Versatile genius

Published : Feb 23, 2007 00:00 IST

Benodebehari Mukherjee.-

Benodebehari Mukherjee.-

Benodebehari Mukherjee's art came out of a grand detachment and an awareness of nature's cycle.

PROFUSE use of superlatives is usually considered immature journalism. Exceptions, however, need to be made occasionally, as in the case of the massive, awe-inspiring retrospective of the works of Benodebehari Mukherjee (1906-1980) held from December last week to February 11, curated by Professor Gulam Mohammad Sheikh and P. Siva Kumar, at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Jaipur House, in New Delhi.

Benodebehari and Ramkinkar Baij were two pupils of Acharya Nandlal Bose who rose to greatness. A nationalist artist and teacher, Bose had an uncanny eye for talent. When he headed the Kala Bhawan at Shantiniketan, the pastoral university founded by Rabindranath Tagore in rural Birbhum in West Bengal, he realised immediately that his most `problematic' students were also the ones who were highly likely to make a mark.

Benodebehari Mukherjee came from a large family that valued learning. He was highly myopic in one eye and blind in the other. When he was 15 a doctor pronounced him fit enough to draw and paint and his guardians admitted him to Kala Bhawan, Shantiniketan, far from the bustle of Calcutta (now Kolkata) where the family resided. A fellow-student, the eccentric Ram Kinkar Baij, impecunious and a barber by caste, discovered by Ramanand Chatterjee, editor of Modern Review, was destined to become a painter-sculptor of international reckoning.

In the retrospective, two works done in 1921 signal Benodebehari's burgeoning gift: one a vertical nature's study of flower and grass with red as the dominant colour and the other an austere, black-and-white ink-and-brush landscape on buff paper, of the huge, undulating landscape known as the Khowai. There was, even at the tender age of 15, an "inner eye" that was privy to the secrets of nature and drew a fine but clear distinction between the truly beautiful and the pretty, which on the surface was more attractive. His art had been invested with high seriousness even before he was 30.

A tempera on paper of an old bridge in a rural setting, seen from below, is one of his earliest memorable images. Amongst the most enduring ones is a vertical tempera called "The Tree Lover", stylised, even trying, but ultimately beautiful. There is a distinctly oriental flavour to his work. He had learned much from Japanese and Chinese art. Tagore had invited to Shantiniketan Count Okakura Kommura, the aesthete who wanted to build an artistic bridge between Japan, China and India. Benodebehari benefited the most from his presence and visited Japan in 1937 at the Count's initiative.

Benodebehari had also learnt much from his own artistic inheritance - the sculptures and frescoes of ancient India, Mughal and Rajput miniatures, not to forget the rich folk traditions of his native Bengal. His knowledge of Western art, and indeed world art, was truly impressive. Some of it can be seen and heard in his conversation with an off-camera Satyajit Ray in the documentary "The Inner Eye", when details from the fresco in Hindi Bhawan, Shantiniketan, on the lives of medieval Indian saints are shown and discussed. "The Inner Eye", made in 1972 for Films Division, is the only documentary on Benodebehari.

Indian artists, mostly from Bengal, were attached to nature and thus amply rewarded. Benodebehari, his teacher Nandlal Bose, Sailoz Mukerjea and Gopal Ghosh made superb landscapes, both with and without people. Nature is the well-spring of Benodebehari's creativity even in his figurative works; an example, amongst very many, is that of a mother, who is seated, and her children, in tempera on cloth. His feminine figures, mostly in tempera on paper, cloth and board, appear to be like flowers in bloom.

Cubism as pioneered by Paul Cezanne and perfected by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Juan Gris was the product of a heavily industrialised, materialist society where war, mass destruction and conquest were a part of an economic agenda. In the Orient, war and pestilence were seen as a part of nature's cycle. Hence, despite untold suffering in China, Japan and India, there were no art works like Picasso's "Guernica" and Juan Miro's "The Reaper", now sadly lost. This is not a critical observation but a droll one.

