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Interview with Santiniketani Alpona artist Sudhi Ranjan Mukherjee : Retro Kolkata Exclusive

Alpona by Sudhi Ranjan Mukherjee

The sculptures and ornamental designs of the South Indian temples found a wider expression in Santiniketan’s Alpona with an extra aesthetic beauty with an extra game of improvisation for an artist’s imagination. This is just like the melodic improvisation of a raga which gives birth to new melodies and rhythm.

RK : First of all thanks a lot for accepting our invitation for an interview. it’s a great pleasure to have you as our Guest. Let’s start from the first question… Let’s have a jump into the past. Do you remember your first interaction with art? When did you decide you wanted to become an artist?

Sudhi Ranjan Mukherjee : I just cannot remember it. I think even an artist of great fame will not be able to recollect any specific moment or date when he or she first started to draw or paint in early childhood days. An artist cannot be made. The sense of visual rhythm was inborn in me and it is my Father who with the right keys opened my hidden treasure box before I was aware of it. With my regular school studies I was deeply engrossed in drawing and painting from early childhood. My father admitted me to an art school even before my admission to a formal school. I loved making of idol of Gods and Goddesses and their ornaments too and was very much influenced from a workshop just beside my house .I used to regularly draw the designs that I have witnessed there on the floor. This had an everlasting effect on me which is reflected in my preparations of ornaments at the different Dance Dramas here at Santiniketan. Realizing my sense and love for art my Father only decided to send me to an art school. I had no dream of becoming an artist in future. After the completion of school studies I took admission to college with English Honours. But the clarion call of future was something else! The first international prize from France was the turning point of my life. I became an art student of R B U and from that day it was inevitable that I shall become an Artist in future.

Alpona by Sudhi Ranjan Mukherjee

RK : What role does drawing have in your creative process and what is your sketching ‘toolkit’ right now?

Sudhi Ranjan Mukherjee : Drawing is my most creative process. It is only through drawing that I can best express everything that I observe and experience around. Drawing is the best way to express myself and without it I cannot think of anything. It may be white chalk or chalk dust or red/grey floor or by pen, pencil and brush on paper or cloth.

RK : What do you consider to be the ingredients for a strong composition?

Sudhi Ranjan Mukherjee : To me it is the structure according to the given space that is important. The main concern for me is to express my experience and imagination. The interwoven solid structure with definite balance and rhythm is the main ingredient for a strong composition. Without a durable structure any painting or design cannot make a strong visual appeal.

Painting using Alpona : FREEDOM

RK : How do you view the concept of Alpona, the classical and authentic art of Bengal?

Sudhi Ranjan Mukherjee : The folk or the village art of Bengal is very much traditional. In my childhood I have seen my Mother drawing alpona with rice paste with fingers only. The symbolic motifs such as footprints of Lakshmi, spiral and so on, but I was not very much attracted to it. I understood that I had nothing to do with those limited motifs. Later when I came to Santiniketan I was spellbound seeing the Alponas of Santiniketan. The compactness and fluency of lines enchanted me. The alponas here are much more refined and creative. The motifs are created from nature. The flow and ornamentation also came from the decorative sculptures of Indian temples specially the South Indian temples.

Alpona using South Indian Temple motif

Design elements can be discovered from trees, creepers, the waves of waters the floating clouds etc. for ornamentation of Alpona. If we observe minutely we can feel the rhythm of ornamentation from the movement of branches of trees and creepers. An artist with the sense of rhythmic improvisation can create excellent ornamental designs. The rhythmic improvisation of the ornamental designs were the main specialty of Artist Nandalal Bose’s alpona. With his artistic excellence he used to improvise and transform even the minutest form of nature into a rare form of ornamental design or alpona with the addition of beautiful ornamentation from creepers. With his special artistic imagination he beautifully ornamented the lotus leaves and flower which may not be found in actual nature. Moreover, the sculptures and ornamental designs of the South Indian temples found a wider expression in Santiniketan’s Alpona with an extra aesthetic beauty with an extra game of improvisation for an artist’s imagination. This is just like the melodic improvisation of a raga which gives birth to new melodies and rhythm.

Alpona with Lotus as motif

RK : Why folk art, what attracts you most about this form of art?

Sudhi Ranjan Mukherjee : Folk art attracts me because of the different forms of expression. The forms of expressions of Madhuboni, Bengal or Orrisa’s Potchitra, the beautiful variations of lines and colours are worth mentioning. The imaginative and aesthetic variations of ornamental designs and motifs of Bengal’s alpona also attract me.

'Sora' or earthen Pot Alpona

RK : Your pieces are incredibly detailed. How long does it take to create a single piece and what is the process like?

