Flowers are accessible: they can be plucked, smelt, held in the hand for scrutiny or sensuous pleasures, and put to many uses. Their formal riddles and life-cycles, their infinitesimal variety in pattern and colour, have provided artists studying nature a range of inspirational as well as learning material. At different times, artists across the world have devised varied ways of painting flora. These skills have developed in tandem with art-historical priorities and philosophical underpinnings. There have been moments in the histories of art that evinced a special need for painting flora which might range from scientific enquiry to the urge for ornament, symbol or fetish. The Santiniketan gharana of painting, encouraged by the literary culture of Bengal in the first half of the twentieth century, gave space to this instinct.
Painting flowers had cultural and personal significance for Benodebehari Mukherjee. Santiniketan, where he spent most of his formative and working years, and Mussoorie in the hills of Uttaranchal, which saw his penultimate spell of painting before he lost his sight, are both garden towns. Gardening and tending plants are .part of their ambience. Santiniketan, chosen by Rabindranath Tagore to become a site for culture and learning, was cultivated to bloom like a veritable oasis in the desert-in this case, the khoai. Trees and plants from all over the world, including from South America and Japan, were planted on the university campus by the poet and by his son Rathindranath who was a trained and ardent horticulturist; and gradually, the locale and. the plants acclimatized to each other. Mussoorie, on the other hand, was chosen by nature to be arboreal, and neighbours vied with each other to cultivate the best and the biggest in their gardens. It was the flora of these towns that Benodebabu painted, choosing to paint what was abundant, so available, rather than what was rare. He did not look at flowers as exotica but as the most proximate unit of his environment. Enjoying the directness of the, encounter, immediacy was what he would want to translate, rather than use artifice to give it metaphoric significance. Hence, he did not significantly engage with the trend of fashioning design motifs out of a relationship between flora and traditional pattern-making, which was a part of the contemporary Santiniketan ethos.
Nonetheless, he must have appreciated all kinds of traditions of painting flowers; notably in the Far East, but also by British and European naturalists. Our 'artist without a dilemma' was perhaps not interested in stylistic dichotomies separating art from art but in finding ways of bringing them together. His modernism, the internationalist mode developed in proximity to Tagore, his love and learning of diverse art histories, must have created a desire for their hospitable accommodation in his world-view - easily translated by his fluent, polylingual brush. Sharing the ideological interests of teacher and fellow artist Nandalal Bose, as well as of Tagore, the notions of observation and study that developed in both continents interested him equally while being acutely sensitive to the priorities of the local. In the words of K.G. Subramanyan:
What makes him an artist without a dilemma is probably the fact that instead of depending entirely on the conventional vocabularies of the East or the West, he started his work with a terminological search. Strangely enough, this can perhaps be attributed to his early interest in Far Eastern calligraphic painting. Although linear calligraphy was not unusual in various forms of Indian art, from the hieratic to the folk, calligraphic painting of the Far Eastern type which involved a terminological equivalence of the tool mark and the visual image was something new altogether. The basic ingredients of such work, if it had to be authentic and original, had to be evolved afresh in each new situation; which is another way of saying - to paint the gaudy 'palas' and 'simul' and the delicate 'land-lotus', in the sun-drenched landscape of the Bengal countryside, the conventions used to paint the pine, the bamboo and the peony against the misty mountain land-scapes of China" and Japan are hardly adequate - their terms have to be sought anew.
Besides the blossoms of trees like palas, simul, chalta and amaltas, Benodebabu painted garden and field flowers: sunflowers, dolan champa? sthatapadma, roses, hollyhocks, lilies and cactus blooms. The lotus pond was a favourite motif; his pen and brush yielded to the form and sway of the voluptuous flower in a variety of ways. Nepali hand-made reed paper in lucent encounter with water, colour and ink would receive calligraphic definition. He would trail ink and paint, sometimes on silver and gold papers, to create images of an evanescent arbour, interlocking and releasing calligraphic patterns in a form of botanical script. Transparent shimmers of colour and water bloomed into the luminous colours of the earth: ochres, terre-verte and khari white were bought from a local dealer or picked up on walks into the countryside. Tussar or moonga silk would sometimes replace the hand-made papers from Nepal and Sanganer. So the hollyhocks and roses admired in Chinese painting, now growing in the gardens of Mussoorie and Santiniketan, found their space, in the golden sunlight of the silk. Ranging from the .notational to elaborate, flower studies were sketched in pencil, crayon, with pen and ink, or painted in water, colour, tempera or oil paint. There is in Santiniketan even a small mural in fresco technique depicting sunflowers - another version of an oil painting at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi. He gifted his painted flowers freely to : friends and students; and to his wife each birthday.
Failing eyesight and the challenges of a terminological search made Benodebehari Mukherjee develop his visual memory in a way that most people, even artists, neglect. We know how it served him after he went blind: guiding his hand when he crafted paper to animate body-forms into taut compositions and leading his fluid pen to play with the motions of body and living. As teacher-art historian he would bring to his students' mind detailed images from the great archive of his memory. 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; painting from concentrated memory, transmitting life-force and seeking verisimilitude while eliminating the need for studious verification. They reveal a give-and-take between the rational linguist looking for forms to understand structures to represent variable anatomies, and the sensualist who, disciplined by a progressive deprivation of sight, seemed to allow touch and fragrance help him conceive images of remarkable colour-tone sensitivity and translucence. Light and air caress and differentiate shifting diaphanous surfaces, suggesting transience. A touch, a daub, a flamboyant swirl and a deceptively careless scribble bring into play the abstract patterns of the floral world with the ease of a Tao master, with sahaja. He would return to painting flowers as to a touchstone, as if to rediscover his basic sense of wonderment and the innocent starting-point of making art.
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