At the heart of Debasish Mukherjee’s new suite of sculptural works is fabric. It appears in varied avatars: as a pile of muslin bolts, as a river shaped from threads of untwisted rope, as a beehive aggregated from the spools that remain after the thread they held has been used up, and as the hoop frames used by embroiderers to hold their work.
At the heart of these works, also, is a remarkable paradox. Sculpture is geared to gravity. Held in place by a base, it is claimed by the earth. By contrast, textile is flow. It is lightness, revealed by gestures of folding and unfolding. Yet here, we find textile used as a medium of sculpture. Under Mukherjee’s graceful ministrations, muslin assumes solidity and anchorage. In a work composed with 22 embroidery hoop frames, Mukherjee takes up cloth’s tactile materiality and endows it with a sensuous presence. The cloth in each frame has been stiffened with industrial texture and paint, sometimes embellished with shoals of small beads. The crinkles and crimps of the cloth evoke a lunar surface, or the striated interplay of coal-smoke and sky. Taken together, these moons represent the number of years that the artist spent in his hometown of Chhapra, Bihar.
Chhapra was a depot town, closely associated with the trade in saltpetre and indigo. In the 18th century, the Dutch, French, Portuguese, and British established trading stations there. It grew into a prosperous railway junction town. The artist’s father, who worked with the railways, was based there. Banaras was the other pole of the artist’s childhood, his maternal grandmother’s home and the paradise of his summer holidays. Eventually, Mukherjee would study art at the Banaras Hindu University, where he found inspiration in the example of his teacher, Balbir Singh Katt. Our postcolonial obsession with metropolitan experience leads us to ignore the complex modernities of such towns, to derogate them as provincial. From Chhapra and Banaras comes the artist’s intuitive gift for processing time in its diverse scales and phases: the river’s ritual temporality, the geological expanse of prehistory, the millennia compressed into mineral and vegetable substances that preceded humankind and will long survive it.
Mukherjee’s works encrypt the layering of various intensities of memory, labour, and affect. Consider his subtle, sophisticated approach to portraiture. On the frontal and rearward surfaces formed by a pile of muslin bolts, arranged in a standing frame, he transfers two portraits from an archival collection of late 19th– and early 20th-century family photographs. Reclaimed from a colonial past, these figures seize our attention: ancestors, unknown yet familiar, long dead yet participating in the drama of the present.
More obliquely, Mukherjee offers, as homage to his father, a beehive of thread spools set in industrial texture, extending irrepressibly from a cabinet. In honour of his mother, he sets in motion a cascading river of untwisted threads, cream with a band of incandescent red running through its centre. Archetypal in its chromatic emphases, it is also immediately reminiscent of the sari worn by Bengali women on auspicious occasions. It is both landscape and portrait, a soaring hymn to childhood and a plangent river song. Debasish Mukherjee’s works are imbued with a minimalist elegance and a conceptual clarity, even as they act as a sumptuous archive of visceral sensations and emotional resonances.
Born in Chapra, historically an important town in Bihar, Debasish Mukherjee grew up amidst open spaces and railway colonies, mixing freely with people from a range of social backgrounds. He graduated from the Banaras Hindu University with a specialization in painting. Rooted in India, Mukherjee manifests his keen observations of India’s built environment, social fabric and events from his day-to-day life into his art practice. Mukherjee’s work tends to interrogate the way an object or memory is preserved, celebrated or neglected. He has worked in the textile industry and has done extensive research with weavers and artisans across India, especially within Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Odisha and Gujarat. He is a published poet & an avid photographer.
Debasish lives and works in Delhi.