Sudhi Ranjan Mukherjee : It depends on concentration . It takes 2 to 5 days to complete an artwork if I have deep concentration . The process is nothing but to observe nature day after day how the forms and colour change with the change of seasons throughout the year.

Painting using Alpona : Hope for Rain

RK : As we know you are an artist of modern age. How do you use modern style in painting?

Sudhi Ranjan Mukherjee : Right from early childhood I was in the habit of Drawing. Even after the completion of school studies, I was a student of Fine Arts. While studying B.Fine and M.fine we had to study both Indian Art and Western Art specially Post Impressionism and Modern art of which I was a fan of Modern Art . After receiving the National scholarship (1975-1977) I came to Santiniketan for further studies and after that I permanently joined as an Art Teacher which served as turning points to my thought process. I became associated with Alpona as I was time to time allotted duties for Alpona in the different functions and festivals which started residing in the core of my heart permanently.

Alpona at Upasana Griha

Alpona at Upasana Griha

Though Alpona is a decorative art with ornamental forms and designs there is a large scope of experiments and improvisation. The great Master Nandalal Bose stressed on the decorative element and then to proceed only with the relevant elements of reality and in this way we can create an artistic world of our own. He also said to apply rhythm of design in composition or structure. It is from this that I got inspired from within to express the different subjects of painting through the variety of movements and forms of Alpona. In course of time by adopting these thoughts of the great Maestros of Modern Art I tried to balanced them and create my own style of Decorative Art or Alpona. This specialty can also be observed in the paintings of Ajanta , about two thousand years back.

Painting using Alpona : The Universe

RK : Santiniketan is all about Rabindra Nath Tagore.Have your paintings been been influenced by Tagore’s Dance Dramas? If so how?

Sudhi Ranjan Mukherjee : The compositions and melodies of Rabindra Nath Tagore’s song are such that anyone can visualize the songs and I being an artist just dwell on the vivid picturization of Tagore songs. His seasonal and compositions on nature inspires me very much. Especially there is much scope of pictorial visualization in the songs of spring, rains and autumn. The artistic improvisations that are the fruits of my inspiration and imagination have proved to be quite successful.

Painting using Alpona : Autumn

When I first came to Santiniketan I was enchanted by the totality of the Dance Dramas presented. The feelings of the songs expressed through the dances, dance costumes, the stage craft everything was so artistic that created a beautiful ambience. I admired the costume designing and still now I just love to see them. When I am assigned the designing of costumes and stage craft as a teacher in Visva Bharati Santiniketan, I just enjoy them. There is a large scope of improvisation and creativity in this type of work. The application of designs by Acharya Nandalal Bose and Jamuna Sen are still applied. The stagecraft and the costumes are designed in accordance to the subject matter of the Dance Dramas. For example the stagecraft and costume design of “Tasher Desh and Balmiki Pratibha” will vary from each other but there is immense scope of artistic creativity for an artist. In these types of assignments I have used Alpona as designs for the stagecraft which has visually transcended the Dance dramas to a high level aesthetic, and artistic ambiance combined with rhythmic melodies of dance and music.

Alpona stage decoration : Bhanusingher Padavali

Stage decoration using Alpona

Ornaments for Tagore Dance drama Chitrangada using Alpona

RK : You have got an invitation from New Jersey for a workshop on ‘Alpona’. What does that mean to you?

Sudhi Ranjan Mukherjee : Yes, I was invited to a work shop on Alpona and stage decoration, the fragrances of the innumerable beautiful memories still vibrates in my mind. Both adults and children were trained continuously for ten days. Though children are universal in character, the American children are too busy with their all day long schedules for studies and work. So I was astonished at their dedication and sincerity these ten days. For adults I had arranged a continuous process of workshop of different forms of Alpona and stage decoration. With the help of alpona and different types of designs relevant to the theme of the Dramas, the processes of stage decoration which can actually add to the total ambiance of the dramatic situations were also focused. They all eagerly and actively participated in the workshop that before ten days only they completed all the different assignments of the workshops. Little children were taught how to make masks which they really enjoyed. On 20th May 2017 Tagore’s Festival was held in New Jersey. The inside and outside part of the auditorium both were decorated by the exclusive designs of the alponas from the workshop only, which added an extra aesthetical ambiance to the hall.

Alpona stage decoration : Bhanusingher Padavali

Besides this I had a lecture demonstration with slide projection on Santiniketan’s Alpona and its evolutionary details and specialties, which the distinguished guests and esteemed personalities enjoyed much as they knew about the Mastroe Nandalal Bose and his artist daughter Gauri Bhanja.

As a part of my foreign tour I was also invited to Boston for exhibition and lecture. Though there was a restricted audience the response was beyond my expectation. Artist Nandalal Bose’s great grandson (former professor of Architecture at Harvard University) was the Chief Guest who also delivered a highly interesting lecture on Alpona.

