Jogen Chowdhury's art philosophy is summarised in an image. The artist, he says, must be like a tall, sturdy tree. Its roots, embedded deep, will draw vital nutrients from the soil. But the trunk must stand firm against the vagaries of the weather, even as the overhead canopy spreads far and wide to breathe in the fresh air and reach out to the sun. Chowdhury epitomises his philosophy. His childhood Eden still nurtures an imagination that came to be shaped in the crucible of indelible experiences and ripened in an atmosphere of increasing catholicity. His ideas about art were, therefore, formed by his life and learning. A life that, in some ways, represents a generation. But then there are those unusual asides to the story that mark the man and his art apart.
The man and his art, seen in the perspective of the times he has lived through, is the subject of this interview. Its aim is to present to readers this multi-level story as simply as possible. Conducted over several meetings with the artist in Calcutta and Santiniketan- sometimes with, sometimes without the tape recorder- backed up by numerous phone calls, this interview will, we hope, give art-lovers a clear idea about one of the major artists of contemporary India.
BORN CLOSE TO NATURE
Rita Datta (RD): You were born in Faridpur, now in Bangladesh, the son of the local zamindar. What was your family like?
Jogen Chowdhury (JC): There were my grandmother, my father Pramathanath Chowdhury and my mother Indudevi. We are four brothers and two sisters, each born at intervals of about four years. I was the fourth child of my parents and the third son. When I was a child three of us younger children lived in Daharpara in our village, while our older brothers were in Calcutta. Our older sister, about eight years my senior, was married by then and also in Calcutta.
We almost had a joint family. -My grandfather had two wives and I saw them both as a child. My father had a sister-our pishima-and a half-brother, Manmathanath. We called him Kakababu. His family, his sons were close to us in our childhood. Kakababu had left the village at an early age for Calcutta and eventually became a police sub-inspector. In fact, it was with Kakababu that my older brother lived.
We have a detailed documentation of our family tree. Our family is Vaidic Brahmin and had come originally from Kanauj about 400 years ago-that's about 14-15 generations ago-and settled in Bengal after getting land from the king, Pratapaditya. Incidentally, over the years, our extended clan in Kotalipara, Faridpur, covered hundreds of family units. On social occasions like marriages or funerals, my father used to take me to the homes of distant relatives.
We can count some prominent names among Vaidic Brahmins. Tarapada Chakravarty (musician), Chapalakanta Bhattacharjee (editor of Ananda Bazar Patrika) and the poet Sukanta Bhattacharjee, among others.
In Daharpara, I was close to nature. I used to move around on my own, visiting other villages with relatives and friends. Everybody in our village was related to us in some way. It was an affluent village, with a temple and a mandap or hall where religious ceremonies took place.
RD: What was your father like? And mother?
JC: My father and mother were both saintly and artistic. Father used to paint and draw even on the reverse of zamindari papers, though he was not a trained artist. On occasion, he would also make images of Saraswati and Durga. Besides, he acted in village plays and had painted the front curtain of the stage. My parents were mild-mannered and religious-minded. They meditated every day. Father read the Gita and mother told her beads every day. Moreover, father loved nature and grew plants. Mother had a meticulous sense of beauty and made beautiful designs on cloth.
RD: With you, art is a matter of inheritance, it seems. Thinking back can you recall any interesting characters who made an impression on you?
JC: One of our uncles was so fond of fishing he was at it almost 24 hours. Another was a gossip and fond of the theatre. I remember I was once in his drawing room with my father and tasted real tea with a wonderful fragrance. I’ve never had such good tea in my life.
RD: The ancestral home, what was it like? Any haunting memories?
JC: Our home was built of wood and tin. That was the practice in the locality. Only the temples of Govindadev and Kali were of brick. The foundation could be of mud or cement, but the walls were wooden frames and there were hanging balconies. Our kitchen was a separate annexe. There was a shed for cows and another for threshing paddy. Each house sprawled over a lot of space and had well-kept yards. The houses often appeared alluringly mysterious to us. For example, plays would be performed after the Pujas. The theatre things would be kept in our house. Rummaging through them was an exciting occupation.
A sixteenth and half of the ancestral property belonged to the Chowdhury families of our village. Of that, 2,400 bighas, distributed in different areas among different peasant-tenants, belonged to my family.
RD: Since when did your family hold the zamindari?
JC: Since it was received as a grant about 400 years ago.
RD: Did you see any British come to your home or locality? If yes, what was your response as a child?
JC: No, but we did see Japanese bombers flying over our village during the Second World War.
RD: How much do you remember of the place you grew up in? What was it like in terms of its natural features? Did you like the place? Did you have the freedom to roam around as you pleased?
JC: As I’ve said elsewhere, nature's bounty was apparent everywhere. There were trees, shrubs, forests, ponds, canals. I'd become familiar with different kinds of trees and flowers from my childhood. Next to the village stood a bamboo grove. In winter, yellow-red marigolds were in bloom along the banks of village tanks. I roamed about with my mates, even in the forest, picked wild berries like jujube, plucked flowers, climbed trees, swam, and went fishing with hooks I myself made by twisting bits of wire. At the bathing steps of our tank we’d see small fish swarming about. Big ones were there, too. Once, I’d planted trees all over our yard to have my own garden.
RD: What was its human environment like? Can you recall any kind of caste discrimination? The position of Brahmins, for example, or untouchability? What about religious communities and the relation between Hindus and Muslims?
JC: Since everybody in our village was our kin, they were all Hindu and Brahmin. There were Muslim and low-caste peasants but in other villages. There was a harmonious relationship between the people of our village and a few poor, low-caste families who lived just beyond. No difference was made between Hindus and Muslims,Iremember Muslim tenants sitting in our balcony along with the Hindus. My parents were kind-hearted and none of us ever condoned untouchability. In this connection, I'm reminded of a playmate I had at the age of 5 or 6. He was a tenant's son and belonged to what is called a scheduled caste. But my parents never stopped me from mixing with him.
RD: What was the relation between your father the zamindar and the peasants? Did you have any vague knowledge of peasants who did not/could not pay rent?
JC: My father was humanistic and cared for the peasants. And the peasants, both Hindu and Muslim, loved him too. Every year they’d come with tribute: coconuts, pumpkins, fruits, etc. My father would take boat trips once or twice in the year to collect rent. Peasants paid whatever they could. I never heard my father complain of defaulters. The misery of poor peasants that he saw when visiting their homes probably touched him.
RD: What memory do you have of rituals, festivals and fairs (apart from Durga Puja)?
JC: Many festivals were celebrated. Apart from Durga Puja, Kali Puja, Jagatdhatri and Manasa Pujas and Doljatra or Holi, there were other, less known rituals. The charak mela, for example, held right next to our village, was an attraction for children. Three or four men would hang from hooks that pierced the skin of their backs. The hooks were tied to bars fixed to a wooden pole that was spun around. Those who chose to undergo the ordeal did so to honour religious vows. They were poor, and usually quite thin. Some came to pierce their tongues vertically with spikes. These men would wander from village to village, begging. At the weeklong charak fair you got village stuff that fascinated us: terracotta and other handcrafted items, dolls, glass bangles and the like.
Maghmandal Brata or the winter devotion and the Surya Brata or the sun devotion were observed by my older sisters, for these were only for women. My sisters would go around collecting the things needed and I'd tag along. Quince leaves were dried and powdered to make a green paste with which the sun was drawn on the ground for Surya Brata. Women assembled in their colourful best as boys watched from a distance. The whole ceremony was very aesthetic. For Doljatra or Holi, the idols of Gobinda and Radha were seated on a decorated wooden palanquin and paraded around.
RD: And playing with colours?
JC: We played with colours, of course, but not as riotously as in Calcutta. And then we had the boating matches after the pujas.
RD: Boating matches?
JC: It was after the Pujas when the land was flooded and the river and paddy fields were one vast sheet of water, Long boats with ornamental prows with, say, carved peacock and swan heads were rowed by 20 to 50 men at great speed to the shrill accompaniment of metal instruments. The splashing water, the metallic cacophony, the immense crowds created a strange atmosphere.
We also had Kumir Puja, a ceremony involving the crocodile. Huge models of the animal were made with shells for eyes, smeared with vermilion and chopped up.
RD: Obviously, the fear of snakes and crocodiles gave birth to rituals like Manasa Puja and Kumir Puja. What about the big event, Durga Puja? How was the image created?
JC: Before the Pujas, the clay-modeller would come. He'd flesh out a bamboo armature with straw and then slap on the clay reinforced with husk. Next the faces of the goddess and the other idols would be made from moulds and painted. As the images took form we'd watch in amazement. Especially during chokshudaan or the bestowing of sight on the goddess by painting those huge staring eyes. Once, my father had made the image.
Spirit of celebration infected the whole village. Relatives working in Calcutta would come down with new clothes for us. Their dress and behaviour had begun to show an urban influence, A goat was sacrificed each day and people came for a sit-down lunch. In my father's childhood it used to be a buffalo.
