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Partition, poverty, politics: What shaped master painter Jogen Chowdhury’s art

Modern artist Jogen Chowdhury’s paintings chronicle complex issues: sexuality, politics, poverty. We get an expert’s guide to his work

HT48HRS_Special Updated: Jun 09, 2016 18:06 IST
Soma Das
Soma Das
Hindustan Times
Jogen Chowdhury,art,painting

Modern artist Jogen Chowdhury simply signs as ‘Jo’. His paintings, though, chronicle complex issues: sexuality, politics, poverty. Ahead of his show this weekend, we get an expert’s guide to his work

Jogen Chowdhury (77) celebrates an Indian approach to art, one that blends contemporary techniques with traditional imagery. The modern artist is equally at ease depicting scenes of idyllic rural life as he is portraying the brutality inflicted on the Abu Ghraib prisoners in Baghdad. He has also been prolific in terms of the mediums explored: ink and pastel on paper, oil on canvas, watercolour on paper, and pen on paper.

Read: Coming full circle: SH Raza on making art at 94 and the bindu motif

Born in a village near Kotaliparha in current-day Bangladesh, he grew up in a refugee settlement in erstwhile Calcutta. He made art his medium of evaluating his milieu. Through his use of bold lines, cross-hatching and distorted figures, he’s portrayed the starkness of poverty he witnessed first-hand.

Story of Woman, Oiloncanvas. This work comprises five canvases, each measuring 60 x 60 in (The Arts Trust)

This weekend, an exhibition titled A Jogen Chowdhury Show — Beyond Expectation, will showcase 22 works by the artist, from 2002 to 2014. The highlight is the largest painting Chowdhury ever made: a mammoth 25ft x 5ft five-panel work titled Story of a Woman, which chronicles erotic tales.

The other works on display reflect the different subjects that Chowdhury was fascinated with such as human faces and emotions, relationships and nudes.

Tushar Sethi, director, Institute of Contemporary Indian Art (ICIA) and auction house Astaguru, reveals five aspects of Chowdhury’s life and work:

His art adapted to the times.

In the early stages of his career, Chowdhury had to resort to basic resources such as oil, ink, and cheap newsprint, since canvases were expensive.

The beautiful face, Pen & Ink with Pastel on Paper, Cross Hatch (The Arts Trust)

He is synonymous with the Cross Hatch technique.

It is a technique where layers of parallel lines are applied at a different angle to create textures that define light and shadow. This auction showcases many such works from the recent past. One of those works is, in fact, his only large painting in the last 25 years.

Speaking about his association with the technique, he says, “When I was in college at Kolkata, as a senior student, I was fond of making cross hatchings or criss-cross lines to give shades to objects or human figures. It came spontaneously to my drawings done in pencil or pen and ink. I probably preferred the technique of using black ink and cross hatchings as our personal life and surroundings were also very dark and complex due to Partition. Moreover, during my college days, we had no electricity at home. That forced me to draw and paint mostly in black when I used to draw or paint at night with the help of a lamp.”

Artist Jogen Chowdhury (HT file photo)

The Partition had a big impact on his life and work.

In his biography, titled Jogen Chowdhury — Enigmatic Visions (by R Siva Kumar), he says, “When we came over to Kolkata after India’s Independence in 1947, we were completely cut off from our previous life in eastern Bengal. We were still living in a village at the time of World War II and even though we did experience faint repercussions of the war such as the famine that came in its wake which took a toll on life in Bengal, we were spared its real impact. However, the communal riots between Hindus and Muslims which we saw after arriving in West Bengal, was the first experience to cast a dark spell on our minds and thoughts…Our life was in turmoil after the Partition. Our dream of a peaceful settlement was shattered. Even though I have come a long way since then, at times those childhood memories still haunt me.”

Interior (with couple), Pen & Ink with Pastel on Paper (The Arts Trust)

The city of Paris impacted his oeuvre.

After he returned from Paris (where he did his Master’s), Chowdhury found himself in a quest to find his own identity vis-à-vis the achievements of the western artists. This is also the phase where he was able to establish his own style. He started by drawing with black ink on paper to capture living and non-living objects. The works in this phase were grounded in dreams and super-realism. The later phase was more social and dream-like, derived from fantasy and imagination.

Man in Bed, Pen & Ink with Pastel on Paper (The Arts Trust)

He was the art keeper at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

As the art keeper (similar to a curator), he moved to Delhi in 1972 for the job. Over 15 years, he extended his range of subjects to include men and women, political leaders, gods and goddesses, rural folk, leaves and flowers. However, his style still remained the same. He had a huge studio at his disposal, giving him an opportunity to explore larger canvases. This is also the phase when he painted quite a few of his significant works.

Dead, Watercolour on paper (The Arts Trust)

Fact file

> After studying at the Government College of Art and Craft, Calcutta (1960), he went to Paris and did his Master’s at the Ecole Nationale Superieur des Beaux Arts (1965).
> He worked as a textile designer for five years in Chennai.
> After being the art keeper at Rashtrapati Bhavan, he moved to Santiniketan where he taught in the painting department and retired in 1999. He still resides there.
> In 2014, he was the first artist-in-residence at Rashtrapati Bhavan and stayed there for 14 days.

A Jogen Chowdhury Show — Beyond Expectation is on June 11, 12pm to 6pm
At: St Regis, Senapati Bapat Marg, Lower Parel
Call: 6162 8000
Entry: Free

First Published: Jun 09, 2016 00:00 IST