At its profoundest, the relation between nature and man can perhaps be stated thus: nature which has been fashioning beauty eons before the advent of man -- in numberless dawns, in the symmetry of a sea-shell, in the wings of a butterfly -- has evolved to man who can experience that beauty and add to it through his own creativity. In this creative endeavour, man will be successful only to the extent that he follows nature, in the perfect understanding of the material that he selects. Alike in utilitarian and creative handling, it is the truth of the material, it’s precisely understood quality, that helps man to realize the equation of truth with beauty. Many materials have been won over by this disciplined understanding for serving beauty: the gold of Luristan, the jade of Cathay, pigments that led the gleaming, white surface of the paper shine through them as in water colour or build up as a jewelled encrustation as in oils, the stones of Khajuraho, the old ivory that travelled from Mathura along the Uttara Patha, the great trade route of antiquity, to Bactrian Bamiyan. Today, new industrial material like steel and plexiglass is also being handles to fashion things of creative beauty.

India is a land rich in a variety of organic fibres, but fibre sculpture in the modern temper is yet to make a beginning here. Plaited or woven utilitarian ware of the traditional kind like mats and wall hangings has inspired macramé with sophisticated designs for modern interiors. But not much of three-dimensional work has been attempted, though open baskets and closed caskets have been available for centuries as simple yet effective demonstration of the feasibility of modeling fibre material in three dimensions. In 1974, Ronald Goodman from the U.S. opened for us magic casements on a new world of sensibility with a slide show of daringly innovative work done by him and others abroad with yarns and fibres, dyes and pigments, using a whole new range of techniques like weaving, knotting, braiding and plaiting. Abrupt transitions in the number of stitches and knots not only enabled the modeling of volumes but created tensions which allowed the sculptures to be free-standing, without any support.

This being this background, Mrinalini Mukherjee’s pioneering work in the field deserves to be heartily welcomed. Mrinalini is the daughter of Benode Behari Mukherjee. He has been blind for twenty years but still draws and makes collages. For his colour composition he has to rely on his remembrance of materials. But in actual execution, the tactile sense has to work in lieu of the lost sensory modality of vision. This probably may have influenced Mrinalini in choosing this medium where the tactile sense lays such an important role, when she took her mural design under K. G. Subramanyan. She selected fibre as her material during the course. Ever since she finished her studies she has been specializing in this field.

Today, there is very little of the tentativeness of a first uncertain exploration in her work, for the craft skill has become mature. Sann hemp and sisal fibre are used with fine judgement in the three or four natural shades in which they are available and the range of colours is widened by the use of dyes. Weaving with the use of a warp yields surfaces with fairly simple and regular designs, while knotting more intricately decorated surfaces.

In the macramé commissioned for the Air India office in Washington in spite of the variety of patterning and the overlay of decorative festoons, the effect has been kept two-dimensional, the four circular openings being meant to relieve the sumptuous overall design with airy, open space. But in “Burgeoning”, even the opening below, in spite of being hollow, acquires three-dimensionality through its decorative, enclosing fringe, while the opening above is fully and more elaborately shaped volume leading to a closed interior space with rich details. This entire piece has been done by knotting, the close knotting giving the impression of weaving. In “Shimul bud”, the outer form has been shaped in the punctuated transitions of its contour, with the help of six rings, while the inner component has two rings. With a sheath and a core, three-dimensional modeling has become more complex here. The threads are continuous through sheath and core and the unit design of the knotting becomes larger as the outer bell progressively swells in size. In “Plantain Tree”, the pliancy of fibre to simulate organic forms is well utilized. It is done entirely in knotting, with only one ring at the top for suspension. The technical challenge which now be faced would be to dispense with even this reduced armature and make the fibre sculptures free-standing.

As yet Mrinalini has not gone in for abstraction. It is the flora of the earth that yields fibres and it is to the plant world that she turns for the images that inspire her creations. She is particularly attracted to things that suggest growth: saplings, leaf-buds, flower-buds. And he has been able to convey the impression of organic growth in her creations. The poetic possibilities here transcend normal anticipations; for her “Mango Grove” is not the simulation of just a tree but the seizure of the feeling of a whole bee-loud glade, a green thought in a green shade. Only a fraction of its creative quality comes out in the photograph.

Published in Roop Lekha, 1977
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