Jogen Chowdhury Archives

Certain experiences and subjects, themes and times leave their trace on the growth of a painter's works. My childhood spent in Eastern Bengal (now Bangladesh), and the special quality of those times and that environment, have remained an integral component of the nature and style of my painting's - as they shaped eventually The bonds that were forged with the earth, water and nature at large in my rural existence have endured to shape my paintings and artistic creativity. I handled mud and clay from my early childhood as they were freely available in our village. With unskilled hands, I would mould small figures of deities. Though, I could not put them up on their feet and had to keep them lying on the ground. Yet, the feel of the earth and the charm of those forms and the clay may have affected my creativity later, when I started to paint.

I used to roam about then in the woods, in the bamboo groves, along the banks of the village tank. In the courtyard of our house, I tried to plant saplings, Hoping to make a whole garden out of them. With Great concentration I watched the trees with their leaves, the creepers, the flowers and the flower buds and the distinctive shapes. Creepers with several species of gourd spread over the tin shed of our house. The head of the creepers flourished and extended all around. In their growth, I noticed a strange organic structure and a tender rhythmic discipline, as they rose and fell hi twists and curls. The natural forms of creepers and leaves had a strange fascination for me then as they have for me even now. All those charms of nature still float before my eyes.

The other subject that had a hold on me was the forms of deities. I would observe the village potter- the kumbhakar - slowly moulding the image, beginning with the straw frame, then adding the coating of clay and then at the end adding on the colouring. All this I would sit and watch closely and patiently But what fascinated me most was the chakshudan of the Durga image - when the eyes were painted on to the face. I would wait in tense eagerness for that day. When the body of the goddess had been painted all over in sparkling red and yellow, only then was it time for the eyes of Mother Durga to be painted in, so as to complete the face. And when that colouring too was complete - the goddess came to life. She appeared gazing with eyes wide open - in battle against the demons. At the slightest provocation, those spellbinding eyes still return to my paintings, again and again.

Most of eastern Bengal consists of extremely low lying land, full of tanks, canal and large extensive bodies of water. I made my own angling hooks and caught fish when I was quite young or sifted water flowing along a drain to make a catch. I saw a rich variety of species of fish. My father, too, was fond of angling. Hence, my boyhood days were wrapped in water, fish, creepers and leaves.

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 east a dark spell on our minds and thoughts.

The main direction pursued at the Government College of Art and Craft in Kolkata, was along the lines of strict academicism. It was an art school set up by the British, and thus confined to drawing and painting things like still-life, portraits, life studies and composition. As a diligent student, I found it quite easy to acquire real proficiency in these academic skills. But there was no creative thrust at all in the teaching methods practiced at our college. We fell back on our own cultural affiliations, scattered reading's about the arts and studied art books and albums, driven by the intensity of our creative will, to pursue painting in the middle of all possible difficulties. We began to think seriously about painting the moment we had left Art College. What should we paint? And how? Why should we paint? And then we discovered Rabindranath Tagore's paintings and writings on art and started reading them. We studied Abanindranath Tagore's paintings and writings and read his Bageswari Lectures. We studied the paintings of Jamini Roy, Benod Behari Mukherjee, Nandalal Bose, Ramkinkar Baij and several other artists. We also began to look at the painting-s of foreign artists, the way everyone looked at them. We studied Degas, Van Gogh, Cezzane, Matisse, Picasso, Russo, Botticelli, Rembrandt, Klee. We even visited an exhibition of Kathe Kollwitz originals at the Indian Museum Hall and came away deeply impressed.

I started painting along my own ideas once I left college. I had meanwhile done such large number of drawings that their influence surfaced quite prominently in my paintings. I used black ink and a lot of criss-crossing on cheap paper to produce drawing and painting's from my imagination, reflection on the social and political upheavals of Kolkata and the melancholy and complexities that were a part of my own life. Financial strains forced me to draw on cheap newsprint and in oils on coated pasteboard, but all charged by new ideas. I painted a few Canvasses too, around the same time. But I have been able to preserve only very few of my works from this period. Most of these have been destroyed by termites or from other hazards. A few lie scattered here and there.

My primary subject has been the human being'. I was strongly influenced by leftist thought in this phase. I painted a series of oils titled, Representative from Hell, on the theme of a band of avaricious men who exploited the poor to inflate themselves with wealth far beyond their need and then turned into bloated. It was the same idea that went into the making of my Man on Sofa. I did a lot of drawings too, in this phase, in oil or thy pastels, often large ones, always on newsprint. Simultaneously, in a more dramatic mode I painted quite a few variations on Woman before a mirror and Reclining Woman, winch were romantic and poetic. But it was the free fluidity of the line and the complexities that it could create that achieved density in my work. They all bore the marks of the time and my life from that time.