Alpona based on Traditional Rhymes

In USA, I was greatly enriched from my travels and visit to New York’s Metropolitian Museum, Museum of Modern Art where Artist Henri Matisee’s retrospective exhibition was going on. I felt very lucky that my dreams were truly fulfilled for being able to feast my eye with the exclusive and awesome art by Matisee. I had also been to Smithsnonian Museum and two others. In these museums on the one hand I really felt lucky to see the original art pieces of the great Masters Picasso, Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne and on the other hand I was richly enriched by the decorative art and designs of various other countries. So my tour to USA in 2017 was really successful in all respects and aspects.

Alpona based on Traditional Rhymes

RK : The level of detail you execute in each of your work is astounding. Is that aesthetic inspired by your love of all things classical or is it related to your drive to create a specific world within your art? Both? Neither?

Sudhi Ranjan Mukherjee : There are many stages in the work of an artist. It is the flow of artist’s imaginations and the experiences of relating the interior and exterior world rather it can be said intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. So at different periods of life the aesthetical feelings are expressed in different forms. An artist is sometimes engrossed in finer details, sometimes lesser, sometimes complicated subjects occupy the imagination and sometimes even a very simple thing is an object of deep imagination transformed into a simple artistic form. Sometimes the realistic observation transformed with a realistic artistic piece gives immense satisfaction and joy. So according to me the different stages of an Artist’s life with different experiences and imagination that is depicted in the art forms or artistic approaches are just natural. They come in a natural way which is improvised by artist’s imagination, brush, sketch pen or any medium. In student life I loved detailed improvisation even to the minutest detail. A time came that I became bored and tired of detailing. At this point of time I reverted from details to simplicity. Just with the help of a few lines I expressed my thoughts and found immense joy. At that period the art pieces of great Masters influenced me specially Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian. With just the detailed study of a tree Mondrian reached the eternal truth that the whole world is just’ a balance of horizontal and vertical lines!’ That was a great blow to me with interesting effects. May be from here only that I was again engrossed in Indian Art. The professional duties here at Santinketan created a deep association with Alpona and ultimately I became so much involved that it has occupied my whole being. ‘pather shesh kothay ki ache pare’.Where shall the artistic journey lead to and what is beyond the horizon does not bother me. My love for art and artistic expressions shall continue as they come by.

Alpona for magh mela

I was overwhelmed by the artistic renderings of the Japanese Artist Hokusai of the eighteenth century. I was also astonished at his artistic eye of the detailed analysis of common objects of nature such as trees, rain, sea and the artistic representations was just mesmerizing. I also love the brush detailing of the leaf of a tree by the great master Nandalal Bose which has been done with wonderful artistic techniques and excellence. To express the feelings and characteristics of a piece of art I love to use the minute details for expressing my thoughts and imaginations which may not always be realistic. To enhance the mood and the motion of my artistic imagination I use the detailing elements from reality only. In this way I create an artistic world of my own where it creates its own ambience that may be different from what the eyes do see in reality. I can also feel this, from the comments of my viewers who for the time being become attuned to my artistic melody and rhythm!

RK : Artists usually have one painting by a great artist that has especially influenced him or holds special meaning. What is that painting that has the biggest impact on you as you are beginning your career and why?

Sudhi Ranjan Mukherjee : Paul Cezanne’s painting “The Bathers” influenced me at the beginning of my college studies and had a lifelong impact on my thought process. He recommended strong solid structures for painting or else the painting will not last long and will break. The fruits of his ideas can be depicted in the series of paintings “The Bathers”. From this I got a lesson that whatever the art may be design, alpona, landscape etc. it should have a definite structure and till now I follow this with my heart and soul.

Painting using Alpona : Shadow of Moon

RK : We (Retro Kolkata) are trying to build one single stage for all artists, because we believe that Artists are the most beautiful creation of God and geographical boundaries can never break their unity and harmony. Please say something about our initiative and any special message for the followers.

Sudhi Ranjan Mukherjee : It is really a wonderful initiative bringing different type of Artists and their artistic works under a single roof in a beautiful platform like ‘Retro Kolkata’. The Artists will be able to have glimpses of the new emerging trends, thoughts and imagination of the artistic world and learn the new techniques too. According to me the influence of thoughtful imaginations of various Artists are very necessary for an Artist to proceed further by blending his own ideas with the thoughts of others too. On the other hand an Artist gets inspired when he sees his own artistic influences is reflected in the works of other Artists especially younger generations. An Artist can even assess his own works when he sees the artistic works of all other Artists worldwide.

Thus I feel that by crossing global boundaries if all the artistic works and their interviews are circulated among the artistic community it will also serve as a great platform for cultural exchange and global integrity with unity and harmony.

Alpona at Sriniketan Magh Mela


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