RD: What about the participation of peasants, including low-caste Hindus, and Muslims?
JC: Low-caste people participated in all the ceremonies our family organised but weren't involved in the rituals. And although we had close social interaction with the Muslims, they were not part of the actual rituals, either.
RD: You must have seen jatras during the pujas?
JC: Jatra troupes would perform over 5-6 nights. The glittering costumes, make-up, and music were mesmeric for children. But when, during the day, we hung around the folk artistes and saw them with their unmade laces and untidy clothes, perhaps smoking bidis, we'd be jolted out of our fantasy.
RD: What were the other forms of entertainment the year round?
JC: Occasionally, the bohurupee-a village performer-would turn up, dressed as some wild animal or a Hindu deity, causing great excitement among children. I'd be spellbound at the colourful spectacle. I couldn't believe that the tiger-or whatever-I'd just seen was in fact a man!
Then the plays I mentioned earlier. They were put on with much fanfare right after the Pujas, The popular themes were mythological. Or historical, like Shah Jahan, and the men of our family acted in them, even as women because girls weren't to act those days. Once my father played Kunti. The stage decor was beautiful with many painted scenes rolled up overhead and dropped down as required. This truly created a fantasy world for us. The front curtain was painted by my father himself: Krishna taming the snake demon Kalia.
RD: What was school like? Any amusing or fond memories?
JC: There was a district high school some distance away from our village. My elder brother attended it. I was too young to study there. I went to the local pathsala which was housed in our family atchala or a long shed with eight segments. And there was just one teacher, Panditmoshai.
RD: Like in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali?
JC: Not really. Because our Panditmoshai did his work seriously and the children did theirs sincerely. But the method of teaching was archaic. We learnt to write the Bengali alphabet on talpata or palmyra leaf. With bamboo splinters for pen and ink made of charcoal. We did have slate and chalk but paper wasn't commonly used in the villages then.
We’d intone our number tables together in a singsong manner. Barnaparichay, the Bengali primer, was still the standard text those days. We also had to memorise such poems as Rabindranath Thakur’s Chhoto Nadi and Kagajer Nouko.
We had school in the afternoon. Because there were no walls we could see the green around. Once I bunked school to wander about the countryside with a couple of boys. My absence was promptly reported to my father and I got a sound spanking,
RD: Were many books available? Did you start reading atthetime?
JC: I was too young to read books then and there were hardly any children's books available. However, we had the Ramayan and the Mahabharat at home with lots of illustrations of woodcut prints. I couldn't read but simply devoured the wondrous pictures of rakshasas, demons and monsters. My mother sometimes told us stories from the epics.
RD: You must have been very imaginative...
JC: All this was fodder for the imagination. I had created a colourful world of the epics in my mind.
RD: Did you have electricity? And were you afraid of ghosts and other supernatural creatures?
JC: There was no electricity but I wasn't afraid of ghosts. However, imaginative and “thinking” subjects always touched my core, kept me entranced.
RD: Were you extra sensitive to girls?
JC: I was, from my very childhood.
RD: Do you think your childhood attitude towards giris and women left any mark on your art?
JC: In my case the influence or connection isn't seen so clearly and directly. My experiences moulded my personality, my very being. There was, of course, an aura of enchantment about girls.
RD: Any encounter with death or awareness of death?
JC: I did not experience death very intimately in my childhood. But there were two deaths that still haunt me. One was of a poor man who'd drowned. I can still recall the stiff, blackened body and tightly fisted hands. The other was the mother of my friend Pulin. My mother and she would go for their daily bath together at the tank. One evening she'd gone to bathe and got drowned. She was pregnant at the time. The memory of that evening, that gloomy night still pains me. A strange desolation had descended on the village that night.
RD: Did you draw/paint as a child?
JC: I worked with clay. I used to make small clay figures of gods and goddesses and paint them with natural colours, black made from charcoal, red from bricks, white from lime and yellow from lime mixed with the gum of a plant. My first drawing was done after Partition. It was on the wall of a house in Calcutta, on Monoharpukur Road, where we stayed-a peacock, done with a red and blue pencil. The house still stands. My drawing may yet be buried under numerous layers of lime wash.
RD: Looking back, can you detect any influence of this period in your art?
JC: Definitely. My childhood, my village, its trees and creepers, its ponds with their fish, the soft feel of clay, its tactility, are alive in my mind as I work. The wide eyes of Durga, the svelte grace of clay forms repeatedly surface in my images. In fact, the flow and femininity so apparent in nature in Bengal has brought a softness to line and form in my work.
RD: Do you like to dwell on the past? Is the memory painful or pleasant or does it not come to you at all?
JC: I have a photographic memory. I can turn it on in my mind at any point. Whether the memory is sad or happy, I can see the past vividly, broken in parts.
RD: Being uprooted from such an idyllic existence all of a sudden must have been wrenching?
JC: But the pain was partly cushioned by the excitement of new experiences I was being exposed to; by my curiosity about our new surroundings, my amazement at the new things I saw; by the sharpness of all that was new.
PAIN OF PARTITION
RD: Can you recall your perspective on Partition? What did you hear from the grown-ups? Did you hear of or see any incidents of violence? Or riots?
JC: Neither in our village nor in our area was there any violence, any incident over Partition. There was no Hindu-Muslim tension. But I understood that the land was being divided. Since the residents of our village were Brahmin, almost everybody wanted to come away to West Bengal and eventually did so almost empty-handed. Most families were educated and were able to establish themselves here.
RD: How did you come? Any incident during that time you wish or don’t wish to recall?
JC: From our home in Faridpur we came by steamer and train and landed up one morning at Ballygunge station via Sealdah. Along with many others, we'd spent a whole day on the steamer and had boarded the train at night. The train seemed like a series of dark, tiny rooms because there was no light. We got into our compartment in the dark and sat on the wooden bunk. My sister hurt herself in the head and had to be operated upon in Calcutta. We were four: my mother, my younger brother Manindra, my younger sister Namita and I, escorted by Barda, my elder brother. My grandmother and father stayed back.. It was painful for my father to tear himself from his beloved “desh”, his village, his roots. They came away a few years later.
Those days are still imprinted in my mind. For example, I remember a young widow who tried to cross over into India. She had no one with her and happened to join our group. But at some point at the border she was stopped, who knows why.
RD: So your first train journey left no happy memories?
JC: It wasn’t my first train journey. But it's the one I recall vividly.
From the station we took a horse-drawn carriage to Kakababu's home on Monoharpukur Road. The house still stands, though the address has changed. The four of us occupied one room in his flat. He had three sons. So we were eight children in the family, seven boys and one girl. Besides, there was my mother, my aunt, Kakababu himself and his mother, our Chhoto thakuma. A large household. One thing I'd like to say is that wherever we shifted the eight of us invariably took part in the activity of local clubs and came to be regarded as "assets". However, Barda didn’t stay with us but with my mother’s family because he'd joined the Communist Party and my uncle was in the police.
RD: What happened to your property? What material things was your family able to bring?
JC: It was left with the local poor, both Hindu and Muslim. Around 50-51 father dismantled our house, sold off everything and came away finally.
RD: Did Partition create any animosity towards Muslims or anybody else? Any anger?
JC: No, because we never had any problems with any Muslim, tenant or otherwise.
RD: Which school did you attend in Calcutta? Was your school experience good or bad? Were there boys who bullied you or others? Make fun of your “Bangal” accent?
JC: I got admitted to class IV of Ramrik Haralalka School in Bhowanipore and was there till class VI. It was Marwari school for boys of middle and lower middle class homes. It was a very good school. There was ostentation perhaps and the classrooms were small. But it was disciplined and cultural activity was encourage elocution, debate, music, drama, sports. The student-teacher relationship was also very good. It was herethat Ifirst took the responsibility of illustrations in the school's hand-written magazine. I was in class VI then and well liked. Five of us went to the same school-my cousins, my brother and I. Hence, we were always there in cultural programmes.
Being “Bangal” didn't create problems for us as there were many “Bangals” in school, including some teacher
RD: Which subjects did you like and dislike?
JC: I cared for all subjects. I liked Arithmetic but did not dislike any subject. So I never did badly in exams. I also liked History, Geography and Bengali. The atmosphere in school was very friendly. The boys of all classes treated each other as friends. Perhaps that was possible because it was a small school. But this kind of atmosphere isn’t seen in schools now.
When we came away to Dhakuria, I went to a newly established school, Dwarakanath Vidyapeeth. I was give admission straight away in class VIII. I did face initial difficulties but had no problem doing well in the Board exam. The teachers were very sincere and responsible, which is not always so nowadays.
RD: Did you enjoy playing games? Or did you shy away from physical sport?
JC: I wasn’t as adept at sport as other boys, though I enjoyed playing cricket in the neighbourhood. In football was usually the goalkeeper. But I wasn’t too enthusiastic about games since I was ever busy with other activity. I was a founder-secretary of our club, for example. I also did things like making the Swaraswati image, running our library, writing and sketching for the wall magazine.