Around this time (1960-1965) I began to deliberate on the structural principles and codes of painting. I became particularly concerned about the issues of indigenous tradition and the influence of foreign art and the urge to paint in an original manner and with a strong sense of individuality. The one thing that remained imperative to me was that my subjects should grow out of my surroundings and my society. Questions of artisticstyle,aestheticsand modernity were a constant provocation. Before my first foreign visit hi 1965, I prepared a few canvasses, planning to paint a few large works. My imagination brought into play a whole series of manifestations on the decrepit way of life that I knew so well in Kolkata. But sadly, those paintings were never painted. In late 1965, I went to Paris on a French Government scholarship. For long, I had cherished the desire to go abroad, particularly to Paris where I could see the works of my favorite artists and visit museums.

I spent two years in Paris, where I had a spacious studio in the Cite Internationale des Arts. I enrolled myself at William Hayter's Atelier 17 and L'Ecole National Superiere des Beaux Arts. But what drew me more that France itself were the museums and art galleries where I spent most of my time. And, of course, I thought about paintings all the time. The social and cultural differences came as a big1 jolt to me when I arrived in Paris straight from Kolkata. While there were similarities in several matters, the differences were quite glaring in terms of lifestyle and values. Initially, there was a phase when I could not decide on possible subject. I was quite overwhelmed by the sheer range of the paintings and the great painters that I saw for the first time, and the strange restlessness gripped me in the alien social setting. I was more than ever, intensely disturbed over choosing my own position as an artist, particularly as an Indian artist. Whenever I attempted to paint, restlessness would take over. Then, gradually the human being and the human body, independent of the constraints of time and space, started appearing in my works, quite simply and directly. I did numerous large drawings in tins phase and the oil paintings that I painted in this phase, the human body - the inside of the body-was my main subject.

Before returning to India, I had the opportunity of visiting numerous museums, churches and galleries and watching paintings, sculptures and other works of art in France, Germany, Holland, England and Italy. They have remained a part of my experience and education in art.

The one anxiety that haunted me on my return to India in 1968 was there was really anything left for us to do after that great achievements of the western masters that I had seen so extensively displayed on my foreign tour. There was no point after all in replicating their paintings or works of art. I had by then rejoined my old employment in Chennai, where for almost one whole year I do no drawing or painting at all. With my knowledge of the state of art in India and the West, my thoughts soon began to take shape. Every day I spent some time writing down my thoughts on art till the}' grew to a manuscript of a hundred pages. In January and February 1994, the Bengali fortnightly Desh published the text in four consecutive issues. The long track record of my thoughts at that point of time were on the art traditions of tins country, Indianness, the influence of western art, modernism and related issues considered as problems for an Indian Artist to negotiate. At about the same time, I wrote a shorter three-page account in English of my thoughts on art.

I found several powerful Indian artists at tins point if time enthusiastically and unquestioningly adopting the styles, conventions and forms of modern Western art and abstract art in particular. I felt this was a surrender of sorts on the part of the Indian artists and that this restrained the development of art and divested it of significance. What I felt quite strongly about was that we need to create something new and original - something which could not be accomplished either by replication of Western art or by falling back on Indian art', hi other words, on ancient India and its heritage alone. I felt that I should create something new only out of the genuine feelings that rose from our involvement in our own lives, which of course, could draw quite naturally from the East and the West, the ancient and the modern but only as far as they remain related to the artist's personal quest. The work technique could be essentially personal, with the artist withdrawing from the entire hullabaloo outside to start his creative adventure in a solitary comer in his own small closet. The other idea that stuck me was that it was my own characteristics that would define and determine my art and its conventions. My memories, my dreams, my thoughts, my environment - they could all become subjects of my works.

Thus when I started drawing in black ink alone, on paper a series of works, primarily in numerous lines, followed my own idea and my own style with fish, flowers, hands, leaves and creepers, apples floating in space, breasts, butterflies, piles of clothes in a mess and teacups as my subjects. I have a feeling that the first picture that came in this phase were more strongly charged with sexuality, with unintended traces of Freudian psychology. I thus completed in this period a long series of works grounded in dream and super-realism. The

pictures that came later were more social and dreamlike. This difference can be traced to the fact that the first group was done before my marriage and the second group came after. I consider this a valid factor behind the qualitative difference between the two groups. A few small drawings clone in this period went to determine the thematic content of my pen-and-ink works that followed. As a matter of fact, a total human figure does not appear in any of the pictures that I can recall from this period. But the fragments of an inner life and the environment that appear in this works are primarily autobiographical. I did some works in this period centering on the jacquard loom. All these works were products of fantasy and imagination.

