The Met displays these sculptures separately, though, perhaps in part to underscore that Mukherjee’s references to the divine aren’t meant to be taken as literally religious. “My idea of the sacred is not rooted in any specific culture,” she said in a 1994 interview. “To me it is a feeling that I may get in a church, mosque, temple, or forest.” Mukherjee’s work hints at the spirituality of Rabindranath Tagore, who spent time with Bengali Bauls (anti-caste musical minstrels who preached a universal spirituality) and was known for a personal commitment to interreligious harmony. But over the course of the 1990s, a period of heightened religious tensions in India, Mukherjee’s nods to goddesses came to be seen as folksy religious art, and her critical stature waned. Things weren’t much better abroad. In the United Kingdom, the work was merely fetishized for its exotic “otherness.” This was consistent with the way many British critics at the time perceived Indian art: regressive and indigenous, perpetually behind the cutting edge of European modernism.
Still, the reception of her work was of little concern to Mukherjee. She only desired to create, regardless of what obstacles came her way. Working with ropes was physically demanding and obtaining the necessary dyes increasingly difficult, so Mukherjee began experimenting with new materials—ceramics, stoneware, bronze. Her ceramic sculptures are smoother and glossier, playfully reflecting light. Some are imaginatively hued, like Blue Work I, a non-figural work with twisted, earthen coils accented by deep sapphire and turquoise. Like many of her sculptures, it possesses a sense of vegetal harmony; Mukherjee was greatly inspired by the intelligent designs found in plant life, and the rhythms and textures of organic matter. While many Indian artists at the time were concerned with inclusion in the international art scene, or with addressing the violent, politically fraught legacies of independence and the partition of the Indian subcontinent, Mukherjee produced art that was self-contained. It’s simultaneously contemporary and traditional, and so transcends the tensions forged by religion and border in post-independence India.
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