Leela Mukherjee: A Guileless Modernist: D-40 Defence Colony, New Delhi

20 March - 30 April 2024

"Born in Sind and educated at Besant School in Benaras, Bombay University and Santiniketan, Leela Mukherjee (1916-2002), along with Pilloo Pochkhanawala and Meera Mukherjee, belongs to the first generation of modern Indian women sculptors. Trained under Ramkinkar Baij and Kulasundar Shilakarmi, a traditional Nepalese sculptor, and working persistently from 1949 onwards, she carved a space for herself as a sculptor working primarily in wood.


Apart from being active as a sculptor from 1949 to 1982, she also worked as an art teacher at the Welham Boys’ School from 1954 to 1975. Although she initially took up the job to support her family, she soon became a committed and influential teacher who contributed to the school’s cultural ambience and her students’ creative life through mural projects undertaken and realised through collaborative work.


Around 1980, Leela Mukherjee gave up woodcarving as it was becoming strenuous and took to modelling in wax and casting in bronze. A little later, she turned to printmaking and painting, and working with her characteristic zest and passion, she produced a distinct body of work in both mediums. These works, done with a disarming graphic spontaneity, tantalisingly suspended between naive scribbling and masterly brushwork, mark the culmination of a lifetime’s commitment to the pursuit of art.


Like many Santiniketan artists, including her husband Benodebehari Mukherjee, Leela saw art as a calling and a way of life rather than a mere profession. Similarly, she did not see modernism as an act of revolt but as a natural expression of her innate independence and individuality. Such an attitude allowed her to draw on different streams of art practice—classical, modern and folk, Indic, Western and African—and forge a personal expression of remarkable coherence and breadth.


Living far away from urban centres of art, shunning the limelight and the pursuit of success, despite eight solo exhibitions, Leela Mukherjee remained little noticed outside a close circle of friends and admirers during her lifetime. The present exhibition, bringing together a broad cross-section of her work as a sculptor and a selection of her prints and paintings, is the most comprehensive presentation of her work to date, and it hopes to put her back into the discursive space of modern Indian art to which she rightfully belongs."


- R. Siva Kumar