A retrospective of Jogen Chowdhury in Kolkata revisits the artist’s obsessions, even as he continues to push boundaries
Titled ‘Reverie And Reality’, the show focuses on the diversity of subjects and styles that have preoccupied Chowdhury since the 1950s
At 80, Jogen Chowdhury is remarkably spry, brimming with ideas and observations. “When does an image become art? What is the difference between a painter and an artist? I would throw questions like these at my students when I began teaching at Kala Bhavana (the school of visual arts in Santiniketan) in 1987," he says. “I still haven’t stopped thinking about them."
A couple of floors below the room we are sitting in, a retrospective based on his long and illustrious career is on display. Spread across two storeys of the Kolkata Centre for Creativity, Reverie And Reality is on at Emami Art, a gallery dedicated to contemporary art. Curated by Ranjit Hoskote, it brings into focus the diversity of subjects and styles that have preoccupied Chowdhury since the 1950s.
Born in 1939 in Faridpur, now in Bangladesh, Chowdhury moved to Kolkata with his family after Partition in 1947. Once well-to-do landowners in former East Bengal, the family settled in Dhakuria, a “refugee colony" in the south of the city. In those days, scarcity was in the air. The grim shadow of World War II still loomed large.
This early experience of displacement and the trials of resettlement recur in many of the drawings and paintings Chowdhury made during his time at the Government College of Art (now Government College of Art & Craft) in Kolkata in the 1950s. These academic exercises depict pastoral scenes—boys fishing on a boat in rural Bengal, a village fair, houses with thatched roofs—alongside figure studies in a recognizably urban setting. From a kabuliwallah standing on the lawn opposite the Indian Museum in Kolkata and portraits of friends, family and strangers on the street executed in swift lines to sketches at the Sealdah railway station, where trainloads of refugees washed up. These early works—some of which are signed “J.N. Chowdhury Roll-38"—transport us to an era when the imperative to make art was tied to a higher purpose.
“I wanted to create socially relevant art from the start," Chowdhury says. Like many Indian artists of his generation, especially Bengali ones (Somnath Hore, Rabin Mandal, and so on), he was influenced by the German artist Käthe Kollwitz, best remembered for her depiction of hunger, poverty and the plight of the working classes. It helped that the Chowdhurys were a left-leaning family and literary-minded. “In my time, we weren’t taught art history as part of the curriculum," he says, “we only got a vocational training, which gave us the skill." The deeper direction of the work came from within, created with the richness of life and experience.
In post-war India, surrounded by starving faces in a city still heaving with migrants, the horrors of existence were laid bare to Chowdhury. Like all consumables, electricity was rationed. Power cuts were frequent but brought in their magic. Hoskote points out in the catalogue essay, “Chowdhury’s cross-hatching works, their velvety black texture rendered against crisp white, have evolved from his childhood experience of sketching by the light of a hurricane lamp."
Chowdhury mentions his memory of the kumor (idol-maker) of his ancestral village bestowing life (prana-pratistha) on the goddess Durga, as it were, by painting the idol’s eyes. “That moment haunts me to this day," he says. “Perhaps that’s why most women in my work end up having eyes like the goddess."
The persistence of memory in the artist’s work becomes even clearer from the logic of the curation. Although Hoskote opens the show with a cluster of drawings and paintings from the 1950s, he mixes it up with work from other decades. “Given the retrospective arc (175 works across 65 years), I wanted to begin by establishing a chronology of the early years, before departing from an account held down by time," he explains on email. Such a juxtaposition, he believes, enables the viewer to “dwell on Chowdhury’s key obsessions and recurrent themes".
The human form, often distended or stretched like elastic, is a constant presence. It is there in very different form in the 1960s, when Chowdhury went to study in Paris. Later, he spent a few months in London too. During this time, he made 20-odd semi-abstract paintings and some 100 drawings. A portrait of musician Jimi Hendrix (1968) stands out, though the most impactful is Representative From Hell (1965), which shows the wasted, sickly, supine frame of an old man.
Chowdhury returned to India in 1968 and was posted to Madras (now Chennai) with a job at the Weavers’ Service Centre, where many of his contemporaries, from Arpita Singh to Himmat Shah, have worked. But he was caught in a creative paralysis. Having seen the achievements of Western art, he felt bereft of the impetus to create anything of his own. So he began to write a personal manifesto on creativity, which grew into a sizeable manuscript over the years and was published in instalments in the Bengali periodical Desh, in 1994.
“I pledged to myself to make art that would bear my personal stamp," he says. “I felt to be an international artist, I didn’t need to leave my country or milieu. Even a palm tree in my village could become ‘international’ if I could infuse it with my sensibility." In those years of intellectual churning, he made a series of self-portraits—Hoskote shows them all together, along with one from 1984—in which the artist’s eyes glow with a searching intensity. There were also a few studies in surrealist mode, and the glimmerings of the cross-hatching technique that would become synonymous with Chowdhury’s mature style.
“My endeavour, since those days, has been to convey a sense of the infinite within a finite image," Chowdhury says. “I am a huge admirer of (Rabindranath) Tagore’s work, his quest to capture the formless (aroop) within forms (roop). There is no rigidity in his style, only a sense of openness." In the unbroken lines with which he often draws entire figures at one go, Chowdhury says he strives towards such a state of grace. “A figure isn’t inert, it has a force frozen within it," he says. “I remember seeing a hypnotic energy trapped inside a figurine of the Buddha’s prajnaparamita form, which I came across as a first-year student."
From teaching to a curatorial job at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi, Chowdhury has fulfilled a range of professional commitments, but his engagement with the world hasn’t dimmed one bit. Although he retired from Kala Bhavana 15 years ago, he still works tirelessly, writing poems, illustrating books, publishing a magazine for the arts. In June, he inaugurated Charubasona: The Jogen Chowdhury Centre for Arts, a five-storey structure in south Kolkata which houses a wide range of his work as well as those by other modernists.
In 2014, Chowdhury was nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the Trinamool Congress. Even when Parliament is in session, he cannot, reportedly, stop sketching the motley characters around him. He is looking forward to the end of his term next year, when he plans to spend more time in the studio.
Reverie And Reality is on till 2 December at the Kolkata Centre for Creativity. For more information, visit Emamiart.com.