Artists

Published in Textile, 1:2, 2015, pp. 144-156

Knotting jute into organic forms that resemble large, succulent flowers and fecund figures, Mrinalini Mukherjee created a body of monumental works during the 1990s that have an enduring, at times uncanny, quality. Mukherjee is a leading Indian sculptor whose work has always challenged the accepted ways in which art, craft, and modernism are discussed and appreciated both within and outside of India. She worked with hand dyed jute and rope from her student days until the late 1990s (more recently she embraced ceramics to create equally compelling abstract constellations of fired forms). For decades, Mukherjee’s work has faced a critical resistance within India. This was largely due to the fact that her large woven sculptures participate in the discourses on both modernism and craft. In India, as in the United Kingdom, there has been a tendency to discount the work of artists using textiles as belonging to a set of traditions outside of modernism. This is despite the fact that the early nineteenth-century art schools in India were actually established with the intention of preserving the crafts of India, albeit for industrial purposes. However, as the schools developed into the late-nineteenth century, a formalised and academic education in the art of drawing, painting, and sculpture gradually dominated and an enthusiasm for India Inside Out: Critical Perspectives on the Work of Mrinalini Mukherjee the “high arts” replaced the interest in the arts of the artisan classes. At least two art schools attempted to redress this in the latter half of the twentieth century and Mukherjee’s own work has been formulated through exposure to both of these schools. Nevertheless, the prejudices of the academic art school model continue to linger within India. During the 1990s, Mukherjee’s art came to be apprehended not so much in terms of its relationship to craft, or to folk traditions, but rather in terms of its supposed religious references. This was the case in both India and the United Kingdom. The alignment of her work with overt religious content paralleled, within India, the rise to power of the Hindu BJP party, along with an increase in religious and social discord. In the face of the increasing connection between religion and conservative politics, many artists voiced what came to be called a “secular” point of view. In the United Kingdom, Mukherjee was being recognised and applauded for the complete “otherness” of her works, while in India her interest in folk deities was regarded as a kind of naive and apolitical spiritualism. The following discussion of the critical framework for Mukerhjee’s art, both inside and outside India, reveals an energetic trade in these two perspectives which ultimately participate in a form of “orientalizing” of the work.

It is a discussion that has largely diverted attention from Mukherjee’s core artistic concerns and the processes, histories, and influences that have inspired her. Edward Said has commented: “what matters a great deal more than the stable identity kept current in official discourse is the contestatory force of an interpretative method whose material is the disparate, but intertwined and interdependent, and above all overlapping streams of historical experience” (Said 1993: 312). Born in Bombay (Mumbai) in 1949, Mrinalini Mukherjee comes from a rather unconventional artist family and has, throughout her career, filtered a range of influences or “streams of historical experience.” Her father, Benodebihari, was a well-known muralist and painter; her mother, Leela, a painter and sculptor. While Mukherjee was growing up, her father taught at a major art school north of Calcutta, Santiniketan. The ethos of this school was based on the writings of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), its founder, and the philosophies of Tagore have informed Mukherjee’s work. (Mrinalini was named after Tagore’s wife.) Tagore believed that art should have a communion with nature. He commented that “for our perfection we have to be vitally savage and mentally civilized; we should have the gift to be natural with nature and human with man” (Aronson 1986: 30). In his essay on The Meaning of Art, he wrote that “in his creative activities man makes nature instinct with his own life and love” (Tagore 1921: 22). While Tagore did not embrace any specific religion, he clearly did believe that the creativity of individuals has the capacity to be divine. Tagore was adamantly opposed to nationalism of any kind and, for this reason, has been called a modernist.

