Even after the loss of his eyesight, Indian artist Benode Behari Mukherjee continued to inspire generations of creativity
Seen as one of the pioneering modernists of India, his expansive oeuvre spanned watercolours, textile block prints, murals, etchings, lithographs, paper-cuts and plenty more.
In a scene from the documentary The Inner Eye, Benode Behari Mukherjee is seen dipping his fingers into a cup, as he fills it with black tea from a flask. This was a ritual for the artist, a cup of hot tea in the afternoon, slowly sipped in the isolation of his cottage tucked away close to the Visva-Bharati University in Shantiniketan. After Mukherjee lost his eyesight due to a botched cataract operation in 1957, his hands and his fingers guided much of his life and work – from measuring the level of tea in a cup to feeling the grooves and dips in a wall that he would turn into a mural.
Mukherjee, who was one of India’s most prolific modern artists, has an oeuvre so expansive that it’s almost impossible to summarise. He worked with equal ease across mediums and techniques, from watercolours, tempera on wood, textile block prints and murals, to etchings, lithographs and paper-cuts. However, to someone not familiar with the artist, a cursory glance at his body of work would not reveal one of the biggest challenges Mukherjee braved and overcame in his lifetime – his eyesight.
Born to a highly literate family in Behala, in the heart of Kolkata, in 1904, Mukjerhee struggled with a severe eye problem from his childhood that left him blind in one eye and myopic in the other. While traditional schooling posed a challenge for young Mukherjee, he found a release in painting, an interest which he shared with his six elder brothers. At the age of 12, his family sent him to Shantiniketan, a few hours away from Kolkata, where Mukherjee became one of the first students of Kala Bhavana. Founded in 1919, Kala Bhavana is the fine arts faculty of the Visva-Bharati University established by the artist, poet and nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who created an alternative educational system at Shantiniketan, where classes were held in the open air, under the shade of trees.
“Before he moved to Shantiniketan, Mukherjee travelled extensively with one of his brothers who was a doctor, who used to be posted in rural areas. He lived for a while near Pabna, in present day Bangladesh, near the banks of the Padma river,” says art historian R Siva Kumar, who has curated multiple exhibitions of Mukherjee’s works, including the exhibition Between Sight and Insight: Glimpses of Benode Behari Mukherjee at Vadehra Art Gallery in New Delhi in 2019. These trips during his childhood instilled a deep curiosity and reverence for nature in Mukherjee quite early on, which revealed itself in the first watercolours he made at Kala Bhavana.
“He saw [Shantiniketan] as a vast theatre with himself as its solitary viewer”Siva Kumar
In a sense, the shy, introverted artist found his perfect subject in the desolate landscapes of Shantiniketan. “He saw it as a vast theatre with himself as its solitary viewer,” writes Siva Kumar in an upcoming Thames & Hudson book. The sun-baked, red, rugged terrain (known as the khoai) of the rural landscape came alive in sharp graphite strokes and deft swipes of colour on his canvas. The themes of mythology and history that held the collective attention of his peers and classmates didn’t have a hold on Mukherjee; he was more interested in painting his immediate surroundings. “There’s a certain way he presents these early landscapes that also reflects his own isolation and loneliness,” notes Siva Kumar. This is when his deep fascination for nature and landscapes was beginning to take root, a recurring theme in his work that stayed with him through his lifetime.
Mukherjee’s dedicated study of nature was part of a quiet revolution that was already brewing at Shantiniketan. Nandalal Bose – the principal of Kala Bhavan – along with his students like Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij were laying the groundwork for a contextual modernism, which radically rejected the academic style of painting. In a definite departure from the Bengal School of Art, which was defined by its historical and nationalist underpinnings, the identity of the artists at Shantiniketan “was shaped by their belonging to a place, by a sense of location,” writes Siva Kumar.
“[Mukherjee’s] nature studies were his way of training his memory to remember the world as he saw it.”Ritupriya Basu
His calling to paint what he saw around him chiselled Mukherjee’s interest in Japanese art. In 1937, while he was on the teaching staff at Kala Bhavana, he self-funded a six-month trip to Japan (“because that’s the longest trip he could afford,” notes Siva Kumar). There, he studied the works of artists like Tawaraya Sōtatsu and Toba Sōjō in the collections of museums and galleries across the country, and their sharp brushwork stirred his interest in the calligraphic method of painting, which relied on its intuitive mark-marking process. “The others who were interested in Far-Eastern art were only looking at the stylistic elements and trying to emulate them, while Benode Behari was intrigued by the structural aspects that underscored these traditions,” says Siva Kumar.
When he returned to Shantiniketan, Mukherjee’s learnings from Japan unfolded in a fresco he painted on the ceiling of a dormitory in Kala Bhavana. By then, Bose had introduced mural-making as an integral part of student-life at Shantiniketan, which presented an opportunity for teachers and students to collaborate, work in lockstep, and exchange ideas and techniques freely. Along with his peers, Mukherjee painted the entire ceiling, at the centre of which were four buffaloes, half submerged in a pond, perhaps to cool off from the intense summer heat. Around it, he packed a panorama of rural life in Bengal, that gradually unfurls as the eye moves from one edge of the mural to the other. “This mural, his first amongst many, reflected his “multiple focus” approach, which he derived from diverse traditions, including Japanese scrolls,” says Siva Kumar.
A few years later, in the 1940s, he created a mural that would come to be known as the magnum opus of his career. Painted across three walls of the central hall in Hindi Bhavan at Shantiniketan, the fresco drew on the lives of the saints and mystics of medieval India. Mukherjee was now at the height of his power, and his incredible confidence and mastery of his craft revealed itself in the expansive composition, and in the fact that the entire painting was done directly on the wall, without the help of an initial sketch or framework.
