For very long, Indian art-history has offered limited scholarship on women artists; despite their contributions, women artists have continued to be under-represented at galleries, exhibitions and even in auction catalogues. However, when it comes to women-sculptors, they have been faced with a different challenge altogether: sculpting has stereotypically been thought to be a masculine endeavour and so the abilities of women were doubted time and again during their lifetimes. Many of them remain ‘invisible’ and ‘forgotten‘.
Here are 5 women sculptors who ‘carved’ a name for themselves in the world of Indian sculpture:
Leela Mukherjee (1916 – 2003)
Leela Mukherjee trained as a painter and sculptor at Shantiniketan where she met her future husband, Benode Behari Mukherjee, a visionary Indian artist. Female artists were often overshadowed by the accomplishments of their male counterparts and this was Leela’s case too. At Shantiniketan, Leela was influenced by the works of master sculptor Ramkinkar Baij. During her time at Shantiniketan, she also assisted Benode with the murals he painted on the campus – most notable among them being the monumental wall painting at Hindi Bhavana (Medieval Indian Saints) created in 1947.
When her husband moved to Kathmandu in 1949 to become a curator of the Nepal Government Museum, Leela went with him and learnt the art of wood and stone carving under his friend, the eminent Nepali artisan Kulasundar Shilakarmi. Wood carving was her special interest; she carved aboriginal human forms with great confidence.
After leaving Nepal and a brief stint in Rajasthan, the couple moved to Mussoorie where Leela started a nursery school and Benode Behari established a training centre for art teachers. She went on to teach full-time at Welham’s Preparatory School in Dehradun where their daughter was enrolled.
Their daughter Mrinalini Mukherjee (1949 – 2015) also went on to become a sculptor of international repute.
She was known for her distinct contemporary style and the use of dyed and woven hemp fibre – an unconventional material for sculpting. With a career spanning over four decades Mrinalini Mukherjee is counted amidst India’s most acclaimed contemporary artists.
Here’s a look at some of her sculptures:
Pilloo Pochkhanawala (1923 – 1986)
Standing tall among the pioneers of Indian contemporary art, Pilloo Pochkhanawala was a sculptor from the city of Bombay. She worked in the field of advertising before taking up sculpture as a medium of expression. Inspired by artists like Henry Moore and Constantin Brâncuși on her visit to Europe in 1951, she developed her skills as a self-taught artist. Her works range from detailed preparatory drawings and theatrical sets to large public sculptures created in a range of materials. All of them were designed to explore the relationship between nature, time and space. During one of her exhibitions at the Prince of Wales Museum (now Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum) in Mumbai, Pochkahanawala said, about her sculptures:
I go to a factory to get all these bits of metal. They call it scrap. Some people don’t understand these sculptures, but you know, I have a class of deaf and dumb children I teach. I brought them round without saying anything to them, and do you know, one of the little girls was standing in front of this one, the Kathakali, and she actually began to do a kind of dance. Isn’t that amazing?
In addition to being an artist, she also worked as a coordinator of the Bombay Art Festival for several years from the 1960s onwards. Pochkhanawala also played a major role in establishing the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai, which is now among the leading museums of contemporary art in India.
Usha Rani Hooja (1923 – 2013)
Born into a Christian family, ‘Joyce Eta Usha Joseph’ completed her masters degree in Philosophy at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi. She was drawn towards sculptures after her interaction with the art students of the Delhi Polytechnic. In 1949, Joseph visited England to pursue further studies in sculpture at the Regent Street Polytechnic (London). Here she was exposed to the works of master sculptors like Rodin and Epstein. It was during her stay in England that she changed her name to Usha Rani.
After her return to India in 1955, Usha Rani dedicated her entire life to sculptures. She spent a large part of her life in Jaipur, Rajasthan and sculpted over 40 statues and figures as part of commissioned work for the state governments and various private organizations. Her large-sized sculptures can be found not only in Delhi, Kota, Bhilwara, Bombay, Jaipur and Jodhpur but also in Sweden, Washington and Philippines. Among her iconic works is the Police Memorial at the Trimurti Circle in Jaipur which was inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1963.