At the age of sixteen Mrinalini Mukherjee attended art school in Baroda, a city that lies between New Delhi and Mumbai. Many of the senior teachers at Baroda had studied at Santiniketan. From 1971, aged 22, she began to experiment with fibre-jute and hemp-and made large-scale wall hangings and suspended forms. Her principal teacher was K. G. Subramanyan (also one of her father’s students), a proponent of the notion that art needs to have an integral connection with craft. The Baroda art school included lessons in mural painting, mosaics, ceramics, and weaving along with sculpture, painting, and print-making. There was an enthusiasm not only for modernism in painting and sculpture, but also the rural and tribal visual cultures of India. Nilima Sheikh, an artist and former lecturer at Baroda, comments, “visiting folk melas and tribal haats [festivals], travelling into rural and forest interiors, was as much a part of the motivated student’s curriculum as the more organised study tours” (N. Sheikh 1997: 116).

A third influence on the art of Mrinalini Mukherjee is the large-scale bronze- and cement-cast figurative sculptures of Ram Kinkar Baij, one of India’s foremost modernist sculptors who also taught at Santiniketan. The physicality, scale, and monumentality of Ram Kinkar Baij’s work has been inspirational for Mrinalini Mukherjee. (Her mother was also Baij’s student at Santiniketan.) Despite her admiration for his work, Mukherjee relates the story that Ram Kinkar Baij did not appreciate her own forays into rope. At Santiniketan, sculpture was generally taught with reference to a notion of international modernism, in particular, the work of Constantine Brancusi and Henry Moore. Ram Kinkar Baij’s own work involved a form of intensely emotional figurative expressionism common also to some modernist Indian painting.

Mrinalini Mukherjee was invited by the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford to have a one-person exhibition which was held from 17 April to 19 June 1994 (Elliot 1994). The show included a group of freestanding woven sculptures. Woman on Peacock, 1991, a central piece in the exhibition, is a large imposing figurative form woven from a tapestry of dark purple, green, gold, and blue knots. Here is the connection between a human and an animal realm, but also between a female and male sexuality. Thisimperceptiblemarriageofopposites through the weave of Mukherjee’s hand is a kind of riposte to Ram Kinkar Baij’s monumental male figures. Another exceptional work from this series is Pushp (The flower), 1993, a spherical, red and golden form with folds within folds of knotted layers. It is at once sensual and formidable. It has a presence beyond its size. Not only does Pushp refer to the flower; its medium is in direct communion with nature and with the folk traditions that actively use hemp and jute in a daily context (for instance, it is used for making the bags that hold onions). And yet Pushp recalls the abstract forms of international modernist sculpture. The artist constructs a rudimentary metal frame and then begins to weave from the top downwards. This process requires that the weaving cannot be reversed and the sculptures tend to take on their own life force as the artist creates the cascading and protruding layers of rope. In some instances, these soft sculptures like to sit in their own way against the wall, or on the floor, taking a slightly different configuration on each occasion. In many respects, they possess their own character, and they work best visually in groups where there is an active dialogue and where there is a relational, architectural framework for this dialogue. It is no accident that Mukherjee is fascinated by archaeological sites and ruined buildings in India and elsewhere.

Two of the catalog essays for the Oxford Museum of Modern Art exhibition are short texts, almost testimonials, by fellow Indian artists and writers Gulammohammed Sheikh and J. Swaminathan. Both artists aim to elevate the meanings inherent in the works to the highest levels. Given that Mukherjee’s struggle prior to this had been to gain acceptance in India as a sculptor rather than a craftsperson, it is not surprising that these texts are written in a manner that seeks to prove her credentials as an artist dealing with time-honored principles.

Gulammohammed Sheikh comments that craft-“as domestic girls plaiting their hair, or women knotting string cots” -is “turned into a magic formula by the intervening artifice of the artist’s hands” (G. Sheikh 1994: 5). He then goes on to suggest that these works are more than the sum of their parts, more than the knotting of fibre:

Swelling outwards and breathing from its multiple pores, the image in its pachyderm monumentality-suffused with abundant sensuality-extends its span beyond its physical reach. If the fibrous deities stand in each other’s company, the surrounding spaces begin to become animated with enigmatic presence. Her installations often evoke sensations of the spaces of arboreal shrines. The viewer, like the spirits, is enticed into the orbit of the image’s magnetic field, to invest all his emotions, memories and associations in order to view the world through these stringed volumes.

