Postcards from Benode Behari Mukherjee

by Paroma Maiti

Untitled, ink and brush on paper, 3.5 x 5.5 inches. Image courtesy: Akar Prakar and Paroma Maiti.

There was a time and age when the e-revolution had not minimised the world into one compact global village; when sharing information or emotions was not a mere click away; and when patience was indeed a quality that had to be cultured and cultivated over months and years of tireless waiting. That was a time, not so very long ago in the past – if one considers the last one hundred years or less, as a mere speck in the scheme of eternity – when letters and post-cards were the only means of long-distance conversation, and constrained thereby by it, had to be as succinct, evocative, informative and emotive as possible. Thankfully, also therefore, they were not just words strung together, to produce a scrappy drab narrative – especially when they were being composed by such creative minds as Van Gogh, and closer home, by the likes of Nandalal Bose or his student Benodebehari Mukherjee.

One is forced into ruminating philosophically on an otherwise-considered-banal issue, on coming into such close contact with the postcards (some of them, of course) that Benodebehari Mukherjee wrote during his lifetime. Although the exhibition at Akar Prakar entitled, ‘Works of Benodebehari Mukherjee’, is not a mere show of his illustrated postcards alone, this sub-section is what I found to be the most captivating. Each one stands out from the other, not in terms of their visual content alone, but the range of their style, technique and theme as well. The one that is a pen and ink sketch of a group of sleeping men and women huddled in a corner, unmistakably harks back to Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo – especially because of a sense of hurried illustration that they seem to convey; a rush, as it were, to visually articulate the scene that lay ahead, before it decided to change – almost as a challenge to the mechanical speed of photography. Also, in terms of the costumes depicted, the characters in this particular postcard do not seem to belong to the socio-cultural matrix of Bengal or even India, for that matter. European in its sensibility, it speaks of Mukherjee’s familiarity with contemporary trends and styles from across the globe, and his powers to assimilate the same in his own repertoire. It is in view of this perhaps then, that the observation of the curator, Debdutt Gupta that “He (Benodebehari) was the informed artist of his generation” seems amply justified. The postcard drawn in black ink of two horses and a hint of the carriage they pull, also smack distinctly of a snowy Christmas night in some European town – a scene straight out of Dickens’ novels!

A third postcard yet, that struck me as remarkable was a stark black one with no other image to break its solid and unflinching gravity. So unflinching in its unshakeable gravity, that it almost makes the viewer squirm in disquieting discomfort. This would not have evoked such a strong reaction, had one not been aware of the context of the letter. Meant originally to be a festive greeting (and therefore cheery), it was painted in darkness through and through in order to convey the angst of an artist increasingly conscious of his dimming eyesight. The fact that festive lights would mean nothing beyond patches of darkness was a reality he was aware of, and reconciling to, was conveyed with such eloquent poignancy that made words and even images redundant.Accompanying transcribes of the letters in the show however, would have made the contexts and contents clearer.

Benodebehari’s prints – woodcuts, linocuts, lithographs et al – bear out his training at Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan and the depth of his artistic-aesthetic debt to his teacher Nandalal Bose. A particularly intriguing image is a visual maze that at first seems to be the silhouetted profile of a man, but which on closer inspection reveals itself to be a clever coalescence of the face and figures of two men. To bring into effect such a fantastic work, playing with shadow down to the last minute detail – all on woodcut – is truly the work of a master craftsman.

Untitled, print making on paper, 4.75 x 6.25 inches. Image courtesy: Akar Prakar and Paroma Maiti.

His works on calligraphy are yet another manifestation of his imaginative prowess and creative ingenuity. Most of these had been designed primarily as book-covers for Abanindranath Tagore’s journals – in which Benodebehari himself wrote extensively on the theory, practice and history of art and art-practices – but have stood the test of time to stand out as works of art, to be valued and appreciated on individual merit. Fascinating is the way, in which in one particular image, he draws the figure of a woman using Bengali alphabets, contorting them to fit his vision. And how! His dalliance with the Far-East – Japan to be specific – taught him newer methods of delicate calligraphy and wash-techniques, which he employed with dedicated fervour to his art-works so as to create an amalgam of indigenous and ‘foreign’ techniques, keeping with the tradition in which he was rooted.

This rural rooting also bore itself out in Benodebehari’s fixation with distant landscapes, as they make recurrent comebacks. What could have been easily dismissed as a monotonous stretch of browns, reds and yellows, held enthralling charm for the painter, as he kept exploring its pores – painting after painting, never tiring of the desire to unravel what might have been missed earlier. The animal bore, curiously enough makes an equally recurrent comeback in most of his works, as he depicts it either by itself or in a herd – once again with the kind of affectionate sympathy, one would usually deem sentimental, unbecoming or even risible, by current standards.

Although there are specimens of his collages and tie-n-dyes on cloth, they are ruefully too few to satiate the gaze.

Benodebehari continued to write and illustrate, draw and paint, till his very last days, with the zeal and enthusiasm truly befitting an artist of his calibre; inspiring those of the newer generations to not let senses dictate or limit the scopes and ambits of visual inquiry. This exhibition certainly leaves one yearning for more, but for a beginning, it is a laudable achievement. For a generation that is besotted with challengingly new forms of art, here is an exhibition that lays bare the enormous creative potentials that may be achieved when sensory challenges are considered no more than specks in the pursuit of artistic liberty.

‘Works of Benode Behari Mukherjee’, June 15 – July 14, Akar Prakar, Kolkata.



Paroma Maiti  is a doctoral student at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. She works as the Executive Editor with Depart – the art journal from Bangladesh, and contributes regularly to national and international art magazines and e-zines.


One comment

  1. Insightful and informative!

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