Artist, curator and thinker Koeli Mukherjee wields many brushes and pens as she tries to express herself. Serish Nanisetti listens in

Koeli Mukherjee is one of the rare breed of modern Indian artists who uses the articulateness of an academic to communicate her views and talk about her paintings.

At her studio apartment she shares with her artist husband Anand Ghosh and fellow artist P.P. Raju, it is rows of books, canvases and ideas that keep bouncing and bobbing about as the talk veers to culture, influence and the progression of art.

“I paint because it makes me breathe. I find sense and meaning in my life. Curating for me is the pleasure to share works of art that I find significant. Writing is the outcome of my daily engagement with the study of cultural theory and art history. So, for me there is no division in painting, curating and writing. They run parallel as extensions of my passion for art,” she says. Koeli's paintings have that delicate quality brought about by ink that seems to permeate and spread, but the line has a robust firmness as she obsesses with the feminine eye like folks from the land of fish-eyed Goddess do. The little colour she indulges in either the ultramarine blue or the pale yellow contrast and evoke the depth of the painting. If her paintings and ink drawings have a quality of simplicity, the words that she uses to talk about her art or about the works of other artists is far from simple. “I have to resort to jargon as I have to connect with artists and the painting tradition. It cannot be simple all the time,” she says defensively.

Young discovery

“The first time I became aware of painting and art was when I was disappointed about failing to keep the water colours within the lines of the drawing of Krishna that I did when I was aged seven. I was always drawing, doodling and colouring and it was no surprise that I am an artist today,” she says. “I was always fascinated with alpana, that women do during Lakshmi puja where the liquid rice trickles down with great skill to create highly intricate patterns. I try to do the same thing with my quill, allowing the ink to flow and evoke and make that cultural connect with that art form,” she says.

If at age seven she discovered the artistic proclivity, at eight she won an award for painting at a Sit and Draw competition and received the prize from Satyajit Ray. If this wasn't enough motivation, her arts teacher Jaishree Chakraborty at the Gokhale Memorial School egged her on to pursue a career in arts, but her parents were initially aghast and against it as Koeli was good in academics. They gave in later. Koeli is still working and evolving her style that she first discovered at Santiniketan about the time she got influenced and impressed with the works of Picasso, Matisse and Gaugin. Another influence was the Renaissance movement with its efflorescence of colours and use of human body.

“At Santiniketan you are one with the culture as nature communicates you in so many ways. Even if you are in a different location, you can visualise the play of light and shade at another location. This communion with nature doesn't go away once you have experienced it. Now, I am able to connect whatever I am doing. My appreciation of other artists is spontaneous and I enjoy the celebration of other people's creativity,” she says.

Santiniketan has played a pervasive role in Koeli's life from the time she went there as a child to visit a relative to the time she trained there and then found her future partner there. “Me and Anand were just friends, we never thought we will get married. I liked spending time with him as I could air my views freely and we could talk about ideas, images and artists instead of material things,” she says. “Though artists are lonesome and the pursuit is lonely, I am fortunate that I can get other ideas even as I wrestle with mine. Even the fights we have are about ideas and not material things,” she says.

So how did she land up in Hyderabad? “I followed my husband Anand who came to Hyderabad with a job at Satyam in May, 2003. He is an ardent lover of Kolkata, I was not sure that he would stay on but he called up to say that Hyderabad was lovely, in its tradition and modernity. And I came to Hyderabad with my daughter in September the same year. I started work on a curatorial assignment from October 2003 in a private gallery and found that the city had a large community of artists who are fantastic.

The JNTU, The S. N. School and the S.V. College, including the Department Of Fine Arts of Andhra University bring up talented artists every year, there is no dearth of talent in Andhra Pradesh. Over the years I have seen the efforts of creative professionals and private galleries in trying to showcase artists. But in comparison to other cities the exposure of such fantastic artists is much less. Exhibiting an unknown young artist should not be seen as a risk if he or she is talented,” says Koeli who has worked with Kalakriti Art Gallery, Shrishti, Goethe Zentrum and the Alliance Francaise and the short-lived Kalakirti.

Besides pursuing her craft, Koeli has explored the creative influence of art as she worked on its therapeutic use working with special children and their parents after a training session with British Council and she has worked with the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy.

“I feel more work needs to be done - in finding artists who are working from their studios silently and significantly, exhibiting their works not only in Hyderabad but also nationally and internationally,” says Koeli who is planning a travelling exhibition of significant Indian art.

Keywords: Satyajit Ray