He compares these works to three ancient Indian forms of sculpture: the Yakshi, the female counterpart of a forest deity as seen in the sensual Mathura sculptures; the Naga, a serpent deity with a hood or human head found in the shrines situated on village outskirts; and Bhuta, large wooden figures of cult spirits from the coast of Karnataka. Sheikh argues that Mrinalini Mukherjee’s use of fibre “radicalizes the meaning of magic” because she has not used the ancient stone or wood. Fibre, he says, “makes a fresh aesthetic assertion as a metaphor of resistance to conventional norms.” None of Sheikh’s references to ancient sculptural forms in India refer to one specific religion, and he is careful to propose an innovative approach in Mrinalini Mukherjee’s transformation of sculptural traditions into new aesthetic forms. J. Swaminathan’s short text also points to the uniqueness of Mukherjee’s choice of vegetable fibre, rather than stone, wood, clay, plaster or metal. He emphasises the fecundity, eroticism, “the miasmic air of a tropical fruit” (Swaminathan 1994: 6). Then he also conjures specifically Indian references by suggesting that the work converses with the image of the mother goddess:

Erotic in the purest sense, Mukherjee’s work aspires to the sublime: in partaking of stone and water, mineral and air, the pulsating heat of the fibre of life in her sculpture aspires to immortality through proliferation as Prakati, and to a self contained equilibrium as Chinnamasta. (Prakati and Chinnamasta are two aspects of the Mother Goddess: one as Nature in its endless variety and one as self-sustaining power, holding her severed head in one hand and drinking her own blood.)

There are two other texts in the Oxford Museum of Art catalog. One is the introduction by Director David Elliot and the other is an interview by Chrissie Iles. Each of them has structured their text as a response not only to the works, but also the texts by Sheikh and Swaminathan, resulting in a set of conclusions about the work that tends to orientalise it. Elliot writes, “Time and process are . . . imprinted in numinous and natural presence which emanates from each work. This form of non-specific aesthetic animism, . . . which Tagore himself may have recognised, positions Mukherjee’s work within its Indian context,” a broad statement which suggests that the “Indian context” is one in which “animism” is central (Elliot 1994: 4). There is no reference to specific histories of modernism in India, or the work’s formal relationship to modernist sculptures or ancient architecture.

As analysed in an article in Third Text in 1994 by Tania Guha, the interview with Mrinalini Mukherjee in the Oxford Museum catalog by Chrissie Iles follows a similar line of inquiry (Guha 1994: 165-8). After Mrinalini Mukherjee suggests that her work develops along intuitive, formal lines, a “tier-by-tier growth,” “a process of growth,” Iles asks if it suggests a “pre-technological way of knowing the world” (Iles 1994: 11-15). Mukherjee says she simply likes the material-the look and feel of it, and its inexpensive nature. She comments:

In India we do not talk about a “pre-technological way of knowing the world” since, as well as the urban artists, there are hundreds of artists and craftsmen working in rural areas, using the natural materials available to them. In India their arts have always existed alongside each other, at different levels of sophistication. India has an enormous wealth of craft, and I believe in an integrated approach to art and craft, so I enjoy working with the “linguistics” developed by the practice of craft. It is through my relationship to my material that I would like to reach out and align myself with the values which exist within the ambit of contemporary sculpture.

Iles then goes on to ask whether the colours relate to “its ceremonial and ritual function in Indian life.” Mukherjee says her color is personal and “has no relationship to traditionaliconography.”Ilesthenasks if the works “house spirits.” Mukherjee says she loved the garden towns in which she grew up and her work has gradually brought in the human, or “superhuman.” While referring to the works as “anthropomorphic deities” she says her “mythology is deconventionalized and personal.” Mukherjee is clearly trying to suggest a position and practice that lies between the influences of her youth: Indian modernism, Tagore’s philosophy, Subramanyan’s embracement of craft, a love of nature, and the belief that sculpture can inspire awe.

