During his years of studying fine arts at Banaras Hindu University in the 1990s, Debasish Mukherjee would make frequent visits to Sarnath, a Buddhist site 12 kilometres from Varanasi.
Sarnath is home to ancient Buddhist monasteries and its most popular feature is the 128 feet-high Dhamek Stupa. However, the efforts to preserve this heritage site have been limited.
“I saw it deteriorate in front of my eyes,” said Mukherjee. “Why is it that there is such little appreciation or respect for heritage in India? Some monuments attract the attention of the authorities, but most of the sites are kept in a sad condition – they are dilapidated, have fallen prey to vandalism or just been whitewashed in the name of conservation.”
His first solo art show, The Museum Within, is a reflection of Mukherjee’s inner sense of preservation. It is his attempt to re-imagine the roles of archaeologist, museum curator, conservator and fashion designer.
"My work replicates the manner in which a historic site is discovered and preserved as a museum artefact," said Mukherjee.
Curator Kanika Anand describes Mukherjee's work as similar to that of an archaeologist's in her curatorial note. As she writes, the archaeologist draws a site grid before excavation, creating a precise map of features and artefacts. A rectangular grid is then superimposed over the site, marking out a fixed points, she says. Mukherjee’s work follows a similar grid-like plan – with "repetitive units recording a series of related finds".
For instance, in the "white cube series", objects appear as excavated artefacts, cocooned within muddy surfaces. This is Mukherjee's attempt to represent a transitory stage between the artefact’s unearthing to its eventual placement for public viewing, Anand writes.
However, there is a point where Mukherjee's art digresses from the work of an archaeologist. As Anand notes, unlike an archaeologist who excavates a physical space looking for clues to understand the past, Mukherjee's work encourages social awakening about heritage. In the end, the artist wants communities to take pride in their old architecture.
He reproduces his observations through three-dimensional geometrical forms, like that of a baoli (step-well) or Varanasi, made from wood, paper and rice paper.
One of the works, titled Benares, is based on the artist’s own experience of the ancient city. "The city of Benares is extremely special to me," said Mukherjee. His mother was born there, and Mukherjee associates it with the colour vermilion – "warm and generous".
"It is a city where someone seems to have pushed the pause button," he said. "In all my years, it has looked the same."
The narrow lanes of the city along Ganga is recreated in Mukherjee’s sculpture. Twenty sculpted tablets are mounted in two rows to represent its architecture – staircases, by-lanes, temple entrances, or a lingam, the interiors of a home, the ghat.
An interesting aspect of Mukherjee's work is the fact that most pieces have been created from an aerial perspective. The artist credits this to an old habit: "Whenever I had to draw something, even flowers, I would draw it from top angle."
This means that one looks at Mukherjee's mix-media productions, always, with a bird's eye view. As Anand says, the aerial representation expresses a geographical mapping along with some insight on the people who inhabit these spaces.
The Museum Within is on display at Akar Prakar Art Advisory, New Delhi, till November 5.