the metal. And I’m not expecting to see that translucency of the wax. So my form is not dependent on that translucency.”
Ever since I was ‘grabbed by the labia ‘, the same irresolvable question has been churning in my mind over and over with all the helpless gravitas of a recurring dream. “Can a work of art have a soul?” The preternatural sentience of Dillu’s sculptural beings, some mimicking gods and goddesses, was what provoked my ongoing preoccupation with the ‘anima’ of an artwork. I doubt I will find an answer, but what I do know for certain was that after I witnessed the flames besiege Dillu’s body, transfiguring her, I returned to her retrospective and there I found her spirit re-animating all of her creations. They were more alive than ever before.
Rosalyn D’Mello is the author of A Handbook For My Lover, a non-fiction erotic memoir, published by Harper Collins in India. Her art reviews and features have been published in Art + Auction, Modern Painters, Passages, Art India, Take on Art. She is a regular contributor to Vogue, Open, Mint Lounge, Art Review and Art Review Asia.
Leading Image : Transfigure Ations : The Sculpture of Mrinalini Mukherjee . National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi . 2015
Photos : Courtesy of Nature Morte, New Delhi and ram rahman Each Sculpture was in independent being that had been invested with eros. You had no choice but to contend with their individual presence. Each one was as alive, or perhaps even more so than the viewer. Mrinalini Mukherjee had infused them with tentacular souls.…