Benodebehari's art came out of a grand detachment and an awareness of nature's cycle of sukha-dukha-chaitanya-moksha. The subtle transformations and manifestations of nature's moods can be seen in all his works - figurative landscapes and city views such as the ghats of Benaras. There is also a sophistication of vision that is indeed rare in 20th century art, Eastern or Western. His black-and-white and colour temperas of Benaras, usually seen from a top angle probably for reason of convenience, reveal a compelling design sense, a grasp of the inner dynamics of a place.

Although he did faces, even portraits, including a few of himself, he was without vanity in his treatment, in contrast to most Western artists doing the same kind of work. The face, or even the figure, for him was the mirror of the inner being of a person, but with one proviso: he understood the need to maintain a safe distance from his subject in order to understand. A black-and-white crayon drawing of a male face highlights this idea, similarly a three-quarter pen-and-ink female figure in profile.

He left Shantiniketan in 1948 for Kathmandu, where he became the director of the National Museum. A profusion of watercolours and sketches followed. In terms of details, variety in technique and observation of the land and its people they were invaluable, at once traditional and modern in sensibility and approach. His Nepalese experience was to find its finest expression in a fresco done in Vanasthali Vidyapeeth, Rajasthan, in 1950. In terms of colour and figure grouping, it had both grandness and simplicity.

On his return from Nepal and his subsequent Rajasthan fresco, he went to Mussoorie, a hill station overlooking the Doon Valley. He set up an art school there and pursued his theories of an ideal art education, which as a matter of course embraced the crafts. This approach then was considered revolutionary as there was a schism between what was regarded as `art' and that which was practised supposedly for utilitarian reasons, `craft'. Lack of financial support led to the closure of his school, but not before he had painted some haunting pictures of the mist-draped mountain country. His pen-and-ink drawings, too, were telling in terms of mood and technique.

His experience of Japan in 1937-38, where he met artists such as Toba Sojo, Sesshu and Sotastsu, all of whom he admired, and his own exhibition on Tokyo bore fruit, and how, in his Mussoorie productions. There was an inner fire in them. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, there were also exquisite flower studies in water colour and pen and ink that revealed a mastery of cadence and harmony, a visual expression of ideas musical.

He created, occasionally, striking images in oil, either on cloth or on Masonite board. He preferred matt finish to the natural gloss of the medium. His sunflowers stay in memory, as do his village celebrations in the folk style of the Garhwal Hills. Oil was never the favoured medium in Swadeshi Kala Bhawan and an acquaintance with it was supposed to round off one's art education! Only Ram Kinkar worked in oils at some length in Shantiniketan.

Benodebehari's range and versatility was immense. He did some really witty collages with coloured paper, found objects and newspaper clippings. They were proof of his ability to appreciate life's absurdities with a laugh. That there was so much mischief in so quite, even so austere, a person always came as a surprise. Another example of it is his 1942 fresco depicting life on the campus in Cheena (China) Bhawan, where observations and wry wit merge seamlessly. His sense of composition and colour and effortless placement of people in a given space make the work a joy to behold. When, in 1957, a botched cataract operation lost him his only good eye, he was only 53. Undeterred by blindness, he went on being an artist doing drawings, paper cut-outs, small clay figurines and, in 1972, a five-foot-by-60-foot mural on one of the outer walls of Kala Bhawan in coloured tiles, depicting vignettes of people at play and work. He had laid out the grand plan through cut-outs and then ordered tiles of the right shape and colour, and with the help of a couple of assistants completed the mammoth assignment, using touch with a prescience not always allowed by sight.

Benodebehari Mukherjee's approach to life until the end was celebratory. His panoramic scrolls on paper, silk and cloth, his revelatory murals and landscapes, and drawings and paintings of people were a great source of pleasure and his approach to the human face or figure or landscape was the same. He was not interested in photographic resemblance. His quest was an inner harmony in people, objects and spaces.

His frescos and mural are in a state of utter neglect in Shantiniketan and need to be looked after urgently. His heritage is too precious to be lost. Gulam Mohammad Sheikh and P. Siva Kumar deserve the gratitude of the entire nation for putting together this exhibition.

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