A man, decrepit and lost in his darkest emotions, spends another earth day in hell. A woman with a laden womb lies naked and wasted. A man converses with a woman, perhaps his wife, draped in a sari yet baring her breasts. Black and shades derivative of this colour’s multi-hued personality translate into these bodies, some thin and decrepit, others disproportioned by girth, but all as real as human forms come, and hold the viewer transfixed. These are some of the figures to be found among the 200 or so compelling canvases that are part of a new Jogen Chowdhury retrospective currently on at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bengaluru.
The septuagenarian’s foray into the world of art wasn’t by any means easy. “I was eight years old when my family moved to Calcutta after the Partition of Bengal in 1947 and we had a lot of problems,” Chowdhury says.
“We first stayed at my uncle’s place. After several moves, we shifted to a small hut type of tiled structure, which had no electricity connection. After a while, we constructed our present house. But Calcutta had a lot of political movement with fluctuations in food prices, residential costs and unemployment. My brother was the only earning member and his income was barely sufficient to support the entire family. When I joined the Government College of Art and Craft in 1955, there was no money to buy a canvas. So I bought newsprint, which was not very expensive those days and made most of my large sketches, which you see displayed here, on this texture of paper. But then, since newsprint doesn’t have longevity, I have affixed these works to board paper to preserve them. And yes, most of the works from that time of my life, are dark. There was no light at night and so, I treated the shading accordingly. The mood of the works is depressive because I was experiencing deep depression then,” the master tells me.
Translating his core thoughts to the canvas and inhabiting them with fluid impressions that have lured generations of connoisseurs, comes naturally to Chowdhury. He attributes his talent to his parents, both of whom had an artistic bent. “My father used to draw on official papers. He painted watercolours of human figures from imagination. My mother had an interest in Alpana art. She made diverse designs of this embroidery skill. My parents did not sit down and teach me art, but I got my artistic bent from both of them. I just observed them and occasionally did things like creating a natural garden with branches of various trees in an empty area. Other children, too, joined me in the creation of this garden,” reminisces Chowdhury.
The artist’s early life — the time when he was born in 1939 in Daharpara village of the Faridpur district in Bangladesh a few years before the Partition of Bengal — was a dreamscape of carefree days and abundance. This landscape has an innate bearing on Chowdhury’s personality as an artist, with his deep interest in people and emotions. “It has been over 70 years since we left Daharpara,” he says. “All our relatives, numbering around 100 people, lived in one area. We had many trees and temples all around. We had a community hall. It was huge — 100 feet high with pillars made of sal wood. Each pillar was huge, and made of wood from an entire tree. Outside the community hall, there was a Durga puja mandap. We used to have community theatre performances there where all the villagers, who were our own family members, gathered. There were lots of ponds around us with abundant water and paddy fields. The fish too, were abundant and we got them from our large pond, which measured around 300 feet by 200 feet. I was very small and used to try catching the fish from this pond. We also had our Gobindo Deb temple here. Gobindo is another form of Krishna and the deity was made of black stone. There were other figurines of Krishna and Radha. We worshipped them and I remember having prasadam one day. The temple was so colourful, decorated with beautiful cloth, which was otherwise kept locked inside a metallic ornamental box. Every family in the village had cultivated lands and lots of vegetables were grown nearby. Our family was educated. I remember, during the 1940s, we had a gramophone in our house. We used to listen to music of that particular period. The Chowdhurys had plenty of land and it was cultivated by our praja. The praja would then take their share of the cultivation and give us some. Our lands stretched into far off areas — there were 1,000 bigas of land. We lived here before the Partition and during the Second World War, we could see the Japanese bomber planes flying overhead. They were old planes and they constantly flew over our skies. During the festive season, structures of Durga were constructed out of bamboo stick and straw. I used to stand beside the artisans, popularly known as the kumbharas, when they were constructing the Durgas. I was extremely influenced by the eyes of Durga. I would pick up pieces of coloured chalk that the kumbharas left behind and draw figures with them. Till date, the large eyes of the Goddess intrigue me. This influence reflects in my work as well. Even if the body of the woman, nude or clothed is ordinary, I make her eyes larger than life.”
Chowdhury’s artistic renditions are narrative and address human bodies for what they are. “Each of my works describes a situation. When nudes are used, they are not for erotic reasons. I have painted the woman with a lot of respect and compassion,” he says.
Among his many nudes — some bold, some graceful, some decrepit — there’s one which particularly grabs attention, called Bhupen Never Loved Woman. “I painted that for the 10th anniversary remembrance show of the legendary artist Bhupen Khakhar at the Steinruecke Gallery in Mumbai. I was close to him and painted this nude with this title, because Bhupen was homosexual and expressed this sentiment through his works,” says Chowdhury.
