At the heart of an artist's oeuvre, for all its complexity and protean diversity, often lies the kernel of a single idea or an even more singular sensibility. It gives force and direction to his motifs and brings meaning and coherence to the formal elements he employs. It is through this nucleus that the personal and the psychological energies of an artist break into his art. And so, it is often called the genius of an artist.
Jogen Chowdhary is such an artist with a singular sensibility. His innate sense of rhythm, his subtle ability to uncover the sensuality at the heart of events, to draw them together and to slip his longings and fears into a variety of things, truly distinguishes his work of the last 50 years. And behind his ability to gather everything in a cadenced, rhythmic embrace lies Iris genius to reach out and internalize the ‘other’.
Jogen does this with enviable facility and it being so natural to him, I believe, he does it almost self-obliviously. He does not take possession of the ‘other’ like a slaveholder to enhance his own powers; he rather internalizes the ‘other’ through an act of deep empathy, by offering himself as a home to be inhabited and by allowing the ‘other’ to become a part of his persona-just as Shiva, the virile god of dance, became Ardhanariswara or literally half-female to embrace the ‘other’.
The metaphor of the inhabited figure is very apt for describing Jogen’s engagement with the ‘other’ because the human body was the main object of study in the academic training he received at the art college. It taught him to appropriate it as an object. And his central effort has been to transform the body into a site of his subjectivity; to transform it into a ground receptive to his imagination and all his inner churnings.
We first notice this in the middle of the 1960s when in an effort to break free from the regulations of academic training, he eases the definitive contours of his figures and sets them on a journey towards fruitful amorphousness. He does not merely dissolve their outer limits, but through a rediscovery of the pleasures of the sensory-motor actions churns up the inner contents of the human body into a primordial blend, readying it to be cast in other matrixes and to receive other identities and emotional inflections.
He intuitively understood that the ‘other’ is what is rendered alien to us by biology, culture and history, and the many things that determine our identity. It is those identities and possibilities that we are taught to expurgate through an ethics of self-denial. He also realized that the ‘other’ is also not a unitary whole but a body of many suppressed possibilities. And like many other modern artists who matter he too began to transcend sanctioned identities and seeks his self in his many ‘others’.
As an artist trained in the academic tradition, he began his journey of self-finding by seeking the untutored freedom of the naive and the child. And other things followed. Taught to render what the eye sees, he dived deep into the psyche and the subliminal. Located in the cosmopolitan present, he sought his past in the rural and the folk. And above everything else, as a male artist he broadened his sensibility and work methods by absorbing the art practices traditionally associated with women in his culture.
He is a painter of the human body but Jogen does not construct his figures like a builder with lumps of flesh or hew it out like carver all in one piece. Like women crocheting apparels, he knits them into shape squiggle by squiggle, and turns the body of interlocked squiggles into quivering, heaving, criss-crossed flesh. Doodled into existence with almost indolent casualness his bodies-soft, extensive, amorphous- are regulated by myriad inner and outer energies and evoke the asymmetrical forms and rhythms of the vegetal world we collectively call nature.
Disproportion is the essence of Jogen’s bodies, the sign of their naturalness. They often remind us of gourds and cucumbers. Being like gourds and cucumbers, we do not expect them to conform to an ideal of appearance like classical art or to any standard of value like banknotes. Being like gourds and cucumbers, they are also always realistically rendered and disproportion is evocative; it is expression, never deformation.
His squiggled bodies also carry the subliminal imprint of life swaddled in the soft insides of the abundant flesh of the mother's belly, and memories of digging into her breasts and body with hands, lips and head. Most of them also appear luminous against a dark unnamed space, isolated and self-contained like objects floating in a dream. Seen against the airless and sometimes velvety darkness, the vividness of these familiar objects assumes an ominous presence. They entice and they haunt us like a terrible dream from which we cannot awaken or escape.
The metaphors he creates become for the viewer a map of his meandering sensibility, passages linking the self with the 'others'. These trajectories of empathy are the result of excursions he undertakes to uncover existing ties or the continuity of things in the world. And they often smuggle him across conventional boundaries. The network of empathy connecting the phenomenally and socially discrete, thus turns metaphorical transformations into transgressions, and his images into an invitation to join him in his crossings of the forbidden and re-imagine the world with him.
Jogen’s paintings present an intimate theatre-of forms melting, of forms disintegrating, forms kneaded into soft tactility, forms slumping like soft sculptures or inflated into tumescent shapes, of forms tantalizingly enigmatic, of forms buoyant enough to levitate or rest weightlessly, ominous in their lightness like an overblown balloon that will soon burst or deflate into limpidness.
Many of his forms appear in close-ups against a dream-screen or an unfathomable black void. But they do not lose their palpability like things held too close to our eyes to focus, or flatten out like images pasted on to an undifferentiated surface. A single motherly breast in full and chiseled three-dimensionality, filling a whole painting rises like a mountain before us; two of them create a valley to nestle in, and into which flowers float and snakes slither. A face that fills a page, and drawn with a mesh of lines can be all core like a head held between our hands.
