Celebrating The Legacy Of Meera Mukherjee: A Sculptor, Painter, Diarist, & Activist

Celebrating The Legacy Of Meera Mukherjee: A Sculptor, Painter, Diarist, & Activist
L: The Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation R: Sotheyby's

Among the luminaries in modern Indian sculpture, Meera Mukherjee (1923-1998) stands out as a figure of quiet brilliance. However, her legacy isn't merely defined by the exquisite bronze creations that dot prestigious galleries and private collections; her indomitable artistic spirit resonated with the rhythm of music, the textures of everyday life, and a profound commitment to preserving India's artistic heritage. A closer look reveals a sculptor who sculpted not just figures in bronze, but a life that transcended the boundaries of medium and resonated with a deep sense of humanity. It was her 101st birth anniversary a week ago, and today, we take a closer look at Meera’s life and legacy.

Meera Mukherjee was born in Calcutta, India. While the weight of her legacy rests on her mastery of bronze casting, her artistic journey began long before the molten metal cooled in her molds. Her early training at the Indian Society of Oriental Arts and the College of Art in New Delhi laid the foundation for her exploration of diverse mediums. From the delicate strokes of painting to the tactile world of ceramics and the solidity of woodcarving, Mukherjee reveled in the possibilities each medium offered. This early exploration wasn't just a technical exercise but a sculptor creating her visual grammar, honing her eye, and learning to see the world through the lens of form and texture. However, it was during her sojourn in Europe from 1953 to 1956, amidst the grandeur of Western art, that a crucial realization dawned upon Mukherjee.

Buddhist Monks in Dharmashala | Watercolour on Paper | 16.5 x 11.5 in
Meera Mukherjee
Buddhist Monks in Dharmashala | Watercolour on Paper | 16.5 x 11.5 in Meera MukherjeeAkar Prakar
Flower | Ceramic | 26 x 16.5 x 1 in
Meera Mukherjee
Flower | Ceramic | 26 x 16.5 x 1 in Meera MukherjeeAkar Prakar

“I belonged to a country which also had a great tradition of its own. It was the heritage which had in a thousand ways folded me. And, so though I was at the moment living, learning and growing in the West, I should still find my own way to myself, rooted in the great Indian tradition.” - Meera Mukherjee".

Meera Mukherjee

Upon returning to India, she embarked on a lifelong quest not just to create art, but to breathe new life into the rich tapestry of Indian art forms on the verge of fading. Travel wasn't merely a source of artistic inspiration for Mukherjee; it served as a catalyst for her social conscience. Her interactions with the tribal communities of Bastar opened her eyes to the ancient technique of Dhokra metal casting and also ignited a passion for preserving these age-old traditions and the livelihoods of the artisans who kept them alive. Project after project, Mukherjee championed the cause of Indian crafts. She revived the dying art of Kantha embroidery; empowering young women through this vibrant stitching technique. She also collaborated with carpet weavers, ensuring their skills were not lost to the sands of time. Even at the newly founded Dhanket Bidyalaya, Mukherjee instilled a love for handicrafts in children, recognizing the importance of nurturing the next generation of artistic stewards.

Untitled ( Mango Orchard) by Meera Mukherjee
Untitled ( Mango Orchard) by Meera MukherjeeSotheyby's
Meera Mukherjee pays homage to Indian carpet weavers through this sculpture
Meera Mukherjee pays homage to Indian carpet weavers through this sculptureAkar Prakar and the Piramal Art Foundation

Her unwavering commitment to social responsibility wasn't confined to the realm of traditional crafts. Mukherjee's personal life, as revealed in her diaries, was a testament to her introspective nature and her deep empathy for the human condition. These introspections found voice not just in the silent language of her sculptures, but also in her eloquent essays on art. Characterized by a refreshing clarity that mirrored her artistic style, these essays offered valuable insights into her creative process and her unwavering belief in the power of art to elevate and inspire. Furthermore, Mukherjee's foray into children's literature, with its playful narratives and child-inspired illustrations, showcased another facet of her multifaceted creative spirit.

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Music, particularly the soulful melodies of Rabindranath Tagore, served as a constant source of inspiration for Mukherjee. This influence permeated every aspect of her artistic practice. From the lyrical quality of her sculptures to the dynamism she infused into her figures, the rhythmic pulse of music seems to vibrate within the very essence of her bronze creations. Works like Santur Player and Dancing Baul are masterpieces in this regard. The figures, rendered in meticulous detail, seem to be caught mid-performance; their bodies imbued with the energy and passion of music and dance.

'Santur Player' by Meera Mukherjee
'Santur Player' by Meera MukherjeeSotheyby's
'Dancing Baul' by Meera Mukherjee
'Dancing Baul' by Meera MukherjeeMutualArt

Despite initial financial limitations that would have daunted many a budding artist, Mukherjee persevered. Her passion for sculpting burned bright, fueled by an insatiable curiosity and a relentless pursuit of artistic excellence. Her bronze creations, often depicting ordinary people engaged in everyday activities — the fisherman mending his nets, the woman toiling away with needle and thread — stand as a celebration of humanism. Her work earned her many an award and accolades in her lifetime including the prestigious civilian honour of the Padma Shri in 1992.

Mukherjee's life and oeuvre have had an evergreen lasting impact on Indian art history and will continue to inspire generations to come.