Sifting through the timeline of Chowdhury’s corpus, one finds the artist always striving to depict a sense of equality between man and woman. “I find it interesting to dramatise this equality between men and women. There is a lot of Indian characteristics in my depiction of women. They are clad in saris and their gestures and postures are a combination of satire and humour and they are theatrical. I enjoy involving myself in these depictions,” explains Chowdhury.
Different periods in this artist’s life have infused varied flavours in his works — from Bangladesh and Calcutta onwards to Paris, Madras, Delhi and Santiniketan, where Chowdhury lives now. “When I was in art school, it was all very realistic and academic. Soon as I passed out of college, I started thinking about experimenting. About how I should approach art in way different from others. Those years, when I was an arts teacher in a school in Howrah, I was thinking of aesthetics and beauty in art. But after moving to Paris, to study at the École des Beaux-Arts and in William Hayter’s Atelier 17, I saw so many works by artists who have contributed to the development of modern art at European museums. And I was left wondering what I could do differently. This international exposure disturbed the continuation of the work that I had been doing in Calcutta. It helped me understand the history of art and I was left with the understanding that I must do something original and cannot repeat the artists from the West. I wanted to discover and express my own sincere, sensitive and original art. When I went to work as a textile designer in the Handloom Board in Madras, I started experimenting with ink on paper in an attempt to evolve a style of my own. I joined the Calcutta Painters Group in 1970 and wrote poems. Where art was concerned, I did not want to repeat myself and began doing some oil paintings, simple drawings, too. But all along, my main subjects were people — their character, their problems, the dramatique of it all.”
Between 1972 and 1987, Chowdhury made his unlikely move into the Rashtrapati Bhavan, where he served as curator. And again, more recently, as the first artist in residence. “In 2014, I spent a fortnight as the Artist in Residence by Invitation, in President Pranab Mukherjee’s office. Back in the ’70s, after spending a few years in Madras, where I worked in a serene atmosphere, I wanted to move to Delhi and applied for the post of curator. I was called for an interview — they found I had suitable exposure to the arts in Europe and France too, and so I went on to work with four former Indian Presidents — V.V. Giri, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy and Giani Zail Singh. My job was to look after all the artwork in Rashtrapati Bhavan and also to carry out creative assignments pertinent to the President including invitations and dinner cards. I had a group of people working with me, including carpenters and clerks. I once made a portrait of V.V. Giri. I would take my easel every morning for half an hour to the main office to work on the portrait while the President posed. One day, as I was readying my easel, the President looked very uneasy. He called out to his aide-de-camp and whispered something in his ear. I began to wonder what was amiss when one of the orderlies returned with a silver tray. It had the President’s dentures on it. I continued work on the portrait after the President put his dentures on. My painting of V.V. Giri still hangs on the walls of the President’s office area. This is one of my most interesting memories from that tenure. I also remember how, when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister, she would make personal visits to check on the VVIP staying area and guest rooms, especially when an important dignitary was expected. Once, Queen Elizabeth II was to visit and Indira Gandhi asked me to source some special objet d’art for the guest chambers. I collected some works and put them on a table by the entrance to the chambers for the PM to take a look. When she arrived, people from various departments gathered around her. She requested them to please return to their work and only those who had specific tasks concerned with the work to remain. Of course, I was there. Of the six works I’d kept aside, she chose three, which I carried in both hands towards the guest chambers. Suddenly, the PM took one of the art works from my hand, saying, ‘How can Chowdhury carry three works with two hands?’ The onlookers, who included several senior men, immediately felt uneasy. Indira Gandhi was very straightforward and this is a very special memory for me. She had a very fine taste in art, and when Rabindranath Tagore was alive, had visited Santiniketan.”
Chowdhury’s years in Delhi saw him involved in several outreach activities. In 1975, he founded Gallery 26 and the Artists’ Forum along with leading figures from the world of art. His works were shown in exhibitions worldwide. He published the journal Art Today in 1981 before heading to Santiniketan in 1987 to join the Kala Bhavan, as an arts professor.
Visiting the diverse periods of Chowdhury’s stance as an artist at his retrospective show, his series from Santiniketan showcases a shift from the depressive to positive light, drama and intricate strokes. “Ever since I started teaching in Santiniketan, my attention has been diverted from depression. Here, I don’t think about the inner wounds too much. With its tradition of art, landscape and humanistic approach, Santiniketan constantly keeps me engaged in activities with younger artists and people. I am very fond of Tagore, too, and being in Santiniketan makes me happy.”