Iles then asks “what does the sacred mean to you?” Mukherjee responds:

My idea of the sacred is not rooted in any specific culture. To me it is a feeling that I may get in a church, mosque, temple or forest. The countryside is filled with places where divinity dwells. I do not enjoy going to active temples or places of worship; I prefer archaeological sites. It is often a sense of space, scale or presence that gives me a sacred feeling, and this could occur anywhere in the world. My inspiration and visual stimuli come from all over the world, from museum objects and artifacts and, more immediately, from my environment . . . My work is not . . . the iconic representation of any particular religious belief.

Iles again: “What role do gods and goddesses play in your work, and is reincarnation signifiant?” Mukherjee says there’s no relationship with specific gods and goddesses. Iles then asks if the work Pushp (The Flower) recalls Hindu imagery. Mukherjee says Pushp started with the image of a magnolia flower fallen from a tree. Iles then makes a comparison between the sensuality in Mukherjee’s work and sexual power in images in India of the Goddess Kali. Mukherjee explains that “traditional Indian sculpture often displays male and female sexuality explicitly, and since it is something I have been used to seeing since childhood, I have no inhibitions in representing it in my work.” Finally Mukherjee says:

I do not think India rejects modernism. My own questioning of modernism is contained within the process of my work, which does not rule out modernist options but uses them for my own needs, in my particular context. I do this neither out of ideological preference, nor in opposition to Western modernist values in art.

Iles’s questions are framed in terms of naturalism, animism, ritual and specific religious associations. Perhaps Iles was simply asking the questions that she thought audiences might ask, but it seems that she is intent on proving that Mukherjee’s art does not simply amount to a derivative interpretation of European modernism. Every effort is made to link her work with primitive and timeless origins. Guha comments:

Iles’ critical methodology is symptomatic of a romantic postmodernism that is happy to embrace other cultures so long as they can be seen to embody a diametrically opposed Other to European modernism. In order to qualify for a position in this “benevolently” pluralistic cultural arena, Mukherjee must be seen to address a different set of issues and concerns to western artists, for instance in their sense of spiritual dissolution and urban alienation in the wake of industrialisation or their shift away from naturalistic representation. (Guha 1994: 168)

In this context, it is interesting to reconsider the degree to which the texts by the Indian artists Sheikh and Swaminathan also partake, perhaps unwittingly, of this discourse. In many respects, they seek to elevate her work from the realm of craft to the realm of high art and do so by loose associations with arboreal deities and the fecundity and sexuality that pervades a range of Indian sculptural traditions. They do not, however, suggest that Mukherjee herself subscribes to a particular set of religious beliefs; that she identifies with certain gods or goddesses or that she believes in reincarnation.

The exhibition traveled from Oxford to Yorkshire Sculpture Park and the Royal Festival Galleries in London. It received a modest amount of attention in the British press. Most of the journalistic responses expanded upon the catalog essays and Chrissie Iles’s interview. Timothy Hyman, who worked in India for many years and is the author of a book on the eminent Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar, wrote in the London Magazine that along with Anish Kapoor and Shirazeh Houshiary, Mukherjee’s work “enters our culture as a new orientalism” (Hyman 1994: 120). A comment like this provokes problematical questions about the desire to appear oriental in contemporary culture.

