“He (Benodebehari) was perhaps the most informed Indian artist of his generation,” writes Debdutta Gupta, Curator of ‘Works of Benodebehari Mukherjee.’ In view of the pieces that have been selected for this exhibition from the vast visual repertoire of the master that was Benodebehari, it is not difficult to see that such eulogy is not after all merely sanctimonious platitude.
While Benodebehari was certainly not the first or the only artist of his school or generation to be able to flaunt with élan such versatility in terms of artistic inspiration and technique, he thoroughly deserves the judicious choice of epithet, ‘informed’. Indeed, perhaps more so than anyone else. He not only assimilated varied forms of painting, calligraphy and printing that he accumulated from his travels to Japan, but also made it a point to write about art and art history throughout his life.
The exhibition can be divided into sub-sections according to medium: Ink and Brush; Calligraphy; Pen and Ink; Prints; etc. An entire wall has been devoted to the postcards he wrote and illustrated-- specific medium notwithstanding. The hanging cards offer generous insight into the ingenuity and imaginative prowess of Benodebehari who was able to effortlessly translate his visions onto such tiny canvas without compromising either the story he set out to articulate, or the mystery he wished the reader to unravel. Every inch a visual storyteller, Benodebehari did not have public/popular appreciation at the top of his mind. These were personal letters, where pictures – and sometimes just colours stood in for the inadequate word. In one case, Benodebehari sent an all-black festival greating to a friend, denoting the inner angst of the artist who was increasingly aware of his declining eyesight that not all the lights of festivity could keep bright.
Another postcard that struck me was a simple pen and ink sketch depicting a group of huddled and sleeping men and women. In terms of their costumes and the quality of lines that Benodebehari deployed, one could easily mistake them for the letters Van Gogh wrote and illustrated for his brother Theo to describe the condition of the working class in Europe. Printed versions of the letter-script could have, however made correlating the written and the drawn messages easier.
His prints were what fascinated me most. They bear the distinct stamp of one trained in the tradition of Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan, as evident in the sinuous curves of the bold flat lines reminiscent of the works of his teacher Nandalal Bose. At times his work is so similar, in fact, that it seems straight out of Sahaj Path, the famous Bengali primer Bose illustrated. However, Benodebehari’s fixation with landscapes and queerly enough, boars, make him an artist to reckon with on individual merit. Perhaps the most captivating work in this entire series is a woodcut that is a tricky overlap of two faces – both in profile, but one emerging in greater relief from the receding silhouette of the other.
Benode Behari Mukherjee, Untitled, collage; Courtesy of Akar Prakar and the artist
Although there are only a couple of specimens Benodebehari’s works in other mediums such as tie-dye cloth and collage, all done towards the end of his life, they are testimony to how not even imminent blindness could curb an inherent zeal or aesthetic knack. As in the case of Beethoven, such a setback only proved how the faculties of an innately creative mind are heightened once essential senses begin to fade.
(Image on top right: Benode Behari Mukherjee, Untitled, Pen and Ink on Paper; Courtesy of the artist and Akar Prakar - Kolkata)