Artists

Death wears a destinal profile. In Mrinalini’s case it was perversely punctual - it appeared just when she was about to behold the display of her life’s work. She was not able to witness the magnificence that prevailed on the occasion of Transfigurations, her retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. [1] The tragic coincidence, willed as though by the subject herself, reads like an oracular event. Believers and sceptics must offer her the aura she presumed by the right of being the kind of artist she was. She assumes, as she almost already did, a legendary cast - oracular auratic too-soon dead.

Amrita Sher-Gil died a week before her major exhibition (on 5 December 1941). Ardently prepared, this show was to be her exalted comeback to cosmopolitan Lahore. She possibly died because an illness harboured in her body exploded from too much work. Amrita’s death is inscribed in the history of modern Indian art like a seal encoding undeciphered causes - and an unrealised potential.

Mrinalini’s body was host to many health problems that she could in normal circumstances ‘manage’. It had worsened some weeks before the exhibition when she drove herself to the edge making the very last bronzes from the series she called Palm-Scapes. She was now testing her sculptor’s virtuosity: how large and broad are the stalk and leaf, how elaborate the wax-moulded object, how perfectly manipulated the poured metal during all-night firings, how decorative or disfiguring the scales, knobs and accretions on the raw bronze, what kind of patina, how polished the surface.

In these last bronzes she was, as often, morphing plant into creature life: fruit, snake, flower, bird and midget dragon - or a giant scorpion displaying its sting. But she was also gifting poise to an assertive life-force, abstracting ornamental species of flora and fauna to see them become vectors in space with a calculated equation between velocity and balance. The last sculpture was made with all the bravado of her sculptural skills, its plant energy so fiercely sprung that it would serve as nature’s projectile if she had not so purposefully given the voluptuous palm-frond a baroque curve with tip touching the baseline.

The ceramics in the exhibition, her ‘middle period’ work, established continuities with forms explored in hemp, her first medium, and bronze, her recent and last medium. The ceramics exhibited were mostly squat lotuses with glazed petals enfolding the bulge and core. One set of ceramic sculptures were sadly (circumstantially) missing. In these she had whirled and spun the clay into what I think of as seated bodhisattvas performing an act of self-immolation, their flaming bodies (glazed black-red-gold) molten and charred with sacrificial ardour.

The exhibition brought back to life her major body of work with hemp-fibre, produced over almost three decades from the 1970s. Knotted and twisted into tough folds, hemp-fibre provided the armature, the structure, the voluptuous form of her colour-dyed effigies. The very morphology allowed affective release of the erotic. Often monumental, these goddess-effigies, these naga deities, these lajja gauris, these yakshas and yakshis are emphatically fecund. Mrinalini’s totems sprout genitals in hormonal excess.

Biological metaphors to embryology to the more obscure concept of invagination - the infolding of one part within another part of a structure; or a folding that creates a pocket (or pouch) so continuous that its interior and exterior are a topological continuum. There is a cunning interplay of invagination and (what the artist Sheba Chhachhi innovatively called) ‘outvagination’: an outfolding of one part and another. If in one viewing the sculptor’s undulations hide and expose cuts, cavities, ruptures, in another the great folds turn hollows into protuberances, lipped vaginas into wings. Here is a reinforced haptic-erotic affect that also yields semiotic riddles. The signifier runs in the seam as it were, and there is subterfuge attributable to the virtuoso artist as there is to the form signified by her.

**

Sitting in a cloud of smoke in her well-praised exhibition of bronzes at Nature Morte (2013), Mrinalini asked me in a manner both perplexed and provocative: “People say I am a modernist but not contemporary - so, Geeta, what does that mean?”

I gave her some teasing answer but it made me think. Mrinalini could be considered to believe in the modernist mantra of ‘significant form’ but her artist’s ‘memory’ of art’s pre-historic origins bestowed density to the term. Her aesthetic sought mythic imaginaries, and favoured anthropomorphic bodies. She perceived compacted ‘values’ in nature and in human life, and dealt effortlessly with the sacred and the profane, seeing these as properties embedded in the very material and process of making art. Mrinalini perhaps intuited the three categories of configured meaning: archetype, symbol, metaphor. My own inclination is to see her work unfold in the metaphoric sphere, and in the complex sense in which Aby Warburg deploys the concept metaphor. The deeper one digs in historical memory, Aby Warburg says, the more one confronts the full force of the ‘affective-phobic’ in cultural forms. [2] This resonates with the ontology of Mrinalini’s sculptures: she was driven to wrest, convolute, subvert and enhance modernist form (arguably a new and ‘pure’ strain in the history of forms) and deliver it as condensed metaphor to contemporary cultural discourse.

**

Mrinalini’s contentions with the modern and the contemporary were attuned to those of her two mentors, KG Subramanyan and J Swaminathan. But first Subramanyan. Her teacher at the Baroda Faculty of Fine Arts, Subramanyan belonged to the School of Santinketan and was himself trained by none other than Mrinalini’s father, Benodebehari Mukhejee. Subramanyan offered an entire thesis on India’s ‘living traditions’ in conflict and conjunction with the modernising process and thereby problematised to fruitful purpose the linguistic significance of this double inheritance in defining ‘our modernity’. Mrinalini was a faithful pupil in actual deployment of material, process and language. The hemp structures systematise this in particular. The actual knot and twist of the fibre is grammar; the tough tethering is the syntactical bind; the deep fold and contoured surface of the woven hemp is concept and metaphor.

But though the sculptural object was frequently iconic and belonged, hypothetically, to the rich resource of indigenous craft traditions, it also referenced a terminology that characterised modernist sculpture: techne and facture, technique and texture, both features of form sans iconography. Here processual reflexion is prioritised and the objecthood of art emphasised. In the ‘late modernist’ period, the concept form took on strict formalistdefinitions: medium specificity, consistency of surface and support, frontality, economy. Mrinalini, I believe, identified with such formalism.

