Benode Behari Mukherjee
A prominent artist of the Bengal School, Benode Behari Mukherjee is considered one of the central figures of Indian Modernism, specifically Contextual Modernism. His art was characterised by a visual vocabulary that aimed to incorporate Indian folk practices with Chinese and Japanese artistic techniques, Medieval European and Renaissance conventions as well as modern Bauhaus techniques. His work was also central to carving out a distinction between the larger Bengal School movement and Contextual Modernism.
Mukherjee was born in Behala, West Bengal, and spent most of his early childhood in rural Bengal. Born with a partial visual impairment, he was unable to pursue formal education, and instead, spent most of his time amidst nature, which had an early impact on his art and led him to create paintings of his surroundings, such as the banks of the Kopai river and the forest of Surul. In 1917, Mukherjee began studying at Shantiniketan and was one of Kala Bhavana’s first art students. Here, he worked under the mentorship of Nandalal Bose and was introduced to East Asian arts, especially calligraphy, landscape scrolls and nature motifs from China and Japan.
Unlike his Bengal School predecessors, Mukherjee did not incorporate nationalist, mythological and religious themes in his work, and until the 1940s, primarily created landscape paintings. He also incorporated elements from calligraphy and illustrations in East Asian artistic techniques. Mukherjee was further influenced by artists such as Kampo Arai and Yokoyama Taikan, whom he met when he visited Japan between 1936–37 and consequently, began using materials such as gold and silver boards, silk and Nepali paper in his work. He also began incorporating motifs of trees, flowering branches and other natural elements inspired by Japanese screens.
Mukherjee was one of the first artists in the country to practise the mural form of painting. His mural, Village Life in Birbhum (1940), explored his preoccupation with calligraphic and scroll techniques. Rendered on the ceiling of the Kala Bhavan hostel, the work depicts a view of Birbhum, with people playing, working and relaxing. The mural represents Mukherjee’s early inclination towards Expressionism as well as his adoption of East Asian concepts and techniques. Similar to the format of a landscape scroll, the motifs in the mural are meant to be viewed as a linear narrative rather than as a comprehensive image of simultaneously occurring events; seasons are illustrated in flux and trees are depicted bearing fruit and standing bare.
Mukherjee’s largest mural, Life of Medieval Saints (1946–47), is located in the library of the Hindi Bhavana, Shantiniketan. Done in fresco, the mural portrays Bhakti saints and their contributions to Hindi literature, with the saints depicted in a large procession spanning three walls. The work reflects Mukherjee’s cross-disciplinary artistic tendencies and draws on the aesthetic forms and styles of Persian miniatures, Pallava reliefs, Chola bronzes, East Asian calligraphic scrolls, Giotto frescoes and Cubist elements.
In late-1948, Mukherjee began working as a curator for the National Museum of Nepal, Kathmandu, and made contact with a number of local artists, including the Nepali artisan Kulasundar Shilakarmi. He also explored his landscape painting practice in greater depth during this period. He returned to India in 1951 and taught at the Vanasthali Vidyapith, Rajasthan, where he also created two murals. In 1952, Mukherjee moved to Mussoorie and established the Benodebehari Mukherjee Training Centre for Art and Craft, which attempted to implement an educational program for teachers and students to study history alongside art and craft. However, the school was short-lived, and Mukherjee returned to Shantiniketan by 1958. By this time, following an unsuccessful cataract operation in 1957, Mukherjee had lost his eyesight.
At Shantiniketan, Mukherjee taught art history and continued creating works of his own, primarily drawings, lithographs, paper cuts and sculptures. His sketchbooks from the time reveal his continued exploration of figural forms and human anatomy, from his personal study of Gray’s Anatomy to his individualised analyses of the human form. This preoccupation with the human form was also evident in a 1972 mural created on the outer wall of Kala Bhavan, which incorporated semi-abstract human figures made of folded paper and transferred to ceramic tiles. The process of creating this tiled mural was documented in The Inner Eye (1972), a short documentary film by Satyajit Ray, formerly Mukherjee’s student.
Mukherjee received numerous awards, including the Padma Vibhushan in 1974, the Deshikottama by Visva Bharati in 1977 and the Rabindra Puraskar in 1980. Most of his renowned works remain in situ as murals throughout West Bengal and Shantiniketan. Mukherjee’s works are part of the collections of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi, as well as the Vadehra Art Gallery, which also represents the artist’s estate. A retrospective of his work was held on his centenary in 2006 at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. His work has also been exhibited at the Vadehra Art Gallery (2019) and David Zwirner, London (2020).
Mukherjee died in 1980, at the age of seventy-six.
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