RD: How would you describe yourself as an adolescent? Did you day-dream? Were you absent-minded? Would you be scolded by parents and other grown-ups for not doing your work?
JC: I was shy and romantic but not impractical. I did dream about the future. I would be absent-minded when in deep thought. No, I wasn't rebuked by the grown-ups because I used to be responsible towards my work.
RD: What about art? In school? Outside? Art classes? How did the interest become serious? Did it happen at this stage?
JC: We did not have art in school. I didn't even know how to sketch properly! I began sketching only after I joined art college. I was interested in drawing from childhood. I had got hold of two pictures. One was Picasso's Peace Pigeon and the other was Abanindranath Thakur’s Mrityusajyay Shah Jahan. Even as a child I was confident that I would become an artist and school merely reinforced the belief.
RD: What was life like in Calcutta? Any remarkable persons you met? Anybody who made an impression?
JC: After staying with Kakababu the first 2-3 years and shifting with his family to different police quarters, we started life afresh in 1951 in Dhakuria, in tiled huts on a small plot in an area that came to be settled by East Bengal refugees.
For a time, when we lived on Gokhale Road with Kakababu, two English boys, Tony and Tiger, were our playmates. Their father, a police officer, hadn't yet left for England.
We'd often go to the Maidan to play. Evenings were radio time. We'd listen to Galpo Dadur Asar and Anuradher Asar. This was the time I started reading books. Children’s books, detective fiction, the humourist Shibram Chakraborty, Narayan Ganguly.
Our life in Dhakuria was most inspiring. Many educated, middle class refugee families lived there. Unlike now, there was no lack of idealism and ethics among these people. Clubs and cultural associations mushroomed in every locality. Their activity included sport, theatre, organising libraries. And Left politics, which began to dominate the area. I took a leading role in Kishore Sangha, the children's club. We’d be busy throughout the year organising sport, elocution, plays, debates, exhibitions, bringing out wall magazines and so on. On Rabindranath Thakur's centenary, when I’d just about passed out of art college, I held an exhibition of posters in the club. Around this time, while I began participating in group shows, I also began attending literary meets. Poet Sarojlal Bandopadhyay would host them at his home almost every month.
RD: Were you writing poetry then?
JC: Yes. I was writing poetry in my college years and do so even now but very infrequently. My first book of poems was published in 1970 and another came out recently.
RD: And films?
JC: My first ever-film was Tansen in ‘47-48. I was into cinema from the ‘60s.. I became a film society member and began enjoying serious films. Several impressed me. Like Pather Panchali. As did Charulata, Ajantrik and Subarnarekha. Over the years I've seen many European films that have moved me. I would mention such greats as Chaplin, Kurosawa, Fellini’s 81/2, Juliet des Esptrit, Bergman's Virgin Spring, Death, Wild Strawberries, Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, Tarkovsky and Andre Wajda's films.
RD: What about theatre?
JC: I kept myself informed about theatre. You know, at one time I did the stage decor for a group called Gandharba and had sketched portraits for them.
RD: You were something of a political activist in your youth?
JC: At that age, in my early ‘20s, I was Leftist in my thinking. The party mouthpiece ‘Swadhinata’ and the journal ‘Parichay’ were coming to our home because of Barda (elder brother). I was reading Manik Bandopadhyay, Rabindranath, Saratchandra, Gorky and Tolstoy. My reading also included Ramkrishna, Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo.
RD: It was, what, the early 60s?
JC: Yes. The city was in the throes of Left politics at the time. To protest a hike in tram fares by one paisa Left parties torched trams, called strikes, faced police bullets. Calcutta was rehearsing an uprising. We, too, imagined that the Communist Party would lead the country and its people to a new life through socialism. However, I was disabused before long.
RD: Your thinking is representative of a whole generation. The mid- and late '50s were the time when the undivided Communist Party attracted idealistic and gifted young people. How did your political identity evolve and under whose influence?
JC: Barda (elder brother) Nagendranath was influenced by Marxist ideas even before Partition.. He, his wife and another brother became members of the party. Party meetings would be held in our Dhakuria home in 1951. In fact, there were many in our neighbourhood who were members of the CPI or the RSP. Quite naturally, my political sympathies were moulded in this atmosphere.
I believed from the bottom of my heart that Communism would bring economic equality with health care, housing and education for all. I used to recite Sukanta Bhattacharjee poems, make posters for the party, work during elections and join processions. I was active even as a school student when Jyotibabu (Basu) was in jail in 1952. Indeed, I made a portrait of Stalin inrelief inslate.
RD: How did the disillusionment come?
JC: By the time I graduated from art college I began questioning many aspects of Communism. Personal freedom under Communist rule, Leftist ideas about art, Russia's invasion of Hungary, the exiling of dissidents to Siberia-all these issues began to bother me. Later, I began to have doubts about the economic theories of Communism, especially with regard to State enterprise. The world had opened up for me. When a French government scholarship enabled me to go abroad for two and a half years, I got the chance to tour France, Italy, England, Germany, Holland and Switzerland. This exposure helped my ideas on art and life, politics and economics to become clearer, more defined.
These issues engage me even now. How poverty can be erased, education and housing be given to the poor, harmony established and religious fundamentalism banished from the land. To achieve this what is needed is honest governance, discipline, hard work, proper planning. Industrialisation, for example, is very necessary but without unsettling the social environment.
RD: So you've remained an idealist?
JC: You could say that. I now try to be involved with philanthropic work as well as work as an art organism.
RD: What about women? Awareness of sexuality? Was there any girl who captured your imagination? Any friendship?
JC: I did feel attracted towards girls and experienced the awareness of sexuality that is normal in an adolescent. I preferred girls who were soft-spoken and intelligent with feminine grace. I was drawn to many girls but made no deep, long-lasting friendship. It was in college that I formed close friendships with girls and with boys.
RD: Did the label “refugee” come to signify something for you? When did you realise the full import of it?
JC: The label refugee never bothered me. But we passed through acute financial difficulties. My father had no job. Barda was the only earning member. After he married, we faced more financial problems. Yet, Manindra, Namita and I kept ourselves busy with poetry, art, club activity. There was no electricity at home. We found it difficult even to buy books, let alone the paraphernalia of painting: paint, brushes, canvas, etc. So I began painting on newsprint.
RD: With what paint?
JC: Mainly ink and pastel.
RD: How did the trauma affect your psyche, your mental make-up, your ideas and your later art?
JC: The restless political scene of Calcutta, the nights we spent without electricity, the privation. All this did indeed leave an impact on my mind, my personal life and my art. There was, deep down, a depression gnawing at me. On the one hand I wrote poetry, made drawings and paintings and dreamt of a bright future. On the other, I tried to overcome constant hurdles summoning all my spirit. But my pictures came to be dominated by black. I used to work at night by a lantern. Colours cannot be applied in insufficient light. But the black was made denser by my depression.
The vague and complex restlessness in me created the network of close criss-cross lines seen in my early paintings. This was an element of my signature style. The life I looked forward to eluded me. This frustration began to push me towards a deep melancholy. So I turned to Jibanananda Das, and read his poems again and again.
RD: When did things start looking up?
JC: If you mean in terms of success, things started looking up from my college life, when I began to do well, started getting awards at shows.
RD: Were there any characters in your extended family or among the people around you who returned in your creative imagination even as negative images?
JC: Those who exploit society, corrupt men of business would once figure in my works. I've seen them as representatives from hell.
RD: When you joined the Govt. College of Art and Craft, prospects for even commercial art must have been limited. What or who influenced your decision?
JC: I joined art college in 1955. It was my own decision.
RD: What was art college like, the atmosphere, the students?
JC: The physical environment of the college was very neat. The touch of the Raj still lingered. The classrooms were spic and span. The well-tended garden would be in bloom in winter. We would sit by a neighbourhood tank to sun ourselves during the afternoons and do flower studies. Incidentally, the tank is almost choked now.
Nowadays, most students come from middle class homes as well as from villages. It was somewhat different then. Quite a few-especially girls-would be from elite homes. Some came to learn art as a hobby.
There was great camaraderie among the students. We never thought of high and low, rich and poor, Muslim and Hindu. A few were really poor and struggling. Those who thought of jobs went for commercial art, But not everybody could get a seat because there was such competition, I'd targeted painting from the beginning because I was very interested in it. During admission I was put in the sculpture department but, after two years and good results, I could shift to painting.
RD: What was the reaction of your parents when they heard of your plans to take up art?
JC: We weren't well off at all. Yet everybody had encouraged me to take up art, This was because they had faith in my ability.
RD: Were they not worried?
JC: They valued creativity more than commerce, so...
RD: What was the art scenario like in the mid-'50s when you joined the college? The image of the poor, struggling artist was quite established in books and films. Was it possible for an artist to live by art alone?
