Not many people remember the writer Ved Mehta today but his was among the first literary voices from India to be heard on the global stage. Mehta wrote ambitious and readable books about high-sounding, complicated subjects like art, philosophy and theology. He was also a great memoirist, and made full use of the autobiographical form to delve deeper into the essence of his own being and that of his surroundings. But there’s another crucial detail about Mehta that needs mentioning here: he lost his eyesight at age four owing to a violent onset of meningitis. Whatever visual memory the writer had, was formed in the first four years of his life. And the fact that in the decades following, he always wrote prose that is visually rich had a lot to do with his ability to reconstruct the world using the power of language, and through depicting details as pointedly as possible.
Many years ago, when Mehta went to interview the filmmaker Satyajit Ray, he wrote of the passageway leading up towards Ray’s house: “The entrance leads into a dark and dingy hallway, where a broken-down bicycle stands next to a broken-down couch.” We can be sure that these details — setting up a scene of dereliction — are of utmost importance to the writer, and indeed to the narrative. Nothing irrelevant ever gets to the page because what Mehta “sees” — through his mind’s eye or by making rigorous inquiries — is only what he chooses to show us.
Some of the last sketches and sculptures of the Bengali artist Binode Behari Mukherjee — who suffered throughout his life from weak eyesight, and finally went blind at the age of 53 — are informed by a similar high regard for the telling visual detail, which, for the luckless artist in this case (as in Mehta’s), is hard to come by. Incidentally, Mukherjee was Ray’s arts teacher at Santiniketan, and later became the subject of a documentary film that the student made as a touching tribute to his guru. The film was released in 1972, some 20 years after Mukherjee went completely blind after a botched cataract operation.
“A lesser man might have crumbled under the impact of the tragedy,” goes Ray’s measured and somewhat anglicised baritone, which he used as a voiceover in this documentary. “But Binod Behari went on to prove that even for a visual artist, loss of sight need not mean the end of creation. That there was an inner eye, an inner vision born of long experience and deep devotion, which the artist could call upon to come to his aid to guide his fingers.”
Ray’s film is called Inner Eye, and the filmmaker intended it to serve as a brief introduction to Mukherjee’s artistic vision. When it was recently screened at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi, the objective of those who organised the screening — a group of independent film artists — was exactly the same: to once again attempt restoring Mukherjee’s art somewhere within the ambit of public memory.
The film presents to us the artist at work: his eyes behind a forbidding pair of dark glasses, and hands carefully giving shape to what looks like either clay or wax figurines. We then see the artist sitting at his desk and hunched over a blank sheet of paper; his left hand marks place on the sheet, a reference point of sorts, while the right hand begins to sketch, in blank ink, with impeccable order and unshakeable precision.
Mukherjee was a great experimenter of forms and media. He had mastered the old, established forms of painting such as landscape art; in addition, he could well identify with the more unorthodox strains in visual arts that were emerging at the time, like collage in particular. In Ray’s film, we are shown Mukherjee’s elaborate frescoes, which still adorn the walls of many a building at the Santiniketan complex. These were grand compositions, thematically coherent yet stylistically radical. One of his themes were the saints and mystics of India. Ray tells us that Mukherjee closely studied the lives of figures like Kabir and Ravidas before painting the scenes depicting the ancient era on three huge walls inside a building. “Hundreds of studies and sketches preceded the actual painting of the fresco,” we hear the filmmaker say. “Binode Behari’s incredible confidence is revealed by the fact that the whole painting was done directly on the wall without the help of a preliminary tracing.”
Incidentally, Mukherjee was Ray’s arts teacher at Santiniketan, and later became the subject of a documentary film that the student made as a touching tribute to his guru. The film was released in 1972, some twenty years after Mukherjee went completely blind after a botched cataract operation.
Even as a young and emerging artist, much before he had lost his eyesight, Mukherjee’s contribution to the world of art was widely acknowledged. His early influences included artists like Abanindranath Tagore (Rabindranath’s brother) and Nandalal Bose. But Mukherjee’s own aesthetic leaps were way more significant and far-reaching than what many of his contemporaries could manage. He took a conscious step away from the Revivalist school of painters in Bengal — which was once again embracing and finding new use of religious symbology — towards a style more secular in spirit, and therefore more modern.
Ordinary life and scenes remained Mukherjee’s artistic premise, which marks out his sensibility as something very similar to Ray’s. The Inner Eye is a special film, for here, we see these two — identical yet unique — sensibilities juxtaposed. In the film, for example, a painting of Benares by Mukherjee is preceded by a similar looking shot of the city composed by Ray, and both the scenes complement each other. There are few instances, in our country, of one artist paying a tribute to another so elaborately through his art. In literature, one can think of the sonnet Keats wrote about Homer, who, by all historical accounts, was also blind. Keats wrote:
“…on the shores of darkness there is light,
And precipices show untrodden green
There is a budding morrow in the midnight,
There is a triple sight in blindness keen.”
Ray’s film, itself as short and eloquent as a sonnet, gives us a compelling view of Mukherjee’s life as a blind artist, who managed so simply to cross the dark midnight of his life into the triple sight of a new day.