McKnight prize recognizes Pangea's Dipankar Mukherjee

A man holds out a hand to give instructions.
Theater maker Dipankar Mukherjee is the 2023 recipient of the McKnight Foundation Distinguished Artist Award.
Courtesy of McKnight Foundation

The McKnight Foundation has announced its 2023 Distinguished Artist Award recipient today. Theater maker and artistic director of Pangea World Theater Dipankar Mukherjee of Minneapolis received the prestigious award.  

Every year, the McKnight Foundation awards the $100,000 prize to a “Minnesota artist or culture bearer who has made significant contributions to the state’s cultural life,” according to a press release.  

“I'm very grateful to the people who nominated me,” Mukherjee said. 

Mukherjee was born in India in a Bengali-speaking household. He said that his long career in the arts was shaped by two key factors: exposure to activist street theater and his mother's encouragement to learn his native language. He recalled his mother’s language lessons during summers in his youth.  

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“I used to complain to my mother, ‘You know what my other friends are doing now? They're playing soccer. You know, and I'm sitting here and learning my Bengali,’” he said. However, he now expresses gratitude for the experience. 

“I lost my mother a few years ago, but, you know, people talk about legacy, and that's the legacy I embrace — her opening the world of my own mother tongue.” 

Mukherjee eventually immigrated to the U.S. and made Minneapolis his permanent home in the 1990s. He took up a resident director position with the Guthrie Theater before leaving to found Pangea World Theater with his wife in 1995.  

His work aims to decolonize art and explore avenues for multicultural storytelling. Growing up in India, his education was almost entirely focused on western storytelling, as he attended English-medium schools that offered instruction primarily in English. When he later discovered storytelling outside of English traditions, his world expanded.  

“I never felt one is more or less; one is better or not. You know, it just became a competitive world of literature and dramaturgy and poetry and prose,” he said. 

He is also known for community engagement work, including helping found Longfellow Rising, a group dedicated to rebuilding after the murder of George Floyd.  

“Dipankar searches for justice through an artistic process that is, for lack of a better word, truly spiritual,” said fellow artist Sharon Day in a press release from the McKnight Foundation. She was one of the people who nominated Mukherjee for the award. 

“He believes the beauty of the artistic process with its dissonances and its creative energy can heal our outer world and our spirits. He has touched so many lives, encouraged so many artists, and always speaks truth to power.” 

Mukherjee stated that the award's recognition enables him to concentrate on upcoming projects that the award will help to advance. The most prominent are plans for a permanent space for Pangea World Theater and a rehearsal space for other theater companies run by people of color. 

“We need our own table,” Mukherjee said, pointing out they would be one of the few theaters of color to have their own theater and rehearsal space in the Twin Cities. 

“We are no longer sitting at the children's table ... we are going to have our own table, decide our own menu, invite the people whom we want to do [work with] in our own terms.” 

Mukherjee hopes the space, with the planned name of the Center for Peace and Justice, will come to fruition in the next few years.    

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment‘s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.