JC: It was bleak. There was hardly any art movement in Calcutta. Nobody thought it possible to survive only by selling art and neither did I. But my motivation was to do worthwhile art and become a major artist some day. I was driven by the burning desire to be an artist. We lived in great want. Yet I would draw and paint: draw on' newsprint and paw on board.
BRUSH WITH ART COLLEGE
RD: Considering that there was only one gallery then, the Academy of Fine Arts, even exposure must have been extremely limited?
JC: The Academy was then housed in the Indian Museum. Apart from the Academy, there was another popular gallery called Artistry House, situated where Park Hotel stands now. In 1960, another gallery opened on Park Street, Nripen Majumdar’s Arts and Prints Gallery.
RD: Obviously, they didn't survive. And buyers and collectors-were there any at all?
JC: Hardly. A few foreigners would buy art, especially embassy and high commission officials. In my first exhibition, just one watercolor was sold. For Rs 125! In fact, most artists would manage to selljust oneor two works in a whole year. There were exceptions, however. Like my classmate Sunil Das who'd already made a name with his horses and had earned a Lalit Kala award.
Lady Ranu Mookerjee’s connections helped the Academy to sell works of art every year. Its exhibitions were attended by the upper crust of the city. The works that fetched awards would all be sold. And that happened to me three times.
RD: What about the prices of paint and brushes? Was it easy for a middle class person to buy these without the hope of some profit?
JC: It wasn’t easy getting Winson Newton brushes and paint in those days. Yet students tried somehow to get hold of them. That's what they bought, tough though it was on their pockets. I myself couldn’t afford canvases in college and used ply board for oil in class exercises. Students tried to follow the course the best they could. Poor students found it difficult. Some tried to sell their art to help out at home and pay their way through college.
RD: Did you have any ambitions by way of money and fame when you entered art college?
JC: I had no ambition in terms of money. I had extremely idealistic notions. All I thought of was that I had to be an artist. And I had the confidence that I'd make it someday. However, I do believe that economic freedom is important.
RD: What about your batch mates? What dreams did they have? Did you share ideas? Discuss styles and established artists and techniques?
JC: My batch mates did not all make their careers in art. Sunil Das, Dhiraj Chowdhury and Anita Roy Chowdhury became artists. Of the rest, I really don't know. Although I was friendly with quite a few students, we hardly ever discussed art. As for me, I carried on a dialogue with myself. Sunil was very taken up with his art. He was most prolific. Even with him I did not discuss art. Yet, we'd browse through books to look at reproductions. I'd visit his studio to see his work. I was also close to Kumkum Munshi, the son of Annada Munshi. And to Anita Roy Chowdhury, who was two years junior to me in college.
RD: Which teachers made an impression on you? Who was most encouraging or helpful?
JC: We had quite a few reputed teachers who were also popular among the students: Gopal Ghose, Rathin Mitra, Maniklal Bandopadhyay, Aparna Roy, Kishori Roy, Debkumar Roy Chowdhury, Satyen Ghoshal, Anil Bhattacharjee.
To be honest, I cannot recall any teacher who was special. But 1 can recall how involved Gopalbabu would be in his own drawing, even in class. His work inspired us. We learnt how to use pastel on paper from him.
My sketches received praise from Debkumarbabu. In my drawing book he’d write, ‘Congratulations’. In First Year, Aparnadi and Dhirenbabu (Brahma) took great pains to teach us composition and how to draw foliage. In fact, all the teachers taught with great sincerity.
RD: You've said that the training in art college was very academic. Wouldn't you say that kind of training is essential? Can it be changed? In what way?
JC: The college was established along the lines of British art schools. Here, plaster copies of antique sculpture-Greek and Roman-were used as models by students to sketch hands, feet, nose, eyes, etc. Real life studies, still life, portraits, were also part of regular exercises. Students, therefore, gained proficiency in naturalistic depiction. Simultaneously, however, there was hardly any enquiry into the creative process, into the nature of art.
I feel such sketches and studies are essential to hone one's skill. But imaginative experimentation should be encouraged alongside. What is more, art history was not taught at the time. Occasionally we'd get guest lecturers like Dr Nihar Ranjan Roy and Dr Ashok Mitra. And our only acquaintance with the art of the world was through books in the library.
RD: You’ve said that you liked Kathe Kollwitz and Degas. What about Indian artists? Did any Indian artist appear important to you at that time?
JC: Kathe Kollwitz and Degas influenced my sketches. I had chanced upon their works at exhibitions and in library books. But our library had a limited collection. I got to see Klee first only in 1962-63. The American Library was our source of information on American artists like Jackson Pollock, I really got to know about Western art only when I went abroad. Unfortunately, during my college days, I had hardly got to see two contemporary artists I came to rate highly: Ramkinkar Baij and Binod Behari. Even prints were not available those days. It's a shame there's still no big book on Ramkinkar. And yet, such books on Picasso are easily accessible.
However, we did see Nandalal, Abanindranath and Rabindranath. There was a contradiction between their works and the academic training we received. I couldn't reconcile the two. Nor could I reconcile my attitude with my training.
Rabindranath’s art, its brooding, extra-real quality appealed to me strongly and it helped me to move away from academic naturalism. Later, I came to be influenced by Bengal patachitra, the intricate figuration of terracotta temples and traditional Indian sculpture in, say, Bharut, Amravati, Sanchi, etc, especially by their grace and sensuousness of form.
RD: It was in art college you began distorting the human figure. Have you analysed why you did it and why at this point? Was it mainly exploring art language or were there deeper emotional levels that were being expressed?
JC: You’ll find the seeds of such distortion in Rabindranath’s art. In college I could do academic drawing (lawlessly. But I was turned on by the play of distortion. I came to enjoy the freedom of re-inventing forms. We sense the same in Picasso. There is, besides, an element of abstraction in distortion. In the Sealdah sketches my style came spontaneously. In the beginning, it was expressionism that prompted the distortion. Later, much later, the depiction of Indians, their particular and peculiar ways and gestures brought forth distortions consciously and unconsciously, Besides, as I've said before, it was a difficult time for our country and distortion reflected our mood. Moreover, you’ll never find a person who’s perfectly symmetrical, without any distortion.
LESSONS WITH LOUVRE
RD: You went to Paris on a scholarship. Please tell us how it came about.
JC: I went to Paris on a scholarship in 1965. My friend Himmat Shah encouraged me to apply for the scholarship. I was with the Handloom Board in Calcutta then. I applied and was called for the interview, which went off well. My result was good and I had answered their questions to my satisfaction. I could tell you more about it but that will have to wait. There were two others with me: Suhas Roy and Dipak Banerjee. We went by ship from Bombay, France felt very cold. Yet it was only October. Luckily I gotgoodaccommodation near Notre Dame. Louvre was just five minutes away.
RD: What did you feel-excitement, nervousness?
JC: I was neither nervous nor overly excited. I was, by then, quite steady. There were others who had gone before us. Therefore, we felt it wasn't unusual. But I was definitely very glad that I'd be able to go abroad. Because in those days a trip abroad wasn’t easy. So when I was selected for the French government scholarship, I had no hesitation resigning from my job. Because I hadn't completed three years of service with the Handloom Board, I wasn't entitled to leave. I felt I should go and let the future take care of itself.
RD: Can you describe your response to Europe, the European ethos? Were you surprised at anything? Or moved? Or annoyed?
JC: Europe was definitely a new experience. Firstly, in the ‘60s, Calcutta was steeped in poverty and I went from our humble home straight to Paris. Before that I had never actually lived anywhere else in India. I may have taken trips to other places but never stayed anywhere for long. Therefore, it was a big change. Before that, I had attended classes at Alliance Francaise. I had also been watching European films. So nothing seemed totally bizarre or unnatural. Yet, I did feel we had stepped into a new environment, a new culture. And there were surprises for me. I discovered a few things. For example, when I started classes at L’Ecole Nationale Superiere de Beaux Arts-in fresco and mosaic, incidentally-quite a few in my mosaic class confessed that they did not know about Rabindranath. They were astonished to learn poetry was at all written in Calcutta! And that, in turn, astonished me. I was also quite surprised when a boy said his mother had invited him to her home. Now this is something I couldn't imagine: a mother inviting her son to her home. Small things like that really surprised me. However, I could relate experience to knowledge quite easily so I never thought any of this weird. I immediately understood that such a thing could happen in another culture. Similarly, French food. Unlike some others who become set in their ways and don't welcome change, I accepted French food quite easily. I began trying out new French dishes. There were many things about French culture that I really admired. Like their art and literature. But what I didn't care for was the lack of cohesiveness in the family, the distance among family members as they lived their own, intimate lives. The way the mother, the son, the daughter would live separately. It made me wonder whether this was right.
There was another thing I couldn't bear. And that was the cold. In the beginning, I used to think: why is it so cold here? Later, however, I began to relish it. And during my first snowfall, I caught a cold because I was actually tempted to venture out.
RD: What was their perception of Indian art?
