THE DEPTHS OF THE MOULD- Meera Mukherjee: the work and the life

Aveek Sen

“You speak in one language, your thoughts and feelings are all different, yet your work is like ours — we just don’t understand how this is possible.” When the sculptor and writer, Meera Mukherjee (1923-1998), went to the Munich Art Academy in 1953 to study painting, sculpture, etching and lithography, this is how her European teachers and classmates expressed their bewilderment with her work.

Her teacher of sculpting, Toni Stadler, one of the last of the Expressionists, was even harsher. He would tear up, at the end of each day, everything that she had sketched through the day, while the others in her class would continually deconstruct one another’s work in terms that seemed impossibly abstract to her. Full of despair, Mukherjee turned into an insomniac. One day, driven to the edge by months of sleeplessness, she took up a small piece of wood and crafted a bowl out of it. And, for the first time, Herr Stadler thought that she had got to something with this bowl, somehow managing to put her mind, and its struggle, into the woodiness of the wood and the bowlness of the bowl. She had broken into what she would later, long after she left Europe and its abstractions, repeatedly refer to as “identification” — the miraculous unity of medium, mind, process and finished work that comes, only rarely, at the end of the most exacting physical and intellectual labour. All her life, she could never decide whether this gift of “identified” work was rightfully the artist’s or the artisan’s. And this uncertainty would never cease to complicate the direction and integrity of her self-conscious evolution as a sculptor.

Seeing some of her work together at Galerie 88 in Calcutta recently, I was struck by how this struggle for identification still lived around the work like a restive, irresistible presence. I knew nothing about her, but what I was looking at was not just art. It was the live wreckage of an entire way of being that exacted an absolute price from the person who chose to live it out and give it a few difficult and enduring shapes. Something like this comes through for me when I look at Ritwik Ghatak’s best films — unfinished, imperfect, fearfully untidy, intellectually driven yet always suspicious of the intellect’s despotism, corroded by an absolute giving of oneself to what one’s idea of the work asks for. But Ghatak’s self-destructiveness was very different from the corrosive idealism informing Mukherjee’s art and her craft.

My sense of a life fully identified with the work made me read as much of her writing as I could find. There are long, recklessly candid interviews, aubiographical sketches, bits from her diaries, illustrated books for children, ethnographic studies of craft communities from all over India. I met some of the people whose lives were touched and changed by her life and art, and realized that this capacity to influence and bring people together came from a generosity of spirit that was vital to her creativity. I also came upon a set of photographs made by the American photographer, William Gedney, in the late Seventies and early Eighties that showed her at work in her own courtyard in Calcutta (picture). Gedney’s own restless, solitary, perpetually self-questioning genius had recognized a kindred spirit from what remained, as far as I know, an impersonal distance.

Mukherjee looked back on her years in Germany with characteristic ambivalence. She had felt alienated from the relentless intellectualism of Stadler’s set that seemed to take away from the immediacy of its relationship with the media and the processes of sculpture. This made her decide not to ever want to be an ‘intellectual’ or a ‘great artist’ within this modern tradition. Yet, looking back, from this European perspective, on her early education under Abanindranth Tagore (she was 14 when she started going to his Indian Society of Oriental Art), she felt that his teaching of impeccable draughtsmanship, largely through a close imitation of the Ajanta frescoes, failed to initiate her into forming her own intellectual and critical point of view to what she was copying and imbibing. Even Delhi Polytechnic, afterwards, failed to teach her to think for herself. Her critique of the Indian masters — “blue-blooded feudals”, with the exception of Gaganendranath Tagore — remained fearless and radical throughout her life.

Paradoxically, it was Stadler and some of his colleagues in Munich, who pushed her, via the Louvre and the British Museum, towards a discovery of India and its indigenous traditions. On returning to India, Mukherjee taught in a few schools, and as soon as she saved enough money, went off on a whimsically self-propelled tour of the country, starting with Dandakaranya and then going down south, trying to recover for herself the dwindling traditions of metal artisanship. It was here, in her ethnographic trail, that Mukherjee ran into the most unresolvable of dichotomies, which made her think again of that ideal of identification. These craftsmen — the Bastar Gharuas, Nepali Sakya metal-workers, southern bronze-workers — embodied for her a way of working collectively and skilfully, a form of aesthetic labour, which appeared to be entirely free of the tormented self-consciousness that often paralysed her own work. But these craftsmen were also fiercely protective of their knowledge, making her promise that she would never do their kind of work once she went back to the city. And all the time, the question that she kept putting to them was, “What do you think about when you work? What goes through your mind as you wield your tools and work with the metal?” To this, the usual reply would be, “Nothing.” And she would then be sent off to some chore, like making a paste of goat-turds in water, an instruction she would struggle to obey.

Mukherjee realized that perfectly “identified” work — merging the artist with the artisan, urban with rural, labour with thought — was a pastoral ideal, the realization of which in some of the crafts she learnt and studied could not be replicated in the processes and products of her own art. She would have to forge her own resolution of this crisis at every level and sphere of her life — combining the European lost-wax process of casting bronze with indigenous methods of improvised casting, or living a sophisticated and cosmopolitan life of reading, films, theatre, concerts, conversation and unconventional friendships, in the interstices of which would come her gruelling, anxiety-ridden sessions of casting from dawn to dusk in the suburbs. These sessions involved a whole community of co-labourers, and she would return to the city exhausted, her hair full of lice and her lungs of noxious fumes.

During the dhalai, her identification with the process was complete, and intensely physical. If the air-channels in the cast somehow got blocked while the wax was being replaced by the molten metal, dangerously trapping the air inside, Mukherjee’s body would enact, exactly, the suffocation that she imagined the burning kuton or mould to be feeling. She closely describes this terrible and compulsive empathy in a piece of prose called “Chhancher gobheer theke” (From the depths of the mould).

Everything else that Mukherjee was drawn to provided her with ways of reflecting on the crisis that rendered her own ideal of identification so difficult to realize and sustain. She was profoundly attracted to Buddhism, which she saw not as a religion but as a way of life that combined creative labour and collective living with renunciation and a meditative inwardness. Yet, she also admitted the truth, and the value, of her own instinctive rejection of this collective ideal for a solitude that she came to see as the painful but necessary precondition of her art. “I say Yes to Buddham sharanam gachhami,” she would joke to her friends, “but No to Dhammam sharanam gachhami, and Never to Sangham sharanam gachhami!” Similarly, with the Hindustani classical music that she sang and listened to passionately, the merging of the singer and the song, when the body created beauty of oceanic dimensions out of its own breath, or with the theatre she had dabbled in and always enjoyed watching, where the actor could become his role, the possibilities of identification became exhilarating to contemplate, but impossible to reproduce in her own art.

Of what ‘use’, then, would her art ever be, and to whom? Any artist who aspires to the condition of craft would inevitably push herself towards the desolation of this question. For Mukherjee, to affirm the sublime uselessness of Art in the manner of the Aesthete would be to risk the relegation of her own art to the limbo of the gallery and the drawing-room. Both nature and the world of ordinary human labour, even as they might inspire her art, could turn out to be indifferent to it in their own, unreflecting self-sufficiency. There was also her sharp dislike of the educated, middle-class viewer of art, the bhadralok “who thinks he knows a few things”. And sometimes, in her diary, there is the fear of what loneliness and egotism might achieve together: “this fear is the fear of growing cold”. Yet, she finishes her most ebullient interview, recorded in 1982, with a vision of self-sufficiency that resolves the crisis of identification in a circularity that is more mischievous than earnest: “If you become your own Idea, if you are your own Idea, then whatever you happen to be doing — that will become your Idea!”

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