His calling to paint what he saw around him chiselled Mukherjee’s interest in Japanese art. In 1937, while he was on the teaching staff at Kala Bhavana, he self-funded a six-month trip to Japan (“because that’s the longest trip he could afford,” notes Siva Kumar). There, he studied the works of artists like Tawaraya Sōtatsu and Toba Sōjō in the collections of museums and galleries across the country, and their sharp brushwork stirred his interest in the calligraphic method of painting, which relied on its intuitive mark-marking process. “The others who were interested in Far-Eastern art were only looking at the stylistic elements and trying to emulate them, while Benode Behari was intrigued by the structural aspects that underscored these traditions,” says Siva Kumar.
When he returned to Shantiniketan, Mukherjee’s learnings from Japan unfolded in a fresco he painted on the ceiling of a dormitory in Kala Bhavana. By then, Bose had introduced mural-making as an integral part of student-life at Shantiniketan, which presented an opportunity for teachers and students to collaborate, work in lockstep, and exchange ideas and techniques freely. Along with his peers, Mukherjee painted the entire ceiling, at the centre of which were four buffaloes, half submerged in a pond, perhaps to cool off from the intense summer heat. Around it, he packed a panorama of rural life in Bengal, that gradually unfurls as the eye moves from one edge of the mural to the other. “This mural, his first amongst many, reflected his “multiple focus” approach, which he derived from diverse traditions, including Japanese scrolls,” says Siva Kumar.
A few years later, in the 1940s, he created a mural that would come to be known as the magnum opus of his career. Painted across three walls of the central hall in Hindi Bhavan at Shantiniketan, the fresco drew on the lives of the saints and mystics of medieval India. Mukherjee was now at the height of his power, and his incredible confidence and mastery of his craft revealed itself in the expansive composition, and in the fact that the entire painting was done directly on the wall, without the help of an initial sketch or framework.