JC: You know how it is with advanced countries. Wrapped up in their own concerns, they don't care to find out about those less advanced. They'd heard of and seen Indian and Asian students come to Paris on scholarships. Some may have even had a vague idea about temple architecture but that was it.
RD: What was your life like there? Did you suffer from loneliness, miss home and family? Whom did you meet there?
JC: There was so much to do and see, Museum visits, art, student get-togethers took up much of our time. We hardly got the chance to feel lonely. We made many friends. And from different countries, too. In the building I stayed in were people from many countries, Artists, writers, dancers. So I never got lonely. But the thought that kept nagging me was how much more developed France was than our country. Their economic condition was so much better.. This was something that pained me. That, economically, we were still so underdeveloped. As for home and family, I thought about my dear ones. I often thought of my father. But I always felt I was learning something new in a new land, expanding my understanding of things. And friends. We made at least two dozen friends among the students. There were students of my class. Besides, we made friends at the place we went to for meals and at Atelier 17. We also made friends among Indian students, with those who'd come before us and with those who came after. And then there were people like Saktida-Sakti Burman-whom we met there and whose home we'd visit. There were also those Indians who'd lived there for a long time. So there was a large circle of friends.
RD: In what way did your stay influence your art? Your ideas on art?
JC: I always used to think that I wouldn’t imitate the art I saw there. I felt we’d have to do something new, something different. Something modern, but not imitative. That's why I tried to look for a different angle, take a different direction in my own art. There must surely have been some impact on my personality, I was there for about two and a half years. During this time, I got to see much, know much. And from France we toured many places. Italy, Germany, Switzerland, England, Holland. This kind of experience does give you an expansive sense of affinity with mankind and that makes you broad-minded, large-hearted. Interacting with different people widens your vision, which I think is important, That was one great reward. I also got to see a lot of art. I visited churches and saw their art. In Italy, I saw works from the Renaissance period. This was a very enriching experience. It is experience like this that helps in stimulating creative thought, in developing our ideas on art. Yet I was ever conscious that we mustn't copy European art. That, I felt, was the biggest challenge. On my return, I searched for fresh insights in art, in my art. Abstract art was the rage then and a semi-figurative expressionism, Post-modernism was yet to take off. We saw all that, much of it good. But I always thought of doing what was prompted by my nature, by my particular perspective.
RD: You seem to have done abstract paintings in Paris. Now why was that so? Wasn't it very unusual for a figurative artist like you?
JC: I did some abstract work there. I started with figuration, especially in quite a number of drawings. But because I wasn't able to really concentrate on my work I found myself doing some abstract paintings, but these I've never really accepted as my own. This aberration was possibly a psychological expression of my restlessness.
RD: The anonymity in abstraction-did you experience any kind of identity crisis in artistic terms? Could there have been any sense of bleakness in your mind?
JC: You see I was going straight from my humble home in Dhakuria to the culture and fashion capital of Europe, from one kind of economic condition to another, from one ethos to another.
This change induced restlessness in me. Somehow, figurative formsjustwouldn't come.
RD: Did you ever return to abstraction after that?
JC: I never thought of doing abstraction after that, The abstract phase was only the reaction of my restlessness. But I could understand, appreciate the basic elements of abstract art. In fact, I felt I should infuse these elements in figuration. That I have done. I have been able to retain the essential elements of abstraction in my art, I feel you can see that in my art.
RD: What was it like, your experience ol seeing European art up close?
JC: European art, in many cases, is more formal. We would primarily see modern art in the museums, From Matisse and Picasso to later works. Like abstract expressionism. And at occasional exhibitions we saw experimental attempts, which hadn't quite matured by then. I felt we shouldn't replicate European expressions, Rather, we could try to understand certain areas in them, the components of modernity, for example. But we would have to grow from our own roots, I felt, again and again, our need to grow.
RD: Did Europe make you worry more about regional identity- a specific Indianness-in your art?
JC: Not at all. I never thought I had to proclaim a regional identity, an Indian identity. I think Europe taught me this: how to be creative, how to experiment, look for fresh insights. Indianness is usually taken to mean working in watercolour and exploiting such traditions as the miniature, Ajanta and Ellora and temple and other sculpture. I never thought that was important. Because being Indian, per se, is not what matters; being individual with Indian concerns does, reflecting the Indian situation in art. I never consciously thought of doing Indian art as such, But I did think of doing something new, something that would have originality. The necessity, thus, was not to do Indian art in the European context, but to stake out an individual space in art. To do your own true thing in your own way, interacting with the life you see all around,
RD: You visited France and Europe in later years. What changes did you notice? In the '60s and 70s, the economy of Europe was booming. Picasso was alive, so was Sartre.
JC: French culture was vibrant. But now they are afflicted with nostalgia. Nostalgia for a glorious past. They still look back to Matisse and Picasso. You'll find numerous galleries but what you see rarely goes beyond clichés.
RD: You returned to India in 1968 and were offered a job at the Weavers’ Service Centre in Madras. Please tell us something about the job.
JC: I was with the Weavers' Service Centre in Calcutta. After my return I was offered a job in Madras which I accepted. I went off immediately, I had to stay there alone because I was single then. I started thinking of what work I could do in a fresh way. And between ‘69 and 70 I wrote an article in which my thoughts were expressed.
RD: You were becoming a theorist. What, in brief, were its main points?
JC: I was trying to understand the place of modern Indian art in the context of art history and the role of the contemporary Indian artist in it. In articles I wrote then I said that instead of producing echoes we should try to create authentic sound. The artist, after all, is an individual who carries in him/her the past and the present, tradition and modernity, the East and the West, imagination and experience. He has to discover his true self in the midst of these competing realities. Therefore, neither tradition alone nor modernity alone can help shape the true creative identity of the artist. How creative and significant an artist's work is will depend on both his/her awareness of history and of contemporary reality on the one hand and the expression of true feelings and imagination on the other, But echoes, or the rehearsal of what has been done before, can achieve nothing.
RD: Did you get to interact with artists there?
JC: Indeed, especially with those of my age group. I was there for almost four years and during this time I got to know all the working artists of Madras. Cholamandalam had just started and Panikkar and Sultan Ali were still alive then. And I was in touch with them. I had two shows there. Panikkar inaugurated the first one at Alliance Francaise, of the works I had done in Paris. Many artists came to see the shows. I developed deep bonds with them and we still keep in touch.
RD: How did this phase impact your art?
JC: I feel Madras taught me to be quiet within. When I had gone to Europe its restlessness had infected me. But Madras in those days was really quiet, not like now. And staying there alone was quite enjoyable. I liked to think. I would write. I wrote on art. I even wrote many poems there. And I started my own work in my own way.
RD: Why did you leave?
JC: I left because I wanted to come to Delhi. There were a lot of opportunities there. And a lot more art activity.
RD: When did you shift to Delhi and how long were you there?
JC: I went to Delhi in 72, taking up the job of curator at Rashtrapati Bhavan. I was selected by the UPSC and stayed there 15 years at a stretch till 1987.
RD: What was the job like and did you enjoy it?
JC: Simply as a job it was attractive with a big bungalow and many facilities. It was curatorial work I had to do there, overseeing the display in the rooms. Visits by foreign dignitaries meant special efforts. I would devote the evenings to my art, working between 8 and 2 in the morning, unless I had some party or the other to attend.
RD: In what way did Delhi affect you?
JC: Because I'd left Calcutta shortly after graduation, I hadn't got the chance to get involved with the art scene. Delhi gave me the opportunity to socialise with many more people. In Delhi, the horizon broadened for me, something that wasn't possible in Madras. A lot of activity was going on, cultural activity with which I was often involved. The Modern Art Gallery, Lalit Kala Akademi, these institutions were there. Then there was the Trienniel in which I had participated while in Madras. In fact, I participated in it for a few consecutive years while in Delhi and earned appreciation. There were many other exhibitions, besides. And it was in Delhi that I began to acquire an all-India reputation. I also became friends with the artists and started having a busy social life. By then I was, of course, married.
RD: And your art?
JC: Delhi being the hub of political life with its many leaders and events, my perspective broadened, my subjects changed. My work reflected contemporary reality as well as my personal life. I did some majorworksthere, works which I personally feel can be considered important.
RD: You stayed there through important events like the Emergency, the Janata government, Indira Gandhi's assassination. Did these figure in some way in your art? JC: Certainly, they did. For example, I did a large painting, 'Tiger in the Moonlit Night', which was a reaction to the Emergency. I had made the tiger into a puppet because I had felt the Emergency was fake, the reasons given for it were false. At the bottom was a figure-a symbol of the oppressed-the body of a pregnant woman, lying as though dead. I had made it a satirical allegory. During the Janata rule I began painting, for the first time, those crawling, comic figures that seemed to be moving about on stage. I didn't do any specific painting after Indira Gandhi's assassination, but the entire atmosphere of Delhi began to push me towards a direction that was new, not seen in my previous work. Different kinds of characters surfaced in my paintings during my Delhi years. At times even the faces of political leaders appeared in my works. The environment definitely does leave an impact on my art.