After four years of service in Chennai as a textile designer I moved in Delhi in 1972 with a job in the President's Estate. Delhi was then a vibrant centre of cultural activities of the Lalit Kala Akademi and the National Gallery of Modern Art. In the 15 long years I spent in Delhi, I formed numerous contact and connections with artists in Delhi and from all over India.

In my lonely setting in Chennai, I was extremely personal in my choice of subjects. But in Delhi, I considerably extended the range of my subjects drawn from a more extensive life environment, including men and women, political leaders, gods and goddesses, rural people, leaves and flowers. Though the subjects became move varied the technical mode remained almost unchanged. I was still seeking to realize the subject of the picture from numerous criss-crossing lines in pen-and-ink on paper. I had, of course, by then started using oil pastels more frequently. The size of the works grew larger, and I was able to paint quite a few significant works in this period.

In works like Noti Binodim, Sundari,Life-1, Life-2, Tiger in the Moonlit Night andGanapati-several ofthem quite large in size-I was able to express my ideas quite closely. But what was most important was that a clear artistic conception and genuine passion went into making of these works. I had seen a performance of the play Noti Binodini around this time at the Kalibari in Delhi. I find the persona of Noti Binodini to be intense and fascinating'. I treated her face with great sympathy, giving it both pathos and luminosity and charged her body with feeling. Sundari actually portrays and imaginary prostitute who looks at her naked body reflected in the mirror admiringly. The feet and touch of Birbhum terracottas, the Kalighat pats and the figures that I carved in my childhood seem to have left their traces on the form of Sundari's body. Life-1 grew out of something quite funny: A pile of pillows and bedclothes were lying in a mess in corner of the small room on the terrace that my wife, Shipra, and I had rented in South Delhi when we first arrived there. There was something strongly sensual about the accumulation of the layers of bed sheets and the side pillow. Tiger in the Moonlit Night is primarily allegorical, painted in the days of the Emergency. Painted in a mocking vein, it has fantasy for its main thrust. I found Indira Gandhi's Emergency to be an enormous lie. Still, the tiger that represented the Emergency was only a paper tiger, floating clawless, toothless and ineffectual in the air, with India as a woman in disarray lying underneath, with a half moon in the sky. I put all my passion into the work, used minimal colouration, stuck close to grey and black, and allowed my imagination to give it an intensely personal quality.

I did several small 'faces' in tins phase, depicting people of different characters and different kinds - bureaucrats, leaders, ministers, film stars, dancers, sycophants, village chieftains and lovers. The sheer range of characters, temperament and manners that I observed in the people that I saw around myself fascinated me. I portrayed them from an essentially personal perspective. In my characterization of these people I crossed the bounds of realistic representation and let imagination take over. Pictorial values have in many eases called for necessary and spontaneous reconstruction and distortion of the anatomy. This is something that has been in my works right from the beginning.

I painted Mono, Lisa in my Dream around tins time. Several famous painters have painted Mona Lisa from their imagination and according their will. This was a work in the same spirit. I painted a few imaginary still life, all made up of irrelevant subjects, like a plate on a table and an eggplant on a plate. I felt that these simple, everyday objects could very well be the subject for art. At this point, I also painted several pictures of village folk and ordinary people. I found these works to be quite significant. I exhibited most of these works at the Dhoomimal Art Gallery in Delhi in 1981. In these works, I tried to project - in my own way-the people of this country and particularly their more rounded anatomical forms and postures. In a series of three; Man on the Floor, Man Sitting on a Mat and Man Sitting on a Sofa, I sought to project in simple terms the three classes in Indian society.

After a long stretch of 15 years in Delhi, I came to Santiniketan in 1987, and have been there ever since. Before I left Delhi, I painted a few 'couples', men and women sitting together intimately, with touches of satire, humour, and a sensuality in close juxtaposition. While in Delhi, I had also painted in oil a few small works following primarily the forms of men and women, but adding a little reality of my own making. I have always been fascinated by the conventional forms of a sari draping around a women's body, and I have sought through that image, forms of my own making, in a new manner.

At first, I could not quite concentrate on my arrival at Santiniketan. Pending myself in the seclusion of trees and greenery, a setting which was such a departure from the bustle of Delhi, I was for some time in a state of fitfulness about my painting. Though immediately on my arrival, I did paint a series of small watercolours and completed some of my unfinished works from Delhi. But then I started working in many ways with pen-and-ink, pastels, pen and brush, oil pastels and oil, dealing with a wide variety of subjects. I did pictures of various kinds and modes.