With her cosmopolitan understanding and famous alertness to contemporary art, Mrinalini made an intuitive connection with the issue of art’s objecthood (including, presumably, the redoubtable minimalists and their feminist counterparts in the 1960s-70s, whom she acknowledged by active, almost aggressive rejection). This led to the paradox of maintaining iconicity and autonomy; of sustaining the numen but styling an opaque façade; of coveting iconography but presenting material abstruseness of form. Even as she kept alive her engagement with conventions as understood in craft practice (and thereby with Subramanyan’s pedagogy around the structure of visual language), her sculpted object bore the mark of formal ‘integrity’ as deemed necessary in modernist aesthetic. In full play was a classical-modern- ‘primitivism’ (to use a terminological conundrum of art history).

The modernist decree yielded to what was then quickly labelled the postmodern contemporary - inducting new genres, languages and mediums (installation, video and new media art); bold and conflicted content (the political, the conceptual, the playful and pastiche). Mrinalini continued tenaciously to sculpt, to demonstrate, physically, the relationship between hard labour and numinous form - thus holding on to what was by then a familiar melding of the indigenous and the ‘universal’ modern. She seemed then to be out of step with her Indian contemporaries as well.

**

The 2015 retrospective demonstrated something more and different. That in Mrinalini’s hands the sculpted object (in hemp-fibre, clay/ceramic and bronze) was crafted not only with formal integrity but with integral intelligence. To reiterate: she had internalised the various histories of the concept ‘form’ and with it a morphological principle suitable to her purpose; she had understood the modernist canon and, with it, the way an art object cathects anthropological and linguistic features. So while she was far removed from the exclusivist regime of art theory that abuts modernist principles and contemporary art with disjunctive force, she arrived at contemporaneity by adducing, instead, an anachronistic mode. This made her, paradoxically, an artist of her time and place. The exhibition was extravagant, a groundswell of energies. The spectator was surrounded by erotic, uncanny, protean, sometimes monstrous silhouettes. The curated scenography recalled the landscapes of Max Ernst mapped over three-dimensional terrain. What the superb display did, in addition, was to make the spectator appreciate how Mrinalini’s insistence on the (overwhelming) presence of the sculpted form makes for a phenomenological experience that cannot be ‘dated’. On such a score of high affect she seemed to bait not only the contemporary but the category of chronology and periodisation as well.

An eruption of lost species and live fossils; a vista of ruin and resurrection. Our own contemporary compulsions led us to hallucinate anthropogenic upheavals.

**

In Delhi’s Garhi Studios, Mrinalini chose Swaminathan as friendly mentor. From the start of his career as artist, Swaminathan had lit into the modern, into modernity, like a masquerading ‘savage’ and refused what he called its imperialist and historicising urge. For him the contemporary was the more generous, if neutral category: it included the indigenous and bypassed not only the (colonial) modern but also (Indian) tradition. Mrinalini listened to his brilliant rhetoric and docketed it as an ideological conundrum.

The two of them, Dillu and Swami (exactly 20 years apart in age), wore an artist persona derived ironically from the existential conditionality of the modern. Each pursued the project of acting out unruly individuality. Swami was intractable, pugnacious and seductive; Dillu, vain, valiant and profligate. Self-destruction is a privileged style for the artist-genius in modern times. Swami and Dillu were determined to smoke and drink themselves to death: Swami was 66 when he died in 1994; Dillu would have been 66 at the end of 2015, the year she died.

Mrinalini’s death is, for all its fictional force, absurd and devastating. It is no consolation that she remains larger than life. She should have been here life-size. She should have been here to see how she mesmerised the public with her toil and passion. Here, to stretch her wager on the contemporary, and over astounding heights.

Notes

Notes:

[1] Mrinalini said to a friend that to be given a retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi made her immensely proud. The Director of the NGMA, Rajeev Lochan, is to be complimented and thanked for the decision and support. Masterfully curated by Peter Nagy (of Gallery Nature Morte) and beautifully lit by Mark Prime (associated with Jhaveri Contemporary), the exhibition was installed in the presence of the tenacious artist who recognised the curatorial command and superior exhibition design by Nagy and played her role astutely - of battling and withdrawing at the right moments. The large high-ceilinged space in the new wing of the National Gallery of Modern Art was transformed into an open maze of her 90 or so new and old, small and large sculptures. The exhibition was on display from 27 January to 31 May 2015.

[2] A longer exposition would require an elaboration and refinement of categories that I indicate here but briefly. Mrinalini’s understating of ‘significant form’ (Clive Bell’s term, used and overused in the first half of the 20th century) should receive elaboration by exploring three contiguous and reciprocal categories: archetype, symbol and metaphor - the last as in Aby Warburg’s preferred designation for allusive form where he enjoins us to not seek symbolic values with intrinsic meanings; to not repress or sublimate. Further, to overcome the stasis of representation and embrace instead ambiguity and instability of metaphoric expression and, more emphatically, the irrational and improper but all-too-human force in metaphoric motion. (See Christopher D Johnson, Memory, Metaphor, and Aby Warburg’s Atlas of Images, A Signale Book. Ithaca: Cornell University Press and Cornell University Library, 2012. See especially, pp 111-118. )
Full bibliographic reference and credit to NGMA/ catalogue published 2017 An earlier, shorter, version of this text titled ‘Live Fossils Lost Species’ was published in Art News Magazine of India, Vo
Sign In Close
Only Critical Collective subscribers can access this page.
If you are already a subscriber, then please log in.
 Forgot Password?
Subscribe now