RD: How has Santiniketan affected your art?
JC: In Santiniketan, I began interacting with students, began to see different kinds of works. I came into contact with a man like Manida, K.G. Subramanyan. As a result, a change cante detected in my creative output. The inclination to do linear work grew. I was there earlier, too. In my early years I had liked doing line drawing and emphasise line in my paintings. In Santiniketan, the tendency seemed to acquire fresh vigour. Interestingly, nature also began to appear in some paintings. Colour began to flood into my painting. This reflected the shift from the stifling bureaucratic atmosphere of Delhi to the healthy openness of campus life with its students in Santiniketan. Thus, new elements entered my art.
RD: In your previous jobs you did not teach art? In what way have you responded to art teaching? Does it appear more meaningful?
JC: For three years I taught art in Howrah Zillah School. Although there was no full-fledged art course, I did teach the subject. About Santiniketan, let me tell you I was interested in teaching. And in Rabindranath. And in Santiniketan. When I came and joined Visva-Bharati, I became very involved with teaching. Though the experience of college teaching was novel, I tried to make teaching itself creative. I found teaching very meaningful. I feel it can be a valid means of self-expression, It can open up new areas in one’s life, which I think is important.
RD: Have you enjoyed interacting with students? Has it influenced the way you think and live in any way?
JC: Definitely. There are so many students. They come from varied backgrounds, different places. Observing them, interacting with them offers you a great opportunity to taste life, to understand people, different types of characters. It is a learning experience. Creative people are sure to be influenced by this kind of interaction. Students may even inspire you at times, stimulate changes.
RD: And has it had any effect on your art?
JC: Their influence may not be apparent in my art but it does have an impact on my temperament. The thoughts and ideas of students become an input in the process of creative ingestion. Basically, however, I was already strongly individualistic in my creative thinking, so the art of others did not influence me that much, though my work influenced others to a lesser or greater degree.
RD: Would you like to continue living in Santiniketan? If given the chance, would you choose some other place? Which one would that be and why?
JC: Actually, our choices are sometimes obligatory. For example, my son is in Third Year in Kala Bhavan. I also have my studio there, so for now I'd certainly like to stay there for a few more years. Besides, the place has a certain spirit, the spirit of creative work. The thought that Rabindranath lived and worked there is also an important factor for me. However, offers are there, but I don't wish to go elsewhere right now. I must say one thing. I travel a lot. Wherever I go, to whichever place in the world, I feel people are the same. Santiniketan gives me a sense of being everywhere. Whether it's Delhi, or Calcutta, or Paris, it's now the same to me. No place can cast a special spell on me anymore.
RD: During these years what relationships did you form?
JC: I have formed many relationships in my life. My relationship with my students has often been very intimate. With other artists, too. In fact, the whole world can be the arena for forging friendships. These links evolve organically over the years. But they need to be viewed from a broad perspective.
RD: How did you meet your wife?
JC: My wife's family lived in Dhakuria, in our neighbourhood. The two families- hers and mine- were quite close. That's how I met her, though I did not form any deep friendship with her till after marriage.
RD: And afterwards? How was your art affected?
JC: In Madras, in the early days of our marriage I had moved into painting intimacies of life. I did some quite interesting work then, which speaks of my personal life.
RD: Did such personal milestones leave their mark on your art? In what way?
JC: Certainly. Life leaves its imprint on creative work. Intimacies, events do influence our work. For example, my father died when I was in Delhi; my mother when I was in Santiniketan. These bereavements left their mark on me. Different experiences, unsavoury experiences, perhaps, and people, people who've been very close and those with negative vibes, those who remain critical, relationships that sour... all this matters in life and figures as creative input.
RD: Where do you wish to go from here?
JC: I always think we should re-invent ourselves, refresh our thinking, do something new. That concern, that thought, is ever present. And I wish to do something that's positive constructive, something big. For example, I have the wish to set up an institution.
FIGURES ARE FUN
RD: Why did you choose figuration?
JC: Why not? All our fives we see this truth around us, the truth of human lives, particularly in a populous country like ours. We see so many people all over. We communicate with them, bond with them.
Besides, there's our academic training, the stress given to figurative studies in art college, it is not, therefore, surprising that the figurative would engage me. It must also be stressed that the evolution of Western art has seen the gradual step-by-step progression from naturalistic figuration to subverting naturalism, breakingdownrepresentative images into semi-abstract and abstract expressions. But this kind of organic progression is not seen in our country. Modern art started here much after it emerged in Europe. Therefore, there was no question of a linear evolution.
I feel figuration is extremely important because, first, the figure offers the possibility of distortions. It can be reduced to semi-abstract and abstract terms. And such re-invention of figuration can lead to an original, individual idiom. The figure is merely the component that makes this individual expression possible. Second, I feel that it is by depicting people-a particular human environment, that is-that 1 can arrive at an individual expression, which may not have occurred before in any art of any other place in the world. It seems to me that the depth of perception that comes across in figuration, the way figures can illuminate life may not be possible through other means. I want to portray our human environment, the people of our country, their nature, their way of sitting because they are different from others. You'll notice that there's a peculiar Indianness in their gestures and that attracts me. And it is this-the particular characteristics we see-that I wish to distil in my art. I develop these portrayals through distortion. I've felt that if I am able to bring a new dimension to these figures, that will be important from a creative point of view.
There's another aspect. Figuration does not mean it has to toe the naturalistic, academic tradition. I try to import in my figures an extra quality that's beyond academic naturalism, a certain abstract quality that makes them supra-real. The elements that must reside in abstraction imbue my figuration, too. That is the kind of thought I have about my figurative works.
RD: Can you elaborate on that?
JC: An image, basically, is a form. Like sound in language, which has no meaning by itself. And form, ultimately, is abstract. And we must remember that art itself is beyond the natural, a distortion of reality because art wouldn't be art without changing the real into an image of unreality.l don't think figuration is dated, We can see figuration has returned with renewed vigour in post-modern art. In fact, accepting figurative art is accepting human life. Figuration can never depart totally from art because art is, after all, created by man. So it is bound to return again and again. That is so because of the human situation, of life itself. We can never deny the validity of the human figure as an image because we can never deny the validity of our own existence. Movements like Op Art, Cubism, Expressionism are confined to a particular phase in art history. But figuration itself is a fundamental expression, linked to the story of human life. As long as human civilisation endures, figurative art is bound to endure, bound to return repeatedly in art imagery.
RD: Would you say that your early encounter with life at Sealdah station with its refugees, beggars, peddlers came to define the kind of urban art you thought was relevant in the context or the times?
JC: The studies I did at Sealdah station, the sketches done in my youth after I left college were all infused into my art later. Yes, I suppose you could call it that, a kind of urban art.
RD: Your primary subject has been human beings. Have your leftist leanings, your humanism got something to do with it? Or is it more a visual concern, exploring the body?
JC: You're right. I do indeed have a humanistic approach. I am attached to human life. Human life is central to my art. Now and then other subjects have strayed into my art. Flowers, creepers and the like. Basically, however, the close interaction between human life and art is what I believe to be vital.
Part of the preoccupation with the figure does spring from a purely visual, formal concern Because it is important for me to break down the figure and reinvent it. But this formal experiment is by no means my only motivation.
RD: Your art reflects, by turns, both the observer's critical eye and the insider's involvement with the subject, both empathy and analysis. On what does your approach depend? On the theme? The mood?
JC: Because we live in society, social issues bother us. For example, I nurture social aspirations within me, not for my family or myself, but for society. I dream of a future when everything will be fine. I’m concerned that there's so much evil in society. This concern is not related to self-interest, to personal gain and loss. When I see we are not able to cure the unsavoury aspects of society it creates frustration. Hence, empathy and analysis come at the same time. The theme, the mood... these work in different ways. Sometimes one factor may be more crucial than the other, depending on the situation. Sometimes the theme may take on greater importance. Sometimes, it's the emotion, the internal compulsion. You can't calculate these factors for they vary all the time.
RD: And the process through which art is born, to what extent does the observer’s critical eye balance what is within?
JC: It is very important to balance what is within with a critical eye in the process of creating a work. For any artist the critical eye is important, his alertness, his ability to observe from the outside to gauge how his drawing or painting is turning out. Whatever he has imbibed, like his training, for example, whatever has shaped his understanding, sharpened his critical sense; all of it is brought to the assessment of his own work. To see whether his work is taking the shape he wants it to take. And the insider's involvement comes from emotion, from what is within, what wells up from deep within that may sometimes be uncontrolled and may demolish old notions and build up something new. It's like an inspired, even miraculous, spark, And that the spark may be beyond our volition. It's as though we are guided by something greater than our rational selves. Therefore, it's a marriage of the two that makes art possible. And why only art? The same must be the case with all creative work. So there has to be the critical eye viewing the work from the outside and, simultaneously, the deep, subterranean level of emotion. With me, too, that's the case.
