- Mrinalini Mukherjee 1949–2015
- Hemp and mild steel
- Unconfirmed: 1900 × 820 × 500 mm
- Purchased with funds provided by the South Asia Acquisitions Committee 2016
Ritu Raja 1977 is a sculpture made by knotting yarn made from hemp fibre, and is displayed suspended against a wall. The yarn has been left undyed and the artist has used two shades of natural hemp, one light and one darker, to achieve depth and texture. The Bengali term ‘Ritu Raja’ evokes the season of spring, and is also used as a masculine first name. Similar to other works the artist has made with this material, the piece stands vertically and reaches to the floor, with the bulk of its woven detail on the front. Visually it resembles a botanical, floral form, roughly symmetrical in shape. The suggestion of both male and female sexual organs in the folds and central protrusion of this work prefigure the fecund forms that characterised this body of work. Integral to Mukherjee’s practice was the labour involved in the making of each piece. The fibre for each work was built up knot by knot to create a textile mesh, working from both observation and free imagination inspired by anthropomorphic and biomorphic forms. While some sculptures are overtly bodily, others are derived from plant or flower forms. Mukherjee has described such works as an ‘unfolding’ or ‘a process of growth, the grammar of which creates an order, which in quite literally turn is expounded through improvisation’ (quoted in Chrissie Iles, ‘An Interview with Mrinalini Mukherjee’, in Mrinalini Mukherjee: Sculpture, Oxford 1994, p.11).
Mukherjee’s work directly addresses sexuality and cultural myth through tactile sculptures. Her practice has parallels with the work of Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010) and Eva Hesse (1936–1970), who shared an interest in the expression of gendered identity through a masterful command of materials and sculptural forms. Mukherjee drew on her immediate experience in her native India and derived inspiration from folklore and nature. Cultural references are coded into the titles of specific works, evoking either sacred forms or the traditional botanical names of flowers; for example, Yogini (Female Yoga Master) 1984, Pushp (Bloom) 1993 and Jauba (Hibiscus 2000, Tate T14458). While aware of the obvious connections with sexuality in her forms, as also expressed in sacred Hindu sculpture, the artist preferred not to directly relate her work to any specific formal iconographic tradition, explaining that her stylistic choices were based on her interest in nature and her individual experiences: ‘I work emotionally and intuitively and do not like analysing my feelings during the work process, as I feel it will hinder the nascent image in mind.’ (Ibid., pp.13–14.)
Mukherjee began using vegetable fibre, specifically hemp, in the 1970s and Ritu Raja is an early example of this. Hemp yarn – a natural rope used for multiple purposes including weaving string cots and beds – is a ubiquitous material in both urban and rural India. Mukherjee later discontinued the labour intensive process of working with yarn, experimenting first with ceramics and then bronze. She was influenced by the prominent artist and pedagogue K.G. Subramanyan (born 1924) who pioneered the inclusion of craft forms and indigenous materials in Indian art-making and taught her at the University of Baroda, an important centre of artistic exchange and production. His work on ‘living traditions’, or reworking traditional craft forms and indigenous materials, was formative as she developed her sculptural practice. She also credited both the art school at Santiniketan founded by Rabindranath Tagore and the ‘post-Bauhaus methodology’ of Baroda as major influences. Both institutions have been significant spheres of influence on artistic production in South Asia and are central to ongoing research on artists from South Asia.
Mukherjee was recognised as an innovator who had made a radical shift by moving away from received notions of modern sculpture heavily influenced by European models, evolving her own material processes rather than employing the more popular stone, wood or bronze (J. Swaminathan, ‘Pregnant with the Sap of Fecundity’, in Mrinalini Mukherjee: Sculpture, Oxford 1994, p.6). She said that, ‘It is through my relationship with my material that I would like to reach out and align myself with the values which exist within the ambit of contemporary sculpture.’ (Ibid., p.11.)
Mrinalini Mukherjee: Sculpture, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art Oxford 1994.
Tania Guha, ‘Mrinalini Mukherjee: Labyrinths of the Mind’, in Third Text, vol.8, nos.28–9, 1994, pp.165–8.
Mrinalini Mukherjee: Sculptures in Bronze, exhibition catalogue, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi 2007.
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