Art of darkness

Even blindness could not stop Benodebehari Mukherjee from being active as a visual artist, says giridhar khasnis

Art of darkness

Benodebehari Mukherjee (1904-80) was still a young boy when doctors declared that he would go blind, sooner or later. They told his father, “If he goes for studies your son will lose even what little eyesight he has; improvemeA papercut by Benodebehari in 1959 after he turned blind.nt in his general health can help. But no eye specialist can.”

How this weak-sighted boy to whom all the schools of Calcutta refused admission found a place in Santiniketan thanks to the intervention of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore; how he overcame seemingly insurmountable odds in personal and creative arena; how he went on to become a celebrated artist and writer — these are facts fit only for legends.

For all his achievements and artistic triumphs, Benodebehari (1904-1980) preferred to work in silence and relative anonymity, keeping himself away from the limelight. In his essay, ‘Benodebehari Mukherjee: Life, Context, Work’, art historian Siva Kumar explains the great master’s standing as an artist, teacher and writer who made a definitive contribution to modern Indian art. “There are few artists in the recent history of Indian art who worked with such intensity of purpose and application, and fewer still who gave expression to their deepest realisations in such quietness and without drawing attention to themselves. Though this was exemplary, as a consequence Benodebehari’s life and work remain little known even today, a century after his birth.”

The same sentiment is expressed by eminent artist and educator K G Subramanyan who was Benodebehari’s student and associate in Santiniketan. Subramanyan likens Benodebehari’s personality to that of a withdrawn Taoist monk, who sought speechless rapport with the inner rhythm of an iridescent world.

“Although he lived up to the age of 76, for long years Benodebehari was known only to an intimate group of people comprising friends, colleagues and students. Only they knew that he was an artist of great distinction, a teacher of immense resource and influence, a highly articulate thinker whose analytic intellect was matched by an extraordinary facility for direct and lucid exposition, and a profound student of art history and aesthetics. He came before the public eye only in the last 10 years of his life, when he was elected Fellow of the Lalit Kala Akademi, honoured by the government as Padma Vibhushan and by Visva-Bharati as ‘Desikottama’, and when Satyajit Ray, well-known filmmaker, made the celebrated documentary, The Inner Eye, presenting his life and work. Ten years earlier, when an article on Benodebehari was presented to one of the known dailies of Calcutta, the editor had not even heard his name.”

Unnatural infancy
Benodebehari grew up with five brothers but due to his weak eyesight he had an unnatural infancy. “I sat at home and read books or painted, as I pleased. Everyone went to school, I didn’t…My infancy and childhood passed without any companions of my own age. I had no playmates, nor did I learn to play.” 

A meeting with Gurudev became a defining moment in his life. Even after knowing about his weak eyesight, Tagore admitted him to Kala Bhavana in Santiniketan. When the eminent artist Nandalal Bose (who was the teacher) expressed reservations — ‘how could anyone paint when he could hardly see?’ — it was Tagore’s urging that came to the rescue of Benodebehari once again. (“If he, Benodebehari, sits in his assigned place and works with interest, let him be. Don’t worry about his future. Let each find his own way out.”)

Although their relationship began with doubts and uncertainties, both Nandalal and Benodebehari came to respect and regard each other highly in the following years. Benodebehari himself became a teacher for a while in a junior school but could not continue for long. His teachers and friends arranged for his becoming a librarian of the Kala Bhavana Library.

“I often wonder where I got my early training from?” reminisced Benodebehari in later life. “From Nandalal, the library or this stark environment of Santiniketan? Without Nandalal I would not have learned my skills, without the library known what I know and without the experience of that stark image of nature, painted as I did.”

In his artistic career, Benodebehari took on a wide variety of themes and subjects, rendering each one with his unique perception and insight. As Subramanyan points out, the visual world around was his paramount interest, the plain and palpable world unvarnished by any mythology or romance. “The look of a tree, the turn of a leaf, the delicate architecture of a flower, the speaking gestures of animate and inanimate objects, the varying densities of space, all these were enough to keep him engrossed; he found all the drama he needed in their midst.”
If paintings seemed to be his forte, Benodebehari excelled in murals as well, leaving indelible impression on his associates and viewers. “Each of them has reigning concepts of great sensitivity and originality, unparalleled in modern Indian mural art, and each has details that haul in environmental and historical reference, visual shifts and innuendoes, and even as they delineate legible facts or episodes frame to frame, link into an abstract rhythmic structure in the total image.”

Great tragedy
Benodebehari became totally blind in 1957 after an eye operation. He was 53 and was at the height of his creative powers. “This was a great tragedy, which would have easily broken down a lesser person,” writes Subramanyan. “But Benodebehari would not accept defeat; he continued to be active as a visual artist for quite a while — making drawings, wax sculpture, folded paper forms and, with the help of known assistants, collages, lithographs and etchings. In his final years, he devoted more time to writing and less to visual expression.”

Benodebehari’s celebrated literary piece Chitrakar provides exceptional hints about his life from childhood till he became blind. “I was born in the year 1904 and this is 1979,” he writes in the preface. “In this long life many things have happened.  But only some of these have become an essential part of one’s life…Each man’s experience of life is quite unique. But still, men do have certain common experiences through which they understand each other. But it has fallen to me to have a kind of experience that is not easily comparable to anyone else’s. A passage from the world of light to the world of darkness opened a new chapter in my life. The story of this experience is the main burden of this book.”

When it appeared in the well-known Bengali literary journal Ekhon, Chitrakar took the reading public by storm. Written with rare insight and honesty, the work presents poignant scenes from the artist’s life. It begins with a simple statement: ‘I see my childhood in the grey light of my memory.’ And ends with a moving admission: ‘Now I am an ambassador of darkness in this world of light.’

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