The real when it has reached the mind, is already not real any more. Our too thoughtful, too intelligent eye.
—Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer
Modern man is cursed with too much of seeing. His every waking moment is suffused and saturated with objects, images, concepts and signs. Such is this profusion of forms that he neither has time nor the inclination to really see what he has to see. And he is oblivious of the virtues of blindness. But can blindness be a virtue? The work of painter Benodebehari Mukherjee – who had a congenitally defective vision, went completely blind in 1957 aged 53, and yet continued to paint for another 23 years – alludes to the visual richness that blindness, and its seeking, can sometimes yield.
There is a lot of variety in Mukherjee’s art. But what brings them together is the unity of his aesthetic approach, which sought tirelessly to overcome the world of objects and optical verisimilitude and penetrate their essence. Much of his work, post blindness, is characterised by an almost complete disappearance of opticality, with objects being reduced to their archetypes. Not surprisingly, the human and animal figures of his paper-cuts and collages lack eyes. Two of his post-’57 lithographs – Curd Seller and Kitchen – are examples of how objects are merely alibis for the artist to explore various interactions among certain essential forms and structures.
But his creations, even before he lost his sight, are marked by a struggle to escape objects and their sheer optical presence. From the very beginning, Mukherjee, as his art indicates, was interested not in things but in relationships among them. Even his self-portraits explore relationships between physiognomy and the character of his inner being.
Mukherjee was also drawn to forces that constitute figures and objects rather than the finished ‘things’ themselves. His Artist Observing a Frog is more about capturing the state of two human figures looking at a frog than the visual event per se. This yearning for non-opticality brings Mukherjee close to Anglo-Irish painter Francis Bacon, in spite of their distance in space and tradition. The field of Bacon’s paintings, as philosopher Gilles Deleuze has accurately pointed out, lacks depth, and he situates his figures in a way that it appears they are dissolving. Clearly then, Mukherjee, an important member of the Bengal school, was not the only one to have quested after artistic blindness: a metaphor for capturing the unseen in art that is all about seeing. But his loss of vision became a dramatic, physical culmination of this search.
Orhan Pamuk, who is preoccupied by this aesthetic of ‘non-seeing’ in his My Name is Red, gives a detailed account of the tradition of blindness-seeking among the 12th-13th century masters of Perso-Islamic miniatures. They considered blindness to be the supreme accomplishment of their artistic métier so much so they would often pierce their own eyes with needles specially designed for the purpose. For them, blindness implied the victory of sacred timeless vision over profane human gaze.
The human eye is a compulsive ejaculator of meaning. It is also a repository of pre-conceived notions and ideas. Objects are rendered meaningful only within cages of concepts and forms cast on to them. There is no room for the object to show itself autonomously. Blindness, in such circumstances, is the decimation of the predetermined gaze, if only to set the object free. It is driven by, what French philosopher Gaston Bachelard chose to call, “material imagination”, something that he contrasted with what he called “formal imagination”. The former seeks to shun all formal preconceptions to experience the world directly in its essential and elemental materiality.
Mukherjee’s attempt to penetrate the visual realm to get to the essences chimes with Swiss painter Paul Klee’s. The deliberate infantilism and primitivity in Klee’s paintings allude to the elemental world beyond the realm of our fabricated modern reality. Klee’s search for essences was driven by a desire to go back to the roots of the “art image”.
Mukherjee’s ‘blind search’ resonates with the ancient mystic traditions of Bengal: of Ramakrishna, the Bauls and Lalanpanthis, Chaitanya and Aatish Dipankara, the 10th-11th century Buddhist monk from erstwhile east Bengal, who journeyed to Tibet to revive Tantric Buddhism. Such mysticism emphasised the dissolution of the individual and his gaze into the world. The idea of non-seeing, which emerged from such mysticism, is not as simple as seeing or saying nothing. It is, in fact, seeing and saying much more than eyes and language can afford. It is faith, not in the sense of submitting to an impenetrable reality, but a state of absolute transparency between the human being and his world so as to preclude any attempt by the former to invade and know the latter.
Mukherjee’s decision to paint the 8-foot high, 80-foot long Life of Medieval Saints mural on the three walls of Visva Bharati’s Hindi Bhavan was not pure chance. The mural, a seamless tapestry of Surdas, Kabir, Ravidas, Tulsidas, Guru Gobind Singh and other medieval Bhakti figures, is an expression of his historical vision that has little to do with the nationalistic grand narratives of his time. In its compositeness, the mural is shot through with the history of Bhakti, not only in the choice of subject but, more importantly, in its vision. History in this mural – which brings together the lives of various medieval saints separated in time and space – is not a mere chronology of events that were seen by human eyes as having unfolded in time. It is an experience, elusive to human eyes, of a timeless emotion. The emotion of “bhakti”.
In his Shilpa Jigyasa (Art’s Quest), Mukherjee privileges the world of the primitive anonymous craftsman, ready to dissolve into his tradition, over that of the modern artist with his individual’s ego and gaze. However, his return to the ‘blind’ tradition of the artisan was much too ironical, and thus modern, to replicate the ‘repetitiveness’ of artisanal craftsmanship in art. It was all about reclaiming the pre-modern ethos of being one with the world.
That helped him free both his memory and imagination from the culturally ingrained habits of seeing and allowed the visual world in his imagination to be mediated by the other four senses. Mukherjee ardently embraced such synaesthesia. He famously distinguished colours by touch after he went blind. His works of that period, even while being visual, have a distinctly tactile quality, too.
Funes, the Memorious, written by Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges—who like Mukherjee continued to work even after he went blind—is an acutely prescient celebration of blindness. The eponymous protagonist of the fable, who is able to remember every small visual detail after a physically crippling accident, is, however, unable to think. That’s because thought is generalisation, which entails forgetting much of what we have sensed. Funes, for Borges, is an arch-example of a human being whose imagination and memory are condemned to the prison of the visual. The ‘blind’ art of Benodebehari Mukherjee, on the other hand, is an intimation of how human beings could one day become more human, and free!
Pothik Ghosh is one of the Editors of the South Asian Leftist web-journal Radical Notes.