There is a pervasive sensuality in Jogen’s work, eroticism breaths from every pore, not loudly like a thumping heart but softly as relaxed breath. It awakens our senses of touch and sight and brings them together as only intimate encounters with the world do. Yet youthfulness seldom appears in his pictures. When he was younger and dreamt youthful dreams of desire, he expressed himself more in riddles projecting his libidinal longing into fruits, flowers, fish, pillows and other objects.
Occasionally there isalittle transcendence. Consider for instance the image of a slender hand resting on a table, with just a touch of playfulness in the long fingers; a snake skirting it, sliding like a thin stream of soap suds; and, above them, a white flower slender like the hand and drawn like it in thin fine lines, seen against a dream screen of darkness. It has the quietness of moonrise over a silent landscape and the economy of a haiku. This is as far as he gets towards evoking erotic longing that turns everything it touches light, pure and ethereal.
More commonly, among his figures, flesh still holding the promise of idealized perfection, bodies untouched by life are almost non-existent. Fruits, heads, bodies, hands and breasts, everything carries the imprint of autumnal maturity often even a sense of ripeness turning into an intimation of decay and transience. This does not override the sensuality of his figures, or temper their appeal; as we sink our eyes into them, it merely casts a fleeting shadow across our minds.
Beginning in the 1980s Jogen’s figures sometimes slump into a heap like an exhausted animal or splay out like a squashed frog while they remain fully alive. And from this visceral signaling of decadence he occasionally moves onto social commentary. Sometimes his figures wear tiny cloth-caps, the type that Indian traders and politicians wear in imitation of Gandhi who wore it in empathy with common men. With their ill-fitting caps they look like inept pumpkins. It gives these images a comical edge, a certain humour, and occasionally the teeth of a biting satire.
He is peeved by the vacuous displays of self-importance. He also gets distressed when the world around him turns mindlessly violent and his figures then carry the scars of our times. Though he has of late become a campaigner for changing our realities, he has not been a sustained commentator on the events that affect us collectively and his art does not suggest a continuous engagement with social and political issues. Except for brief interludes, he is essentially an artist looking inwards and towards what moves and engages our minds and hearts in our mill heroic personal lives.
Jogen does not stress the specificities of location and, therefore, of time or history in his work while recreating experiences. It is a theatre without props, an enactment using bodies alone. Yet his viewers, especially his Indian viewers, will readily recognize that his men and women belong to the middleclass and to the Bengali middleclass in particular, and they are-as their gestures and dishabille suggest-caught in their unguarded domestic situations. He speaks from within his culture but he is trying to convey something universal.
The viewers will also notice that men do not measure up to women in his paintings. The men are often older and frailer. But essentially it is not age or well being that separates them, it is substance. The women are sensual, have more presence, and more libidinal rigour without being exactly man-eaters or femme fatales. The men appear to be hemmed in by circumstance and manifest fate, women by contrast are powered by will and express character. Addressing each other and yet sealed within themselves, together they keep life's theatre going.
His paintings can be seen as moments from the theatre of life. But they are not candid views, seen and recorded from an eyewitness's point of view. They are events replayed by the mind to itself; not involuntarily in the Proustian sense but as revised enactments. Each re-enactment is prompted by a search for greater clarity, and clearer meaning. And it is something that can be undertaken only in art, not in life.
Mental re-enactments make the gesticulations and the juxtapositions of the bodies more loaded, but also cause the images to waver between message and hieroglyph, narration and symbolism. It makes the images more complex, also more tantalizing. Meaning rustles through the characters and situations and creates ripples but passes by without settling into a narrative. He is an artist who wishes to awaken us rather than leave us more informed.
In some of his recent drawings, primarily of vegetal motifs but occasionally also of the human face or body parts, Jogen sets up a contrast to his figural tableaux. In these employing a broad tangle of frisky lines he conveys a vision of the world's sensuality, with the excitement and ingenuousness of a first viewing. And setting aside the longings and sad wanting that mark his earlier work in them he embraces each motif with a voluptuous arabesque of rhapsodic generosity.
Is there a slackening of vigour, one might question, in this generosity? But the chief difference between these drawings and the older tableaux is not essentially formal-although that matters too-but of experience. In contrast to the complex enigmas of the human world, the world, especially the vegetal world, in his recent drawings offers Jogen a lyric vision of radiant sensuality' that is simpler and wholesome, without glitch or guilt. And it reminds us, in the words of Wallace Stevens, ‘that we live in the centre of a physical poetry.’
Is there a lesson for us in this contrast of human and vegetal natures? Is the part more wholesome than the whole? Is paradise the world before man enters? Jogen does not indicate a choice between them, at least not for the present, he merely lets the lyric vision of worldly abundance and the enigmatic tableaux of life rim in parallel streams, offering experience not morals.
Meaning, indeed, being elusive our minds are spurred to pursue it in life and in art. And Jogen's work teases us into doing just that.
From the catalogue accompanying the exhibition ‘Jogen Chowdhury, Retrospective Exhibition’, 2013 at Nandan Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan. The text was completed on 4 November, 2012.