In the magazine Women’s Art, Deanna Petherbridge “gazes at sculpture from outerspace,” as the by-line has it (Petherbridge 1994: 26). She recognises that “at the moment that [Mukherjee’s] work is presented outside India, she is entrapped into the very discourses of ethnicity and religious identity with which she feels the least affiliation.” Mukherjee, Petherbridge comments, takes inspiration from folk myths and artifacts and does so without naivety, but also without engaging with “the discourses of power, psychoanalysis, anthropology or feminism.” In this way, Petherbridge locates Mukherjee’s works as “allusive,” “but do not tie her into . . . traditionalism,” similar, she suggests, to the Pegasus imagery of Christopher LeBrun. Prior to the Oxford Museum of Art exhibition returning to India, some promotional texts appeared in the local Indian news press. As the writers had not seen the exhibition, these pieces mostly used the catalog as a resource. In an article titled “Contemporary Indian Sculpture,” August/September 1995, the Indialink International Magazine comments, “the rough, fibrous material and the repetitive hand-made construction suggest a pre-technological understanding of the world, in which metamorphosis and the sacred are strongly present. Her volumes embrace the inseparable unity of nature and culture which lies at the heart of Indian aesthetics and philosophy.” Seemingly unaware of the orientalism at play in these comments, the writer has offered no independent interpretation of the terms used in the catalog, nor has he acknowledged Mukherjee’s own responses to Iles’s assumptions about Indian culture.

In an article titled “Creative fibre” published in Expression, the India Express Sunday Magazine, 27 February 1994, Prema Viswanathan has a more balanced view of the sculptures by pointing to what she terms a “dialectic” in the work: “there is the languor of a hothouse plant, the voluptuousness of an apsara [a heavenly female form found on early Buddhist shrines], the reassurance of a mother-figure, and the awesomeness of a deity. But at another level, there is also an element of abstraction, as each figure transforms itself into a free flowing form.” Further, “it is this dialectic in Mrinalini’s forms that helps them transcend the barrier between art and craft, a divide that she feelsneeds tobebridged.”Viswanathan’s point of view has been informed by her interview with Mukherjee, whom she quotes as asking, “Did our ancient sculptors or muralists ever pause to think whether they were craftsmen or artists?” Viswanathan concludes by resorting to a form of feminine essentialism, commenting that the forms “appear almost to have come out of her womb, the unborn children of her past and her future.” The exhibition returned to India and was displayed at the British Council Art Gallery in New Delhi from 26 September to 14 October 1995. In an article titled “Weaving in Time” in The Pioneer newspaper, 19 October 1995, M. L. Johny and Mrinal Kulkari present a more insightful analysis of the critical perception of Mukherjee’s work. After claiming “Mrinalini’s works evoke a remoteness of traditional artforms and archaeological sites,” they suggest that her work has been characterised as “anti-modernist by western critics . . . [who] try to make her an artist of exotica and erotica. The post-modernist way of looking at them questions her presence as an author, and with a concealed despise place her in [sic] an anti-modernist pedestal.” In relation to this post-modernist perspective (for which they give no examples) they argue that “the writing out of authorial presence” is problematic in India. Mukherjee’s work is modernist, they claim, but she also questions modernism. In a sharply critical article titled “Oriental Reflection in Sculpture” in another newspaper, The Statesman, 2 October 1995, M. Ramachandran also assesses the responses to Mukherjee’s work at an international level. “What G. M. Sheikh discerns as ‘the iconic images of numinous import,’ and Swaminathan senses as ‘the secret and sacred primordial powers in the iconic splendor,’ are nothing but the same ‘Indianess’ the Westerners seek from Indian artists.” Ramachandran then depicts the artist as a kind of evil seductress by saying, “one has to beware of the seductive charm and inviting eroticism of Mrinalini Mukherjee’s Yakshis, their grove and flowers.” Equating her work with Tantric painting in India during the 1960s, the Hindu philosophy that “celebrates sexuality,” the critic classifies her work in the realm of a “market-oriented indigenism.” That is, he blames the work for the orientalist discourse within which it is trapped. His criticism does not come close to understanding the forces at work in Mrinalini Mukherjee’s woven sculpture. This was also obvious to Mukherjee herself, who saw the writing by two dear artist-friends caught in a cycle of interpretation that returned her work to Indian audiences in an orientalist cloak. While the media and critical attention was no doubt welcomed by Mukherjee, she experienced acute frustration with how the work was being appraised. A further dimension to the ways in which Mukherjee’s work was, on the one hand, acclaimed for its exoticism in the West, and on the other, criticised for its supposed Hindu associations within India, is the growth of religious fundamentalism in India during the 1990s. In this context, Mrinalini Mukherjee treads a fine and complex line. There is indeed a correspondence between the increasing sensitivity amongst India’s creative communities to religious fundamentalism in India, and the criticism of Mukherjee’s work for its religious associations which, for many, rendered it non contemporary and located it outside of the history of modernism. And yet these references framed the work’s acceptance in the United Kingdom. In India artists, writers, film-makers, and the like tend to position themselves and their work in the realm of what is termed “secularism.” That is, they eschew religious associations-living, practicing religious rituals or belief systems-for these modes are taken in the public imagination to be an endorsement of fundamentalism, which is, at its core, racist and conservative. In 1992-93, just prior to Mukherjee’s exhibition in Oxford, riots spread across India in response to the destruction of a Muslim temple in Ayodhya in 1990. The violent conflicts between Muslims and Hindus in India continues today. While a sensitivity to socio-political issues is by no means new in modern Indian art, this rise of religious discord sharpened artists’ attitudes: the violence, fear, and fierce destruction of the riots in 1992-93 is often cited within India as a catalyst for change in the work of contemporary artists. Some artists have chosen to explore the relationship between spiritual myths and violence. Others have avoided any hint of specific religious references in their work. Allusions to political threat have emerged in the art works of others. Mukherjee chose to pursue her life’s work, unchallenged by contemporary events.

