The recently curated exhibition, Nestled at Experimenter, Kolkata, weaves together the works of Adip Dutta and Meera Mukherjee into a reflection on life and death, memory and decay, presence and absence. In a series of works varying from kantha (traditional embroidered pieces of quilted coverings), tapestry, paper-cast and bronze-cast sculptures, this exhibition offers an insight into the history that Dutta and Mukherjee shared since the mid-1980s. In many ways, this is a difficult conversation initiated by Dutta between two artists separated by generations, varied in their craft and yet connected by their approach to art. In Dutta’s formative years, Mukherjee was both a mentor and guide and her craft, workspace and intense artistic sensibilities made a lasting impression on him. As Dutta formally trained in art later, and grew beyond the fond memories of his “Meera Mashi,” the multiple dimensions of his shared experiences were partially unrealized, but never fully explored. Nestled, for Dutta, is an “arrival” at that ruptured and labyrinthine reality that lay latent serving to excavate his encounters, about twenty years after Mukherjee’s death.
Meera Mukherjee (1923-1998), widely known for her significant place within the world of Indian sculpture, was also deeply involved in the collective processes of art and craft. Nestled chooses to foreground her lesser-known works in textile, exhibiting a carpet-tapestry and a series of embroidered kanthas. As a staunch proponent of what we may call community art today, Mukherjee sought to destabilize the binaries between high and low/ modern and traditional art-forms and aspired to create a fluid field in between. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she embarked on a journey into the hinterlands of Chhattisgarh to learn and document the indigenous, traditional craft techniques under the aegis of the Anthropological Survey of India (1978). Even though she received formal training in art from the Indian Society of Oriental Art, Delhi Polytechnic and the Munich Art Institute earlier, Mukherjee made a decisive choice to foreground the indigenous lost-wax methods of dokra in her body of work, contradicting the dominant sensibilities of art in her times. Mukherjee’s undeterred conviction in questioning the seemingly hierarchical internal worlds of artists and artisans are vividly on display in the series of textile-works Nestled exhibits.
Working in the traditional lost-wax process for large and small sculptures involved a steady group of craftsmen and artisans who would come with their families and stay at the Elachi village where the long process of casting would take place. This inspired Mukherjee to envision a project involving the inherent talent of the women in these families who showed exceptional skills of stitching, sewing, weaving and embroidery, passed down through generations. Later on, the children of the families were brought into these projects as Mukherjee started to place drawings by children as the blueprint of the designs on kantha - creating a collection of beautiful fabric-pieces which oscillated between art and craft, traditional and avant-garde or functional and ornamental. In a series of Untitled pieces of kantha, the viewer catches a glimpse of her imaginative use of collective art as they respond to patches of life in rural Bengal. The exhibited kanthas are smaller and larger handkerchief sized fabric pieces on which the kantha-style running embroidery stitches have been made to animate flora and fauna of rural Bengal in painstaking detail. Teeming with colour, these kanthas weave a tale of lush vegetation, playful fields and happy children in organic cohabitation with nature as they translate children’s dreams into functional pieces of textile. Mukherjee envisioned art as a source to sustainable livelihoods. Her bronze sculpture animates in lost-wax the collective presence of artisanal skills behind these stitched paintings. Mukherjee’s own practice resembles that of the travelling mobile artisans she worked with - persistently oscillating between the material conditions of everyday artisanal practices and the promise of eternity latent in art.
Dutta recalls being a part of the kantha-project in his early years of interaction with Mukherjee, and becoming distant from it eventually. In a series of drawings, bronze-sculptures and sculptural forms in paper-cast, Dutta’s exhibited work forms a striking tangent with the visuality offered by the kanthas. As he started working on this collection in 2018, Dutta recalls many shifts in his vision for the exhibit, stemming from the various reconsiderations of his relationship with Mukherjee and her work. “Even though I have been exhibiting my work for the past twenty years, this is the first time my work is being shown alongside her work. For me, this dialogue is as much about our convergences as about the ruptures,” Dutta professes. Dutta’s displayed works are replete with a sense of loss and decay, exhibiting a sense of static time where the remnants of daily activities are consolidated within spaces and objects. As a conflicting foil, Mukherjee’s kanthas flaunt the fluidity of human habitus in all its mirth and fervor. As one enters the white-cube in Experimenter, the strange conflation of object-forms startles one’s sensibilities and draws attention to the specificity of the display. Beginning with Dutta’s large bronze tree-trunk in the middle of the space, one steps into a deliberate juxtaposition of Dutta’s drawings and Mukherjee’s kanthas and further moves towards their works in textile, paper and bronze on solitary display. Nestled seeks to materially embody the uneasy fissures along the shared journey between Dutta and Mukherjee, and offer the viewer an experiential trip into that fraught space.
While the kantha pieces evidently celebrate life in rural Bengal through their intricate and innocent motifs of lush vegetation and happy emotions, Dutta’s work foregrounds an eventual sterility. Topographic Spread, Topographic Specimen, Unidentified Sights - the ink-and brush drawings on paper capture space in intimate detail, reflecting on familiar lanes of Kolkata bereft of their hustle-bustle. Ramani Chatterjee Lane, Purna Das Road, Mahanirban Road present the human settlements in their oppressive breathlessness as if channelizing a stillness draped in tarpaulin. The drawings capture life hidden and apparent through the contours of objects from human settlements - tarpaulin, wires, lamp-posts, clothes, boxes and wooden logs. Marks, made of cotton mesh and dental plaster captures a liminal space in between the complexity of the ink-drawings and the plenitude of the bronze objects. For Dutta, these drawings and paper-casts are a visual code which encapsulate not only the artistic structures of the kanthas and the tapestry, but in many ways, reflect the functionality of the coverings. Singular in theirexecution,Marksrevealsthecharadeand claustrophobia which the kanthas are supposed to engender.
This show rewrites the age-old contradictions between life and death, decay and growth, absence and presence - perhaps not to impart a seamless continuity between the two, but to examine the discontinuities, gaps and fissures within such apparently cyclical journeys. Several pieces in Site for Excavation offer an ocular cue to the nebulous sensorium that shape human remembrance and forgetting. While the large tree-trunk forms the backbone of the visual experience of the exhibition, the series of cross-aligned branches in bronze reflect the field of vision Dutta experiences while reminiscing about the world around him. The branches are not ‘relics’ but Vestiges - latent with the promise of life, latent with the sense of a life past, Dutta proclaims.
Nestled is an uneasy conversation, which is as much material and procedural as it is imagined. In many ways, it is also a necessary and inevitable one about collective artistic formations which fluidly seek and rest in new transitory languages. It is an unusual dialogue where many visual languages collide, deriving new meanings as they degenerate and evolve. Coupled with a profound sense of loss, Nestled is also a celebration of the latent and the obvious, of contradictions and reconsiderations, departures and arrivals.
 Mukherjee’s friend Nirmal Sengupta used to call the kanthas ‘stitched paintings’ as noted by Dutta in the concept note to Nestled, for Experimenter, 2021.