See more of the story

Sometimes it takes a leap of faith to fulfill your fate.

As a resident director at the Guthrie Theater in the 1990s, Dipankar Mukherjee felt increasingly irrelevant, and that he was not living out his true purpose. After earning an master of fine art's degree in directing at Ohio State University, he came to the Minneapolis playhouse to work on "Naga Mandala," Garland Wright's mystical 1993 adaptation of two Indian folktales.

Even though he was honored to be asked to stay on at one of the nation's premier companies, Mukherjee felt he could be doing more urgent work around the global struggles for equity, justice and world peace. As he was kvetching one day to a mentor, the visiting dramatist Athol Fugard, the South African playwright stopped him cold.

"He said that I shouldn't just have impotent rage," recalled Mukherjee, 59. "Just don't sit there and talk about what regional theaters are not doing. Go do your dangerous work."

Mukherjee took his mentor's advice and quit the Guthrie after four seasons to found Pangea World Theater. Twenty-seven years later, Mukherjee has won what may be Minnesota's highest arts honor, the $100,000 McKnight Distinguished Artist Award.

"Dipankar is one of the rare folks who truly embodies all that he says his work is about," said McKnight's arts and culture program director DeAnna Cummings, who noted that Mukherjee has been commissioned by both the Guthrie and Amnesty International. "He has this unwavering belief in the arts as a vehicle for social change, and that the artistic process connects us deeply to our humanity.

"That he chose to make his home in Minnesota is something that's important to be spotlighted."

The Delhi-born son of corporate manager-father Dhruv Mukherjee, who worked for Xerox in India, and Runa Mukherjee, theater-making poet, he grew up in an arts-loving trilingual household speaking English, Hindi and Bangla, the family's mother tongue.

That polyglot background, not uncommon in India, helped whet his appetite for the larger world. He also developed a keen sense of right and wrong at home and wanted to right wrongs that were so prevalent during his youth, including in apartheid South Africa.

Theater was a vehicle not just for entertainment but engagement and change, he said.

It was in high school that Mukherjee met Meena Natarajan, a kindred spirit who also loved theater. Both participated in street shows and followed the lead of pioneering Indian director and playwright Badal Sarkar, who believed in taking theater out of buildings to the people. The two later founded Pangea, where Natarajan is executive artistic director, and model it after Sarkar's company.

"This award is also for Meena, who has been there every step of the way," Mukherjee said.

Mukherjee and Natarajan earned master's degrees in Chennai, India at Madras Christian College — hers in zoology, his in literature. He followed her to Ohio where she earned her doctorate in ecology and he graduated with an MFA in directing.

After his conversation with Fugard, Mukherjee went home to share the news with Natarajan. "It was a scary proposition," Natarajan said, pointing to the fact that both were immigrants. But that changed quickly when they recalled that they had started their company in India.

"We were excited to create something that drew people together from different backgrounds," Natarajan said.

Pangea prides itself on being a platform for artists of all stripes to do work. And its leaders think of theater in catholic terms.

Some might think of theater as a silo but for Pangea, "theater is beyond not just what's onstage," Mukherjee said. "It's visual arts and music and everything else beyond."

The distinguished award comes at a time when Pangea is making major moves. The company has partnered with a church and other organizations on an $18 million campaign to develop the Center for Peace and Justice, a 10,000-square-foot "living building" with a 250-seat theater, a community kitchen and green spaces.

The Minneapolis structure, which also is envisioned as an arts incubator with a public plaza, is near the Third Precinct that burned during the social unrest after the killing of George Floyd.

When built, it will be a phoenix offering rebirth and hope. Mukherjee points to the indelible image of George Floyd pleading for his life as a crucible that should be beyond politics, even as bitterness around equity, immigration and racial politics gets accentuated in the political realm.

We shouldn't be afraid to speak truth, Mukherjee said. It is necessary to building strong and just communities. He paused to express appreciation as an immigrant whose artistry is being celebrated.

"Anything that immigrants and immigrant organizations achieve, we owe it to the Black world in America," he said. "They created the space for all of us to walk through."