RD: What do you wish to convey through the human body that is often flaccid, ungainly, tumescent, with bent fingers and twisted limbs?
JC: I wanted to depict decadence in these figures. What we saw early in our lives, the condition of Calcutta, that left an impact. We passed through very difficult times. There was poverty all around. And that's there even now, especially in the villages. There were hardly any jobs in the cities then.. When we landed up in this country after Partition, during those difficult times we'd often see these types of peoplewhowere doing some kind of business, perhaps. Maybe sitting in a shop, selling things. In terms of formal experiments, these twisted limbs enable me to express certain nuances of characterisation.
These distortions are natural in people because nobody is perfectly symmetrical. It is through these distortions that I wish to illustrate the condition of society. These bodies represent that social condition, as though each body articulated the social condition in a particular way. That's how these distortions came into the figures.
RD: Such forms sometimes suggest soft material like clay and seem to speak of things like vulnerability, impermanence, decay, sloth, over-indulgence. Do they hark back to the clay figures you moulded as a child?
JC: Clay modelling does yield forms of this kind. I have a feel for the material, for its flaccid nature because I used clay in my very childhood. It's like a form made of clay that grows slack and limp, slowly drawn downwards by gravity. Another thing-decay, over-indulgence, etc, the points you've made, are indeed present in my work.
RD: Your art has steered clear of romanticism. Especially in the way nature has largely been banished from your paintings. There are, of course, the creepers and flowers that you've drawn. But no landscape, not even as backdrop. Why?
JC: One reason for this is that the way romanticism has been used has had very little meaning in my life. The experience of my life from childhood onwards, Partition, the social condition in which I grew up could hardly encourage romanticism in me.
The powerful drama of the human situation has always engaged me. So I never felt the urge to do landscapes. Landscapes would never satisfy me. And when I do take images from nature like creepers, etc, I exploit their tactile physicality to recall the human form, to echo the structure and rhythm of organic dynamism. My personal attitude is reflected in these natural forms then. My choice of approach has. therefore, been extremely personal. I never thought I'd suddenly switch to romanticism. However, I have, at times, painted portraits of women where you may fleetingly glimpse a romantic expression. But more important to me is their vital, physical presence.
RD: Regarding figuration, artists have different ideas. Some reject it in their anxiety to be deemed modern. Any comment?
JC: I cannot accept the proposition that figuration is not modern. Modernity has little to do with the subject. I feel anything and everything can enter modern art. Besides, figurative art continues to be of crucial significance. Look at the comeback it has made in post-modernism.
RD: Your ideas on what criteria to watch out for in modern art?
JC: When I think of modern art, it is in the context of what I wish to do. If I start out with the notion that what I have to create is modern art, per se, I may be led into a most artificial idiom, Unless an artist can think in a fresh way, his work will remain pedestrian. By the way, by modern art I take it that you mean post-modern art?
There have been many changes in post-modernism. Changes of technique, of form, of thought and philosophy. When our generation began painting, the concerns of post-modernism did not exist. So we certainly need to be aware of these new directions in art.
It seems to me post-modernism no longer follows the pattern of linear evolution we could trace in Western art. Visual art, including painting, sculpture, etc. is what we see with our eyes, From there art has expanded its space to claim a multi-sensory identity for itself. If we could embrace these new explorations, our expression would certainly discover fruitful bonds of interaction with them.
Ultimately, however, it is conviction that matters the most to me. The conviction that inspired me in my work, motivated me to draw and paint. Without such conviction we'll end up nowhere. Whether you talk of modernism or post-modernism, nothing meaningful can be created without true conviction.
DRAWING VERSUS PAINTING
RD: What dictates whether a certain subject ought to be a drawing or a painting?
JC: When I do drawing, the process is like this. Some fleeting thoughts begin and I do numerous tiny sketches. Of these, a few may appeal to me as drawings, while others may suggest paintings. What begins as thought merges, at this stage, with imagination. That's how we-artists-decide whether a particular subject should be a drawing or a painting or a sculpture.
RD: Do your drawings initially start off as a provisional exercise, a conversation with yourself?
JC: Before I actually begin to draw-or paint-or whenever I get the time, I begin to ponder over images, over themes for my pictures. I try to import into my initial sketches all the little things, the little thoughts I wish to express. However, these are left incomplete, provisional. The details are not filled in. I then begin to progress, perhaps with a vague plan, towards what I wish to draw and the way I wish to draw it. Of the initial sketches, I start to develop as a drawing or a painting the ones that strike me as okay. And in these I begin to put in the details, too.
RD: To what extent are your drawings spontaneous and to what extent planned? Do you, for example, begin with a vague image in your head, or is it formed as your fingers impart life to the lines on paper?
JC: It has to be said that a work of art can neither be wholly spontaneous, nor wholly planned. An artist starts with two components working in him: emotion and imagination. These illumine the thought, the theme he may have been mulling over. And the theme is then brought into a drawing or a painting.. Hence, art must, to some extent, be spontaneous and, to some extent, be planned. Besides, I'm ever trying to re-invent images, That is, trying to move forward from known images to new ones. This urge is ever present in me. But if one were to be totally spontaneous, it would not be possible to play around with images because there's always the chance of repetition in spontaneous images. Hence we have to think, use our intelligence, try to fathom how to refresh images, to bring new ideas into them. And so spontaneity and planning must co-exist in creativity.
RD: Do drawings give you a greater sense of freedom than paintings in the sense that paintings must be more “finished” in their look?
JC: I don't think it is correct to assume that paintings must be more "finished" and drawings don't have to be so. Paintings and drawings involve the same degree of freedom and the same degree of alertness, You must remain as alert in gauging just when a drawing appears finished as in the case of a painting. They are equally demanding and call for the same attention. I don't think there's any basic difference in the approachdueto the difference of media. In fact, it may so happen that some drawings need to be very "finished", as much as paintings are.
RD: There is a general perception that drawings are more relaxing while paintings are more exacting and exhausting. Is that true in your case?
JC: I don't think so. Because, though the media are different, they can be equally relaxing and equally exhausting. It is true that painting involves a process that is more complex and may take more time than drawing. And that the physical part of it may make it more exhausting. But it would be a gross misconception to conclude that, in creative terms, drawing is intrinsically more relaxing than painting. This difference doesn't really exist.
RD: Which is your favourite medium for drawings?
JC: I haven't really thought about a favourite medium. While working, artists use different media. I have used the brush, pastels, pen and ink. The medium is dictated by the creative compulsion. By the expression we wish to achieve, for example. By the way we may have imagined how to express something. We use whichever medium suits our purpose best. That's what happens with drawings. With paintings, too, that is usually the case. However, for the past few years I've been using dry pastels. In many different ways I'm deriving much creative enjoyment from the expressions I've been able to achieve in this medium. In fact, there are quite a number of such dry pastel drawings in this show, which I think may be interesting in the context of the times,
RD: You have often done drawings of creepers, leaves, flowers, where there is grace and flow to the rhythm of lines. These sometimes bring alpona to mind, something you saw your mother-and may be other women relatives-do. Can you read any connection between the two?
JC: You're right that the drawings of creepers, leaves, flowers have a certain rhythm to them. Let me explain the background to it, which has perhaps not been mentioned elsewhere. I had once done designing, textile designing. At that time I had done a lot of flowers and leaves and the rhythm and flow of lines was their basic feature. As for creepers, that connection truly goes back to my childhood when I grew up amid greenery, trees and leaves and creepers, which really attracted me. These have figured in countless sketches. They surface again and again in my work. Their rhythm and linear grace draw me irresistibly.
You might find a certain kinship with alpona here. But that has come from my designing phase, not from watching alpona done at home, of which I have no conscious memory. But I've seen many designs. Alpona, too. And of many different kinds. Spending so many years with the Handloom Board's design centre at Chennai was an experience that definitely left its mark on my drawing.
RD: Your drawings are sometimes spare and brisk, some other times strongly sculpturesque. Shows what can be done with line and shadings, the immense possibility of drawing. What do you say?
JC: That’s quite right. At times I’ve done the most abbreviated drawings. Just a few lines. That creates a certain expression in my drawings. Then again you'll also find some quite sculpturesque, tonal quality where I’ve used deep shading. What I want to say is that there is a certain stark beauty to brevity. When I find a concrete expression emerging from a few lines I leave the drawing just there. Then again, elsewhere, there may be a sculptural solidity in the drawing. That's because of the academic grounding given to us as students, with its emphasis on tone and shading, for example. Personally speaking, my attitude has also taken me in this direction. I have a feel for weight, the weight of a figure, its substance, the shadows, the planes, variations in the quality of the black, the detailed shading. I’ve wished to use all this in a way that would create a total impact, because I think of the totality of the expression. I never combine the two approaches. I always develop a drawing in the direction that comes naturally.
RD: Yet drawing doesn’t satisfy you completely, isn't that so? What are its limitations?
