Published Feb 5 2015, by

The Transit of Mrinalini Mukerjee: Nature and Death in India

I am just up from a long winter’s nap sprawling across my thankfully empty row on the Great Airbus in the Sky brought to us by Air Emirates. Now, in this Book of India, is it time to assimilate what I have seen and bring it forward to you, dear readers in a new way.
The last three days of our journey were comprised of a long Sunday visit to the Art Fair, Dinner with the Ambassador mentioned in the last post, Meetings with the Alkazi Foundation, the Chairman of the Lalit-Kala Academi of Art, the Director General of the National Gallery of Modern Art, a local architect to discuss the expansion project in the museum, dinner with the family of a very important late artist Birsewar Sen, the Peter Nagy Gallery, my dear friend, artist and conservator of textiles Rahul Jain and a long afternoon visit to the National Gallery.
Yes, it was quickly paced, but out of great ambition comes great outcomes. From the bureaucratic and very structured and very formal meeting with Lalit-Kala to thirty minutes with the eponymous Prof. Rajeev Lochan a meeting filled with as much laughter and play as seriousness, I can now say I have experienced the vastest contrast in leadership style one can imagine.
Both organizations, however, are government owned and operated, so the red tape runs thick. Despite these challenges, every single person I met with is on board and very interested in developing projects in Texas. India is ready. Following our very exciting meeting with the National Gallery we walked into the closed gallery presenting the work of Mrinlina Mukherjee. Curated by Peter Nagy (we will meet with him the following morning) it is a force of nature, spirit, color and form. The woven hemp textiles astonish, some hauntingly lit in dark rooms, their mineral pigments glowing through animal-like shapes. The later bronzes, some natural forms others bleeding into abstract beacons of reflected light and texture are luscious—it’s hard to remember not to touch. We heard earlier in the week that she had so poured her heart and energy in this very large installation she’d fallen ill on the day of the opening. While we stood here in her garden of earthly delights she was in a hospital in Delhi, her breath supported by a ventilator. Of course, with our American optimism and reliable healthcare, we all assumed she would be fine. I even decide I will write her a “get well and I really love your work” letter At breakfast the following morning I will read in the paper that just the night before, a few hours after we were in her last space, she was making her way into another plane: Mukherjee’s transit eerily coincided with the day I fell in love with her and with her work. This news was heart wrenching.
Following our inspiring experience with her work, and before, of course we knew she was gone, we joined Prtihvi and Kalika Sen, the grandson of an important modern miniaturist Birsewar Sen. Other that one display in the Delhi Art Gallery for the India Art Fair, I have never seen this man’s work in person. Imagine a folio that opens –like a large greeting card but blank white paper. On the outside, in Mr. Sen’s architectural handwriting is a one-line poem: a title for the exquisite work within. Inside there is a little painting oriented on the top half of the right side of the folio. The tiny paper canvas is roughly 2 inches by 4 inches. The works are all landscapes and he worked very intentionally with the following three essential elements: God (sky), Man and Nature (Landscape). God and Nature are eminent and ever present but yours will be the joy of finding Man (or Woman) nestled in hill and forest and expertly painted mountainside. Prithvi, the grandson, talks of his Grandfather’s daily practice. At about ten-thirty in the morning he would go and sit in his upstairs studio—it was his preferred moment for the best light. He would sit at a drafting table of sorts, his watercolor board at an angle. He would start first with a wash—an ephemeral and dramatic stage to the painstaking layers to come. The work is so detailed and so tight in some areas, we use magnifying lenses to explore this uncharted territory. They are lovely little beauties of landscapes some seen and some unseen. Birsewar Sen traveled in his youth to Tibet, Nepal and other parts far from his native India. We pour over folio after folio—there must have been at least 120 and muse over his equally painted imagery in the titles. We consider many ideas but mostly we just sit and take these tiny but majestic walks with Birsewar Sen through each little atmospheric window. It feels like sitting alone in a safety deposit box and opening one jewel after another. Full eyes, clear hearts, can’t lose. It was another perfect day in India.
The next morning and the last day of my pilgrimage we start at Peter Nagy’s gallery. There is some sensitivity here as he has worked with Mrinalini Mukherjee for years and the gallery represents her work. The exhibition has been open only a few days, and now she is gone. We offer to just say hello—the newspapers and art media from across the globe are calling to talk to Peter, the man who knows her best. I think he’s happy to escape this new powerful responsibility if just for thirty minutes. He’s needs a cappuccino and a diversion. We talk Texas and projects and two artists are presented to us for consideration in addition to a large traveling exhibition. In twenty years, this curious French man raised in the United States has powered Delhi’s acceleration into an international conversation about contemporary art. This man knows. I enjoy his brilliant mind, his supportive nature, and we leave him to the harder work of his day. The name of his gallery is Nature Morte. I haven’t made this connection until just now but we certainly were at the center of nature and death.
Lunch in the Khan Market is blissful. I get to watch two people with very similar passions get to know each other (they’re now fast friends). We met with Rahul Jain, an expert in the textiles and designs of the Mughal Courts. Rahul supports guilds that continue to work in the hyper-traditional methods (and patterns) of the 16th century forward. With a huge Delhi-heart and like so many of our other friends he has driven likely over an hour to meet us. We talk about his new project: an exhibition of contemporary textiles from an up-and coming generation in Gurgaon. In Dallas, I would have gotten in the car to see it before my evening flight to Dubai. In Delhi, that’s just a wish to miss a flight.
The young fashion designer Devanshi Agarwal also joins us. Devanshi has recently completed her studies in London and is back in Delhi (she attended boarding school here) making every effort to break into this burgeoning contemporary art world. She was the assistant for the Texas! exhibition—a project offering a young novice near-insurmountable challenges. She met them with a passionate audacity and I have to say, with a lot of pride in my big Texas heart, she and the installation team did a marvelous job. (See note above on bureaucratic museum). SO! Devanshi happily accompanied us through our four days of navigating the India Art Fair, meetings and art encounters. She just wants to learn. We are very grateful for her efficient, capable work and I am very happy to write The Crow Collection now has a bright, enterprising Delhi correspondent!
We close our whirling Delhi-Dervish with a grassy martini (the Depeche mode of drinks these days in India) in the Lodhi Café at the jungle-like Lodhi gardens. We toast our ambitious work; we pledge to return. I feel the growing lump in my throat and brace myself for the long transition home. I know it’s time to go back to the place and to the person I was before I met this India and tried her on for the first time. But I also know I will never be the same.