In addition, during the 1990s, many artists, musicians, writers, actors, and film-makers were actively involved in an organisation called SAHMAT, the Sadfar Hashmi Memorial Trust, established to promote the importance of peace and advocate the values of secularism and cultural pluralism. Exhibitions, performances, and concerts are held across India on a regular basis in order to raise awareness of such values. One of the more disturbing incidents during the riot period of 1992-93 involved the seizure and destruction of a group of paintings by Indian artist M. F. Husain. Husain’s house was burned. The paintings, which depicted Hindu goddesses in erotic poses, were actually painted at least ten years prior to the incident. Previously considered rather humorous and apolitical, the paintings became a political symbol in artists’ struggles against religious persecution.

Perhaps in order to introduce a fresh perspective, Mukherjee invited the art critic and lecturer Deepak Ananth (based in France) to write on her work for the British Council Art Gallery exhibition catalog (Ananth 1995). Tellingly, his references range from Deleuze’s writings on the fold, to Anand Coomaraswamy. While situating the artist within the history of Subramanyan’s teachings on the conflation of art and craft, he also points to Western artists who in the late 1960s manifested an interest in the “poetics of a vernacular mode.” He cites French artists’ interest in bricolage, the Arte Povera artists’ “aesthetic of impoverishment,” and Eva Hesse’s post-minimalist rope work (Mukherjee did not learn of Hesse’s work until the 1980s). He suggests that in their use of the “vernacular” modes is an “inadvertent eroticism” and makes the very important point that in societies where the vernacular has not been vanquished, such as India, this eroticism has little currency. (As Mukherjee commented to Iles, eroticism in sculpture is a daily, almost colloquial, sight in India.) By using the rope, the vernacular of the villagers, and creating sculpture, Mukherjee’s work “bespeaks an awareness of the options available for artists in a post-colonial situation.” Ananth argues that Richard Long’s walks in nature are a response to the eclipseofnature,whileMukherjee’s forms speak of an easy access to nature. Ananth sees her work as a metaphor for growth itself. Ananth’s is a refreshing text which reveals Mukherjee as both questioning and fusing the opposing terms of art/craft, masculine/feminine, “high” and “low,” inside and outside, literally through her own method of knotting. The knot, he says, is a metonym of patience, repetition, gestation, marking time and it is a link. “A metaphorics of concatenation might also be the most appropriate way to describe the sensuous organic wholeness of Mukherjee’s sculpture.” His methodology is to go to the detail of the working process and draw in metaphoric and metonymic associations. His approach is to compare Mukherjee’s work with Western counterparts. His preference is to think laterally about the work’s inherent meanings rather than historically. Ananth’s approach is most useful for its metaphorical point of view that twists and turns through French and Indian philosophy in the same manner that Mukherjee’s own work folds in on itself. As such, it cuts through the discussions about art and craft, and the religious clichés that have enveloped Mukherjee’s art. While it makes reference to the streams of influences and histories that have informed Mukherjee’s art, however, the text tends to remain in the realm of the metaphorical, which is also its limitation.

