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Tracing Buddha’s epic journey uphill

Hemmed in by the walls of old buildings on Puddapukur Road, Meera Mukherjee’s 14-ft Buddha in meditation must have felt like an injured kite that sits in a huddle at one corner of a courtyard, occasionally flapping a wing in a vain attempt to soar. The sculptor had died while working on it in Narendrapur on January 27, 1998.

Most of the limbs of the monumental sculpture were ready before her death but it took the combined effort and determination of her friends and followers at Elachi village, where her studio was situated, to weld each piece and give final shape to the Buddha following her detailed instructions. For quite some time the Buddha had to wait for deliverance in a courtyard close to Mukherjee’s flat. Till the Goodricke Group had the good sense to acquire it. It was dismembered and carted all the way to its final destination — Badamtam Monastery in Darjeeling, where it was reborn and installed.

Thanks to Goodricke Group once again, a documentary, In Search of Meera’s Buddha, has been made on the epic journey of the sculpture by young Murad Ali. It was screened last Friday at the British Council. During her lifetime, Mukherjee, after returning from her sojourn at the art academy in Munich, travelled all over India in search of art forms and techniques among the simple village folk and tribals. For a respectable woman to undertake such a journey was unheard of in the 60s. But she was of an altogether different mettle — she lived and worked just the way she wanted. As is well known, she employed the ancient cire perdu technique or the lost wax process. The dancing girl of Mohenjodaro Harappa fame is the best-known piece of antiquity done in that technique.

In an article that Mukherjee had typewritten not long before her death for a supplement of this newspaper, she had expressed the essence of her art: “One can try through a whole life to express art, yet it may not come. As one may not consciously create art, it is abstract. It is the result of self-realisation and gradual development of essence. When I wanted to express art consciously I realised I did not know how to create art.”

The film dwells mostly on her interest in Buddhism (through Roshan Seth’s narration and music meant to be spiritually uplifting) and on the trek of the Buddha sculpture to the Darjeeling monastery. There is little about Mukherjee’s spiritual journey and her search for an appropriate indigenous technique recorded in her book Vishwakarma. Mukherjee did have a rich collection of Buddhist literature but it was only a fragment of her being. We catch glimpses of the sculptor at work and at riyaz in some invaluable black-and-white footage. The colour photographs of her working at the kiln have been published time and again in newspapers.

The film’s weakest point is the recreation of Mukherjee’s mother tracing alpana on a gleaming red floor. The sculptor was from a conservative family in Bowbazar, and nobody who has stepped inside such a household would have created that Inside Outside variety of interiors.

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