Indian artís forgotten genius
Benodebehari Mukherjee (1904-80) is a long neglected colossus of contemporary Indian art. It is therefore fitting that the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, has mounted what must count as one of the decade's most comprehensive national exhibitions. But, sadly, it has elicited little interest. On a Saturday afternoon when a retrospective show of this kind should have attracted hundreds, one counted a mere seven visitors, three of whom were foreigners.
Benodebehari Mukherjee is part of an Indian visual arts tradition that goes back to Rabindranath Tagore who in many ways was contemporary India's pioneering modern artist and laid the foundations for what we now recognise as the Santiniketan school. The Tagores, Nandalal Bose, Benodebehari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij formed a rich continuum of distinctively Indian art and aesthetics. Benodebehari's personal tragedies are legendary. The artist who had a congenital eye affliction lost his sight completely in 1957, when he was at the height of his creativity.
Thus reflecting on the huge body of work that fills the NGMA is both rewarding and humbling. Temperas, watercolours, drawings, woodcuts, mixed-media, calligraphy, murals ó the range is impressive and testifies to the artist's expressive originality and eclectic virtuosity. The eight-foot tall digital enlargement of his magnum opus 'Life of the Medieval Saints' is the high point of the oeuvre. The variegated imagery that weaves Ramanuja, Kabir, Surdas and Gobind Singh into one seamless mural has aptly been compared to Jawaharlal Nehru's Discovery of India, by eminent art historian Siva Kumar, who along with Gulam Sheikh curated this splendid exhibition. Executing a large mural is perhaps one of the most challenging tasks for an artist and what is more remarkable about Benodebehari's murals is not merely the scale and detailed imagery but the texture and ethos of the narrative. Given the personal tragedies the artist faced, one would have expected a note of bitterness to temper his larger work. Instead it has an affirmative and regenerative quality to it, which makes it especially endearing.
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