“Against all odds” is perhaps the most apt phrase to describe the inspiring journey of Benode Behari Mukherjee – one of India’s most celebrated modern artists. In 1947, he executed the fresco ‘Medieval Saints’ at Shantiniketan’s Hindi Bhavan earning him the moniker ‘father of Indian murals‘ . His contribution to the development of Indian art is immensely significant; though it is his life’s message of continuously learning and doing that is his ultimate legacy.
Benode Behari Mukherjee was born in Behala, Bengal on February 7, 1904. Unable to pursue formal education (he was blind in one eye and myopic in the other), he joined Tagore’s experimental school for children – the Patha Bhavan in Shantiniketan at the age of 12. When Kala Bhavan was established in 1919, he was its second student; in his later years, he returned to his alma mater as a faculty member. Alongside his teacher, Nandalal Bose and colleague, the master sculptor Ramkinkar Baij, Mukherjee influenced many prominent artists of the 20th century including Satyajit Ray and KG Subramanyan!
Here are 3 things to know about Benode Behari Mukherjee : the legendary artist, writer and teacher !
1. He was inspired by nature and his surroundings
In his autobiography, Chitrakar, Benode Behari acknowledges the influence of his surroundings at Shantiniketan on his artistic practice.
Khoai, the sal forest of Surul, the banks of the Kopai River—these were my steadfast companions, I did paintings based on them…Benode Behari Mukherjee – Chitrakar
I often wonder where I got my early training from? 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.
Unlike Bose or any of the others of his time, Mukherjee’s art does not reflect any nationalistic tendencies. Instead they reveal his affinity to landscapes. Art journals from the 1930s and 40s credit Benode Behari as one of the first artists of Shantiniketan to be “devoted entirely to landscapes”. His exposure to Chinese and Japanese art traditions; frescoes of Ajanta, helped him develop his own unique art language.
In his first mural, executed on the ceiling of the students’ hostel of Kala Bhavana, you will find an accurate glimpse of life in rural Bengal – a testimony to his intense observation over years, of life around him . The mural, of Birbhum’s landscape has at its center a pond; around it are trees, animals and the everyday lives of people.
2. He became the first Indian artist to travel to Japan & exhibit his work there
In 1937, Benode Behari travelled to Japan & spent a year engaging with artists, and visiting museums and galleries. With support from the nationalist Rashbehari Bose he made several connections with art collectors and cultural institutions. He met renowned artists (such as Arai Kampo, Yokoyama Taikan) and wrote several letters back home describing his encounters with them. Mukherjee even exhibited his works at the Horeganji Temple, Tokyo in a show organized by the Nippon Cultural Federation. But his journey was not all smooth : in a meeting with an art collector, he was sternly told that the purpose of an artist is to stay home and do his work rather than travel around looking at different works.
In 1948, Benode Behari travelled to Nepal as a Curator of the Nepal Government Museum, Kathmandu. During this time, he engaged with Nepalese artisans and craftspeople who’s work influenced his own art practice at the time. His travels continued after this assignment as well – he travelled to teach at the Art School of Patna; later worked in Banasthali (Rajasthan) where he once again had the opportunity to engage with craftspeople.
3. He was a man of many talents
If you looked for the art of Benode Behari Mukherjee, you’d find sketches, watercolours, tempera on wood, works on silk, felt tip pen and Chinese ink on paper, textile block prints, etchings, lithographs and his paper collages.
It is his 1946 Mural “Medieval Saints” that is considered to his career’s magnum opus. The mural features medieval saint-poets of India (Ramanuja, Tulsidas, Kabir, Surdas, & even Guru Gobind Singh) amidst a tumult of numerous workday lives of the people. The saints, as metaphors for the liberated soul transform the humblest vocations into a pilgrimage. Do the figures moving in and out of the maze-like landscape remind you of the Sanchi reliefs?
What is even more stunning about the mural is the fact that Benode Behari executed it spontaneously – without any priorly made sketches / plans! Take a look at his other murals in Shantiniketan in our Art Tour.
By 1957 he had lost his eyesight completely – but not his vision. Like the fate that awaited Beethoven’s hearing, Mukherjee’s disability did not hinder his creativity either. His deep interest in the history of art manifested itself in his writings. His penned his reflections on the art of Abanindranath Tagore & Nandalal Bose, the pedagogy of Indian art education, contemporary art and even taught art history at Shantiniketan. His autobiographical essays, compiled as Chitrakar won him two literary awards including the coveted Rabindra Puraskar.
In one of his essays, Mukherjee emphasized that the sense of intuition is what truly allows an artist to understand an object by contemplation instead of observation. His tactile consciousness and creativity substituted his sight and lent him new ground to discover : he started sculpting brightly coloured sheets of paper. Many art historians have noted echoes of the French artist Matisse in this phase of Mukherjee’s artistic practice.
“A man who has the power of sight need not be told what light is. And where there is light there is colour.”Benode Behari Mukherjee
But we think his art went on to prove otherwise.
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References: India Since 1947 : the independent years by Gopa Sabharwal
 The Arts of India, Basil Gray