One of the primary streams of influence on Mukherjee is Indian modernism. The pursuit of modernism in India is in part predicated on the desire to be seen as a nation that independently moves in time (against the logic of orientalism which does not allow for the colonized nation to be seen as part of the process of history). Indian modernism has an independent trajectory that differs from the modernisms of Europe, the United States or Australia. It has had a strong figurative, narrative, and realist impulse which unsettles our understanding of modernism. As John Clark has written, “in relation to the discourse of modernism, it is a modern, non Euroamerican art which subverts clarity of interpretation. The inability of a Euroamerican rhetoric to find a modern art in Asia intelligible is the very sign that its subversion will open us to the discourse of modernity itself” (Clark 1993: 16- 17). Mukherjee’s interest in the vernacular, and the transformation of the simple gesture of the knotting of an everyday material into a superhuman form can be seen as part of an Indian modernism (in the wake of the art schools lead by the likes of Tagore, Subramanyan, and Ram Kinkar Baij), while at the same time a rejection of the art for art’s sake endpoint of international manifestations. She takes from European modernism only what is formally, and personally, relevant.

Indian theorist Geeta Kapur has commented, “the paradigm for debating cultural issues in India is not internationalism. Modernism, seen as culminating in an international style and turning on a logic of ‘art for art’s sake,’ has not been crucial to India. Moreover, we have a modernism without an avant-garde” (Kapur 2000: 287-8). Proponents of a contemporary art in India resist any association with the folk and tribal traditions (and by implication the use of craft), for they see such associations as being open to the tendency towards nostalgia, and as the vehicle for halting forms in time. But they also resist the total adoption of the Western universalizing system of the contemporary. It has been argued by Geeta Kapur that the resistance of the contemporary artists of India to the wholesale appropriation of the historical avant-garde, is an implied criticism of European and American modernism. Gulammohammed Sheikh has also said, “the avantgarde is also a sort of cannibalism, of devouring, reducing and taking over, making art an instrument of power. This is what many of us reacted against, and asked-as I still ask-whether there is an alternative” (Sundaram 1991: 39- 40). Indeed, India is such an eclectic culture, that it is difficult for artists to embrace all that is new-the spirit of the avant-garde-and completely reject what has gone before.

Mukherjee’s use of fibre, and her enthusiasm for sculptural forms from folk and ancient traditions, is best seen in this context of Indian modernism, and its resistance to the avant-garde. Just as she takes what is personally relevant from this history, so too she edits and transforms images from parallel cultural traditions in India. The work does not participate in the religious narratives of fundamentalism, nor is it a wholehearted embracement of “indigenism.” As an heir to Tagore, Subramanyan, and Ram Kinkar Baij, Mukherjee found through the use of the knot, a late-twentieth century vocabulary that in fact fused, conflated, and indeed frustrated the notion that modernism, craft, and a fascination with ancient sculptural and architectural forms are mutually exclusive-as Said proposes, Mukherjee’s approach brings a diversity of histories into an overlapping, intertwined visual and contemporary experience. The works of the 1990s are like beings, perhaps even self-portraits of a kind, that are so imposing, and replete with life, that they insist, almost theatrically, on their place in a post-colonial and contemporary present.

Published in Textile, 1:2, 2015, pp. 144-156
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