What do you call pieces of woven fibre shaped like forest deities? Mrinalini Mukherjee delighted in terming them sculptures, though they confounded viewers who had never seen anything like these before. Jute, hemp, sisal: Mrinalini was enchanted by the possibilities offered by these natural fibres that were inexpensive and easily available in and around Santiniketan, where her father, artist Binode Behari Mukherjee, was principal at Kala Bhavana. He was also one of the country's early expressionists, and Mrinalini - who had the advantage of seeing him work in Santiniketan as well as at Banasthali Vidyapith in Rajasthan before herself going off to study in Baroda - knew she would have to struggle to make her mark as an artist beyond her father's shadow.
The style of art practice referred to by most as "Santiniketan" was short-lived. Rejecting the stylised romanticism of the Bengal School, its practitioners - Nandalal Bose (in his second coming), Ramkinkar Baij and Binode Behari Mukherjee - looked to their immediate environment for inspiration, finding it in the landscape and the tribal lifestyle of the Santhals. While Kala Bhavana continues to be among the more significant art schools in the country, it has no recognisable trope. Beyond a handful of artists, therefore, Santiniketan ceased to have a stylistic relevance.
But if anyone can claim to be an inheritor of that tradition, it might well be Mrinalini Mukherjee. A brilliantly curated retrospective of her career at National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, serves as an example of how easy it is to overlook an artist in the dearth of substantial exhibitions. Distinguished as an important artist by the cognoscenti, Mrinalini was mostly ignored by a lay public unfamiliar with her work. Her career was, therefore, shaped by absences. To be fair, Mrinalini's "sculptures" did not suit group exhibitions where her work required explanations and, thus, appeared forlorn. The retrospective, on the other hand, lends them credence and grandeur. It also provides excellent counterpoints to her ability to create sculptures requiring exacting engineering inputs. A large bronze sculpture that rests its weight on one fragile stalk required a distribution of mass to even make it possible. Late in her career, Mrinalini also worked with ceramic, and like her other preferred mediums, the context was always the natural world of vegetal and floral forms ripe with sexual efflorescence.
Her works were rarely in auctions, though they have been part of important museum and private collections. For that reason, her prices never gained a popular currency, leaving her free to work outside demanding commercial constraints. Mrinalini was, therefore, kicked about the retrospective that she knew would carry the full might of gravitas. Her extraordinary repertoire of the natural world and of forest dwellers - spirits, deities, primal beings - has since drawn comparisons with totemic African figures, Chinese warlords and Inca deities, even though they are the stuff of local imaginings.
Briefly unwell before the retrospective opened, Mrinalini was hospitalised hours before its official launch, and never left the hospital where, a few days later, she passed away. She would have delighted in the number of visitors who keep turning up to "experience" the exhibition. Had she been around, she might have eavesdropped on conversations that lend texture and patina to her art. Viewers stepping into the NGMA's exhibition gallery are blown away by the scope of her work. It needed this extraordinary retrospective to create a perspective within which to view her range of work. And even though she may not have got to see the exhibition, its legacy for all of us might well be a gift from the sprits of Santiniketan who live on in her work.