In 1975, she took ill, but this too, did not deter her. She took to writing blank verse poetry which led to the publication Songs & Sculptures – a compilation of poetry and art work.
Meera Mukherjee (1923 – 1998)
Meera Mukherjee was one of the most prolific Indian sculptors to emerge in the post-Independence era. As a staunch individualist, she denied any feminist context in her work, considering herself to be a professional first and a woman second. Mukherjee took her first lessons in sculpture in India, following which she went on to obtain further technical training in Munich.
After returning to India, Mukherjee was commissioned by the Anthropological Survey of India to document the practices of metal-craftsmen in Central India. Gradually, the process of observing and writing about the folk crafts turned her into an ‘artist – anthropologist’. As a result of this transformation, Mukherjee started using the lost wax process for her sculptures. Deeply influenced by the Dhokra sculptors of Bastar in Madhya Pradesh, she perfected a technique in bronze that was unique to her. In one her travel diaries, she wrote:
To my mind, every artist must also be an artisan, who brings to their work a devotion.
Beyond the third dimension, Mukherjee also excelled in drawing, painting and writing. She has several books credited to her name, some of which she had illustrated as well. For her invaluable contributions to India art, she was conferred the Padma Shri in 1992, among many other awards.
Kanaka Murthy (1943 – 2021)
Kanaka Murthy is one of India’s few traditional female sculptors to have her work worshipped in the temples. She graduated with a degree in science but felt drawn to the arts. Once, while visiting a temple in Mysore, she was fascinated by the stone sculptures of deities. Murthy kept visiting those places almost every day just to see those beautiful sculptures. It was her inclination towards the arts, music and poetry, that paved her way into taking up sculpting as a profession. Her works are primarily based on Indian mythology. She took inspiration from the ancient era, including Chalukyan and Hoysala, and combined them to create a fresh style of her own. Apart from stone, the sculptor has also worked with fibre glass and clay.
Take a closer look at some of her works in this video-interview (with her alma-mater, Kalamandir)
Even as the existing gender-bias in her field discouraged her initially, later it served as an inspiration.
When she was struggling, she received immense help and guidance from the late Devalakunda Vadiraj, a master sculptor himself. She travelled with him across the nation and internationally (such as UK and Russia) where they participated in various sculpting events. From her mentor, she not only learnt the techniques of sculpting, but also dedication and honesty.
In addition to her works of art, she also authored two books : Shilpa Rekha (about line drawing ) and a memoir titled Houde? Idhu Naane! (Yes, this is Me!) mainly about her mentor, which released in 2014.
Jasu Shilpi (1948 – 2013)
Popularly known as the ‘Bronze Woman of India’, Jasu Shilpi created more than 225 large size statues and 525 bust size statues in bronze, in a career spanning nearly four decades. With an inclination towards art since childhood, she studied at Sheth C. N. College Of Fine Arts in Ahmedabad where she was one of the only five women in her class! Although she preferred sculpture the most, (specifically in the mediums of bronze, metal and stone), Jasuben excelled in other forms of art too. At the end of her training, she decided to turn Sculpting into her profession.
Despite the challenges in her life, she overcame all the odds to successfully establish her art practice. Shilpi’s notable works include four statues of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, at different locations in India statues of Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi among many others. Her largest creation was a 28-feet-tall Hanuman statue, which was recognized by the India Book of Records as the ‘tallest bronze statue created by a woman’. She won a multitude of awards and worldwide recognition for the massive amount of work created by her. Shilpi’s children continue to celebrate her legacy at the Jasuben Shilpi Art Foundation, which supports budding sculptors from across the country.
Did we say 5 women sculptors? We lost count and told you about 6! If you have a favourite Indian woman-sculptor, do share with us! You might also like: 5 Women Artists of India that you must know!
and this exhibition by NGMA New Delhi about Women Sculptors