“[Mukherjee] went on to prove that even for a visual artist, loss of sight need not mean the end of creation”Satyajit Ray
Mukherjee’s keen sense of observation that allowed him to paint life as he knew it is evident in his body of work – from his murals, to the watercolours he made in Nepal, where he took on the role of the curator at the National Gallery in Kathmandu for a few years, to his elemental mountainscapes of Mussorrie, where he settled for a brief period. By now, his vision was failing considerably, and these nature studies were his way of training his memory to remember the world as he saw it. “The definite strokes, the graceful web of assured touches, and the measured wash of colour, characteristic of his work so far, give way to vague scribbles, harder edges, and thicker layers of pigment,” notes Siva Kumar.
Working on Nepalese handmade reed paper or swatches of tussar silk, Mukherjee used natural pigments – like ochre, terre-verte or khari white, bought from a local dealer, or picked up on walks to the countryside — to paint a profusion of flowers, like the sinuous lotus, dolan champa, roses, lilies and hollyhocks. “If nature was his laboratory for the training of his memory, flower paintings were his primary experiments. They are a testimony of how precisely he trained his power of observation,” notes visual artist Nilima Sheikh. Mukherjee gifted his painted flowers freely to friends and students; and to his wife each birthday.
A few years later in 1957, after a failed cataract surgery, Mukherjee lost his sight forever. “A lesser man might have crumbled under the impact of the tragedy,” says Mukherjee’s student, mentee, and Oscar-winning filmmaker Satyajit Ray in his 1972 documentary, The Inner Eye. “But Benode Behari went on to prove that even for a visual artist, loss of sight need not mean the end of creation; that there was an inner eye, an inner vision, born of long experience and deep devotion which the artist could call upon to come to his aide, to guide his fingers.” Only months after the surgery, Mukherjee returned to Shantiniketan to resume his position as a teacher, and it is here that his meandering practice took a definitive turn towards tactile sculptures and collages.
“[His work] taught me a lot about the importance of seeing, observing and documenting the time that I live in”Debangshu Moulik
“There must have been despair, but he doesn’t allow you to see it,” says Siva Kumar. “Instead, he used this set back as a launching pad into something else, which was as innovative and powerful as what he had lost.” Mukherjee’s boundless creativity now morphed into abstract, inventive and playful collages – made with cut-outs of bright, gleaming coloured papers, strings and scraps of newspaper – that at times, echoed Matisse’s late shift in direction. Small and intimate in size, the paper-cuts unfurled snatches of his memories – a Santhal lady in a saree with a basket of fruits on her lap, a kettle, knife and some tomatoes on a shelf, a dog tied to a post. He worked closely with assistants and friends – like the artist Pushpa Kaushik, who was the first to help him with the collages — to draw the elements and arrange the layout. In a stylistic signature, Mukherjee cut out numbers in both Latin and the Bengali-Assamese script to record the date of the artwork, often placing the digits in a corner (cleverly held in a photo frame), or on the subject itself. “It is challenging to communicate the nuances of colour, so he worked with standardised coloured papers which he had seen and could remember. It is this limitation that lends the brightness to these works.”
His indomitable spirit touched the lives of many of his students, like filmmaker and graphic designer Ray – who returned to Shantiniketan to film his documentary about his mentor – and designer Riten Mozumdar, who travelled to Nepal to train in indigenous craft techniques on the recommendation of Mukherjee. His quiet influence is felt in Ray’s film posters, and in Mozumdar’s geometric, abstract designs for FabIndia.
But a legacy as profound as Mukherjee’s isn’t constrained by the definitions of time and space. “There’s much to learn from his oeuvre. When I observed his artworks, I could see the human hand along with the spirit of playfulness and was drawn to the simplicity and directness of his forms,” says Pune-based illustrator Debangshu Moulik, who first discovered Mukherjee’s work through Ray’s documentary, The Inner Eye. “His work has had a lasting influence on me and the way I view my surroundings; it taught me a lot about the importance of seeing, observing and documenting the time that I live in.” Moulik too is an avid people-watcher; his work often brims with doughy-necked characters caught in the unnoticed moments of mundane, everyday life.
For Mumbai-based visual artist Sameer Kulavoor, the pull towards Mukherjee’s work hinged on the artist’s compositional skills. “Composition often directs the emotion, or inversely, is often driven by the emotion. His use of negative space, and the way he holds back from filling every inch of space with motifs or elements, was an interesting aspect to study,” notes Kulavoor. “He also teaches us to be open to different ways of image-making. That’s something I try to imbibe in my practice as well. As a younger artist, sometimes these shifts happen in your medium and techniques, and you might not have any control over it. To see someone like Benode Behari Mukherjee with his range of work is very comforting. To study his work is to realise that these shifts and this evolution is part of the process, and one should embrace it.”
The seamless fluidity of his nature as an artist unleashed the polymath in Mukherjee, who, through the dips and swells of his life, had struggled with his eyesight, but never his vision. He once wrote, “Blindness is a new feeling, a new experience, a new state of being.” It was this brilliance of his spirit that far eclipsed any darkness that might have touched his life.
Benode Behari Mukherjee: Cat with red face (Copyright © Benode Behari Mukherjee, 1956, Courtesy Vadehra Art Gallery)
About the Author
Ritupriya is a writer and self-confessed “design maniac” based in India. She has written for Platform Magazine, Sofa, Eye on Design and Intern Magazine, driven to tell the stories of the people, projects and ideas that deserve to be heard.