A New Mould

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Mrinalini Mukherjee on how exhibitions allow her to view her own works in a new light and why there can be no retirement for an artist.

The works of artist Mrinalini Mukherjee, according to writer Henri-Claude Cousseau, ‘relate inevitably to her Indian origin and experiences’. For viewers of the current exhibition of her bronze sculptures in New Delhi’s Gallery Espace, the show triggers off a host of feelings and arouses questions that could help fathom an understanding of art that is at once striking, intriguing and inviting. In her own terms, Mukherjee’s work has a deeper underbelly.

An established sculptor and artist, Mukherjee presents each of her exhibitions with a personal touch. “One exhibits for one’s pleasure,” she says, “and not because one has to show works that one has created.” But an exhibition, she adds, is also a personal journey of sorts. “When a show of one’s works are put up, one gets a chance to see the works altogether. In a studio when one is working on it, there is no opportunity to see it from that angle and perspective due to the space and the fact that the works are still not finished. This complete viewing thus becomes a time to grow further as an artist and a sculptor for me. I see the whole body of work from that angle, and fresh ideas blossom in my mind as I keep looking at the display. It makes me generate ideas on how to go ahead from that point for the next show.”

So, does she then keep a few pieces of her past works for reference or for better sales prospects? The artist is candid when she admits, “Holding back works for better gains in the future is easier for painters than for sculptors. And since I don’t have any issues about the need to horde one’s works for future benefits, I do not follow this practice regularly. Of course, I might hold back a particular work for some time because I may like it, or for being inspired another time, but that is not a usual practice with me.”

And yet, this artist has always surprised the viewer not just with fresh ideas, but also with the gamut of materials that she utilises for sculptures. She started with hemp sculptures during her student days at Baroda. “Hemp was a material that was easily available in and around Baroda, where I was studying under KG Subramaniam and Sankho Choudhury. As students, we had once to do some sculptures for a fine arts fair for the public, and I asked my teacher Subramaniam if I could try my hand at hemp sculptures. He was all encouragement. Of course, looking back at them now, I find that those works were very tentative. But the idea of working with hemp for sculptures stuck and it continued for 30 years thereafter.”

The recent changeover to bronze has nothing to do with the hemp days, though. “I don’t want to do it any more [hemp sculptures] because I don’t feel like doing so. Also, it takes about two years to finish a hemp sculpture from start to end and that is what I could not do at one time. My mother was taken seriously ill and I was spending a lot of time with her at the hospital, waiting outside the ICU. The urge to do something drew me to working with small wax sculptures. It was something that was easy, very tender and delicate. But then, the summer set in and the wax in my hand began to melt and change shape. So I realised that I would have to cast it, and that is when bronze sculptures took my interest.”

But it was not enough to build solutions around immediate conveniences. “I found that in the process of this casting and change of material, I had undergone a transformation myself. One work had transformed into the next. Besides, I am not one who will continue sticking to one medium. I believe in working with one medium for a time and then extending it. This gives one a chance to realise more and more possibilities, and in between, build up a body of work in that medium.”

And that is the secret behind this artist’s phenomenal capacity to grow in her chosen field of art. Without any thought of a slowdown, she declares, “Both my parents [artists Benode Bihari and Leela Mukherkee] continued to work at their art till the very end. After all, as an artist, your practice is to create, and that process must not stop. If I can continue to create something till the very end, then I can turn round and declare, ‘Yes, I have achieved’.”