One cannot imagine a life without arts. I have always felt that the arts enrich and extend life as a whole and that they are not there only to serve life, but rather that they constitute a large part of life. Every field of life bears a trace of art. Whenever I have sought for subjects for my paintings, I have felt the tremendous lure of this life in all its diverse manifestations, the dream relationships that bind man to man, man to nature, the intricacies of relationship and their tugs, strains and mysteriousness. Hence, man and their setting's have remained the main subject of my pictures, the same now as 30 years ago. In these last 13 or 14 .years hi Santiniketan, I have produced a considerable number of works with man at the centre. But in Santiniketan, I have also been under an extremely personal compulsion to engage in a fresh perspective and primarily in line drawing. For a long time, I could not concentrate on any large work. For all these years I have made numerous drawings in simple, easy flowing lines mainly in black oil pastels or black ink and brush.

As for the subject matter, these drawings have dealt with human figures and nature alike, with flowers, leaves and creepers, birds, flower vases, butterflies, etc. with these numerous drawings, I have deliberated on the rich significance of lines, particularly their vitality, and along with it, their impetuous flow, their form and their rhythm, and above everything else, their delicate vibrations-super natural vibrations, if there were any. The forms of flowers, creepers and leaves, and the way they approximate to forms of the human body have also been of great interest, to me. The trees are as alive to me as is a human body of flesh and blood. This is a belief that I have nurtured for a long time. I find all the objects of the world charged with life. The origin of this notion lies, of course, in the Upanishads, the Bhagwadgita and Rabindranath Tagore. But I find it corroborated by modern science. It is a conviction rooted it my consequences.

In these 13 and 14 years I have practically produced only a few series of drawings in which there has been a sure growth of coloration, particularly in oil pastels and crayons. I have occasionally done watercolours too. Even now, in intervals between other kinds of work, I continue to draw.

A special factor that has emerged inthe Indian art scene while I have been at Santiniketan is that a lucrative market hasbeen foundfor Indian artfor the first time ever. The rise in the sell of Indian art is because of various reasons. There was a time when we would sell just one or two works at the most in a year. But a massive boom in the art market has brought affluence to the artists as well as created a commercial setting for artistic activity in general, something that was inconceivable a few years ago.

This new situation saddled all the established artists with the challenge and responsibility of retaining their creativity and the freedom of their individual contemplation. Through this period I remained involved in teaching at Kala Bhavana in Santiniketan, serving for a spell as the head of the department of painting, and later as the principal of the institution. Hence, for a few years I did even not ha.ve the time to devote my mine entirely to painting. But I made time (haw numerous small works in pen-and-ink and oil pastels. In 1988, I held an exhibition of a few small works in Bangalore. Soon after, I participated in the exhibition held to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Gallery Chemould in Mumbai. A few small watereolours were also included there. The CIMA Gallery in Kolkata displayed quite a few of my major works in exhibitions in India and abroad. There were pictures that I think earned the impress of my individual style and my perception for the exhibition entitled Fantasy, I enjoyed working on a number of allegorical themes.

In 1996, CIMA Gallery held a solo show of my works. What was important about this show was that most of the works on display in this exhibition were in oil. I had stopped working in oil for a long time and would once in a while do one or two works in oil. This time, I completed quite a few large works in oil. All these works were defined in simple and straight forward lines, though they had grown out of a few subjects, forms and thoughts entirely of my own. I enjoyed bringing to the same body the contradictory elements of realism and two-dimensionality.

A subject that has often returned to my pictures is the body- realistically formed- with supernatural eyes from traditional Bengali sculpture. I have used realism and decorativeness simultaneously in the structuring of a work. There was another subject with which I had a lot of fun, though in just a few pictures. This was the seeking of a new figural form out of the mingling of the postures of popular dolls, particularly the dolls of Krishnanagar and those of real human being's, facilitating a tone of humour and satire. I have found this subject quite new and creative. My works in this mode have, of course, my usual dramatic spirit, form and style.

In 1999, I took voluntary retirement from my teaching position at Kala Bhavana, but I occasionally still take classes there. From then onwards, I have devoted myself to my art more single-mindedly. I have completed works in pen-and-ink and pastels, and have dealt with new subjects with a different manner of expression. I still feel that a lot more could be done on paper or canvas. All these thoroughly used old mediums can turn new with changing demands of creativity. I am convinced that it is the creative artist's modern perception that redefines the older mediums of artistic making as modern. The older medium that have been considered powerfully expressive in the past still continue to serve the demands of art, and will do so in the future too. And, the newer artistic mediums will extend the possibilities and scope of artistic creativity still further into the future. At the same time artists will be required to make their choices of the new mediums from the needs that are defined by their creativity. A whole range of new and strikingly original mediums will be put to use in the service of art. But all this will depend eventually on the creative artist's personal will, style and individual quest. The mediums that express art are now entirely free. Driven by my creative urge, I too, may someday use a few of these newer mediums, just as I feel the urge to use mediums such as sculpture, terracotta, or graphics.

Santiniketan, 2000

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