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Benode Behari Mukherjee

Indian Modern Artist
Born 1904, West Bengal, India
Died 1980
Lived and worked in India, Nepal and Tokyo

Benode Behari Mukherjee is one of the pioneers of 20th century Indian Contextual Modernism, taking inspiration from ancient Indian and foreign art styles. He was born with a chronic eye problem and completely lost his eyesight in 1956. He painted with a vast variety of mediums including watercolors, pen and ink, tempera, woodcut prints and all of these seem to be conveying the same message- that of finding respite and spirituality in the mundane everyday life.



Kala Bhavana, Kolkata, India

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UNDERSTANDING Benode Behari Mukherjee

Contextual Modernism: A freedom to explore and innovate

The Indian Freedom Movement that emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century shook the preconceived notions and structures that had existed in India for over two centuries. Contextual Modernism or Counter Culture of Modernity or Colonial Modernity are terms used to describe alternate modernity that emerged in non- European contexts. Shantiniketan was an active part of the freedom movement and it came to light for allowing various branches of thought to grow under its purview. The Bengal School of Art, Indian Society of Oriental Art, and Contextual Modernism all survived under one roof.

Benode Behari Mukherjee imbibed to this idea of a context sensitive modernism. He experimented with the Indian painting traditions of Rajput and Mughal miniatures, Western modern art, Far- Eastern traditions of calligraphy as well as Japanese and Chinese Ink And Wash style to create something befitting for the new India.

Shantiniketan, Kolkata, West Bengal

Benode Behari Mukherjee, Chitrakar - The Artist

Benode Behari Mukherjee, Untitled (Hunter), 1947, tempera on paper

'The Inner Eye': The argument between eyesight and insight

Being myopic in one eye and blind in the other since birth, Benode Behari Mukherjee could not pursue normal schooling but born into a well-educated family in Behala, Bengal who recognised his exceptional interest in art and literature. He was able to pursue his vocation at the art faculty- Kala Bhawan at Shantiniketan. He was taught under great artists like Nandalal Bose and went on to achieve great feats. He was invited to be the Curator at the Nepal Government Museum, Kathmandu and later he taught at the Banathali Vidyapith, Rajasthan. On his return to Kala Bhawan, he lost his eyesight in an unsuccessful cataract operation in 1956.

Mukherjee's disciple and one of the greatest film makers in India, Satyajit Ray directed a movie on his life called "The Inner Eye" that stars the artist himself. The twenty minute documentary shows his early life and the many influences in his life. It shows his trip to Japan, the Nepal period and the school that he established in Dehradun. The movie shows his failed cataract operation and how he continued to devise new techniques in painting with his growing blindness.

Benode Behari Mukherjee says about his blindness "Blindness is a new feeling, a new experience, a new state of being".

Benode Behari Mukherjee on the set of 'The Inner Eye'

Artist preparing paper cuts for the ceramic mural

Spiritual subject matter emerging from life experiences

Though he belonged to that era of Indian art where the trend was to hark back to the mythological and grand themes of Indian history and tradition, Benode Behari simplified the picture to represent his immediate surroundings. This is why he is associated with modernity in all spheres, from conceptualization to execution. A blind child from a poor family did not have much exposure to the grandiose and he aspired to create works that would kindle spirituality in the everyday things. From the solitary palm trees in Khoai region to the Santhal boys, bullock carts and the mud huts of Shantiniketan; all seem to convey a great ideological message- that of finding respite and spirituality in the mundane everyday life.

Later in his life, the sharp lines of pen ink and graphite give way to blurred lines and brush strokes that are not only symbolic of his close association with Japanese artistic traditions but also of the blurring of his own vision.

Benode Behari Mukherjee, Santhal boys

Benode Behari Mukherjee, Untitled (men and women in mud huts)

Japanese Influence and the Indian Society of Oriental Art

Benode Behari Mukherjee was exceptionally drawn to the Far- Eastern cultures and interacted with traveling artists, learning Japanese calligraphy, ink and wash technique and their spiritual traditions. During his visit to Japan in 1937-38, he produced a vast plethora of artwork that was strongly influenced by artists and curators he met in India and during his visit. These included Arai Kampo, Yokoyama Taikan, Okakura, Hisbida Sbunso, Toba Sojo among many others. It was the first time that an Indian artist had gone to Japan and held an exhibition there.

We see documentation of his visit to Japan in paintings like Picture Dealer's Shop in Japan as well as a blend of Indian themes and Far- Eastern techniques in paintings like Santhal boys with a Bullock Cart (1952).

Benode Behari Mukherjee, Untitled (flowers), 1960, blurred ink and wash brush strokes

A versatile genius- Murals and other media

Going through his paintings, one comes across media as diverse as 'ink and wash', 'calligraphy', 'pen and ink landscapes', 'pen and ink compositions', 'wood cut prints', 'collage on paper', 'tempera on paper'

Even on losing his eyesight, his creativity did not diminish, rather it diversified in media like drawings and small sculptures, paper-cuts and prints; he even a large mural in ceramic tiles based upon figural images by folding papers. The Ceramic tile mural at Kala Bhavan (1958) was made purely by touch after he had completely lost his eye sight.

Ceramic Tile Mural at Kala Bhawan (1958)