JC: I don’t think that is correct because I think drawing is a complete art form in itself. A drawing may be spare or it may be detailed with tone and shading. But when it reaches completeness of form, of beauty, I feel it can have no limitation, It achieves 100 per cent fruition. It may, for example, happen that even after expending much energy on a painting it still doesn't appeal to you. Despite the tonal variations in it, the structure, the colour, a painting may yet fail. So might a drawing, for that matter. But the one that succeeds-whether economical or elaborate-achieves a certain quality, a certain completeness. In other words, it becomes art. When it becomes art, it can have no intrinsic limitation. So I don't think you can say that drawing doesn't satisfy me.
RD: Are drawings thought of as “lesser art”? And considered poor value as investment? What is the market for drawings? And the attitude of galleries and buyers?
JC: Not at all. It is true that the public often goes for colour. Those who may not quite appreciate the finer nuances of art prefer colour, which has a ready appeal. But the truly good drawing certainly gets the value it deserves in terms of prices. And investment potential depends upon quality. If they are good as art, drawings certainly fetch their value in prices. Take, for example, drawings by such masters as van Gogh or da Vinci. Or a black and white drawing by Picasso. A drawing may sometimes cost less than a painting and sometimes more. So, I don't think you can say that drawings, per se, are priced less, I've never felt galleries and buyers have ignored drawings.
RD: Are you interested in doing really large drawings?
JC: Certainly. I’ve done large drawings in the past. And I’m doing them now, too. In fact, in this exhibition there's one that's around 7 ft x 2-1/2 ft. Therefore, I'm quite eager to do large drawings.
BLACK SHINES BRIGHT
RD: Let’s move on to your paintings.
JC: What I want to say is painting and drawing are both art, Drawing is as complete an art form as painting is. That is, art can be created just with drawing. There's no reason to accord a superior status to painting.
Another thing. There’s colour in drawing, too. Usually, while painting, we use different colours. But colours aren't absent in drawing. The point is the colour of the medium we are handling-be it pencil or pastel-is only one of them. Besides, let's not forget that white and black, or white and brown, are also colours. What's most important is creativity, creating art, whether in a painting, or in a drawing.
RD Your early paintings have two distinctive features. One isthebackdrop of unrelieved, oppressive black, it blots out the external world. What made this a permanent feature of your art during this phase? The physical environment of working in insufficient light, but what else?
JC: I’ve spoken of my use of the black ground before. Let me explain a few things. One is that we-artists-exercise a lot of freedom while drawing or painting. If I choose to make the background white, I can also make it black. The choice depends on what visual quality I ultimately achieve. I can see that black causes an impact that satisfies me. White would have a different effect. Black builds up a charge that I relish.
Besides, the form, the image I'm making gains in prominence against the black. Hence, viewer focus is automatically drawn to the image. But ii I were to fill in the background minutiae, the viewer's attention would be dissipated. The style attracted me and I repeatedly used it in my early days.
Black brings depth and dimension to a work of art. Besides, there was also my personal situation, my mood then, my depression. It started with insufficient light. We had no electricity then. In the early morning, I would leave a house lit dimly by oil lamps and, in the evenings, I would return to a house lit dimly by oil lamps. But later, I began to use black consciously.
RD: And black carries different suggestions, of course....
JC: It creates a psychological ambience. Black is used for darkness, depression and, of course, the secret subterranean tendencies in man. Then again, black is needed to show light; the brightness of light is made brighter with the counterpoint of black.
RD: The other distinctive feature is the minute cross-hatching that seems to ruck up and blister human skin.
JC: The cross-hatching in ink builds up a surface quality that wouldn't be possible with watercolor and brush. I've been doing this for years, using the minute mesh of criss-cross lines to which different tones are added. I find that this technique lends sensitivity to the pictures and is hence vital to my art.
RD: The technique, along with the distortions, makes people appear pathetic, like creatures damned.
JC: The characters I create may appear pathetic or damned because my ideas and concerns, shaped by my experiences, by life's turmoil, are reflected in them. While such characters may emerge from my experience, it is not entirely their portrayal I seek. They also reflect my own state of mind, my emotions, as well as our social conditions. These troubled times tend to throw up such images.
RD: These images, these characters exist against flat colours. The flat colour of the background shuts out the social milieu and leaves them in a kind of limbo, a kind of social and spiritual vacuum. Is this done to deny the characters the comfort of a social backdrop which makes them anonymous?
JC: There’s a reason for the flat colour. There is a lot of intricacy in my foreground figures. If I were to insert details in the background, too, the eye would tend to shift to the background. So I don't want the background to be detailed and complex. In fact, so much is said just through the characters, the social and psychological suggestion contained in them that background details are redundant. Besides, the effect of the criss-cross lines is more articulate against a flat ground.
There's another thing. There is a sculptural dimension to the figures. As though they stand out like relief figures. I like to present the human form in different ways. And I feel that its structure and contortions, the gestures of the figures are defined clearly against flat colours.
RD: But, interestingly, flat colours reduce the narrative element, it seems to be a strategy to reduce the narrative. Which, of course, leads us to another question: how important is narrative in figurative art in general? And in your own art?
JC: Many artists use narrative in figurative art. But what I want to do is not so much tell a direct story as express a complex of social and psychological elements in a figure.
Let me give you an example. There was a painting I called Nati Binodini. In that single figure, you’ll find several strands: personal history, the mood of the character, sensuality and so on.
My concern, you see, is with a situation. I wish to bring into a single moment the unspoken past, history, and the happening of the present.
Narrative has little place in the kind of structural play I seek to bring out in my paintings. Economy of presentation seems vital to me so that what is unseen and unstated is more interesting than the seen. That is why the typical narrative treatment does not attract me. The forms I explore, the distortions and gestures, their tension become complete in themselves. A detailed background might even disturb the picture.
You might say that this is my personal style, a matter of conscious choice.
But it is also true that narrative is quite important in figurative art, especially in realistic, representational art. This is because focusing on an event, or a personal story, in a descriptive way will have its appeal. So narrative art occupies a big place in art history.
In my art, its role is limited though on occasion I, too, have used the narrative, usually in an allegorical way, to build up fantasy. But in the future, I might use narrative or at least descriptive elements.
RD: Man-woman relationships are central to life. How have you explored this theme from different angles in your paintings? And how was your approach subtly affected by your own experiences?
JC: Basically, it’s a question of human behaviour, human gestures, expressions, that’s what engages me. Besides, I’ve seen traditional, Bengal pictures exploring the same subjects. Kalighat pat, for example, or Bat-tala prints; the sensuous folds of women's drapery as seen in old woodcut prints, in oleographs. These have attracted me visually. And then there’ the society we live in, the characters around us, the unfolding events we are witness to and, of course, our own experiences. My characters have emerged from the life we see around us.
RD: Among whom women play an important role because it’s often the feminine presence that lends vitality to your paintings. Have you analysed the source of the feminine factor in your art?
JC: It goes without saying that the feminine presence lends a certain distinctiveness to a painting. Its visual quality changes, too, And it acquires sensuality, especially with the female body. I think every artist has his own particular perspective on life and on people. The beauty of women, the beauty of the female body attracts me and I bring this response into my paintings. But the beauty we see must be turned into the beauty of art. Hence, the feminine form must be recreated in terms ofartisticvalidity.
One thing we must own: the female presence occupies a major place in society and life. So when I paint, the feminine factor influences me. It is the source you are talking of. Because you can't have life without women. In fact, you'll find much of life's complexity revolves around women. In literature, cinema, drama the feminine presence is vital. And so, too, in my art.
RD: You’ve spoken elsewhere of the need to grow from one’s perspective and have spoken of the influence of temple sculpture and patachitra on you. Can you please elaborate on the traditions that nurtured your own idiom? (For example, the eyes of Durga idols. What about the flow of lines and erotic satire of Kalighat art?
JC: Life with all its varieties and vagaries leaves an impact on art. Often we may not realise it but some vague impression picked up at some point might yet figure in one's art. An event that may have taken place years ago, or some picture glimpsed in a book or a sculpture seen on the wall of a temple in the past might find its indirect way into one's art. In my case as I've said before, Birbhum and Bankura terracotta, indeed the terracotta form, I've always found engaging. There is a certain grace in them that attracts me, a certain sensuality, too. There is also the patachitra with its curious articulation, its distortion of form that defies the logic of perspective and proportion 1 find very attractive. Its influence can be seen in the evolution of my art. Evolution because I never remain stuck in one place. So these traditional forms left their imprint on my work.
Then, of course, there's the eye of the Durga icon. As a boy I'd seen the clay-modeller paint the eyes of the goddess. There was something magical in the eyes once they were completed and they appealed to me even as a child. This childhood experience has remained with me. You'll often find that the eye is central to my work, the eye is the conduit of tension. As for Kalighat pat, yes, you might discover a similar erotic satire in my art. That may be because the artists of Kalighat pat had a similar attitude and approach. I never really wanted to follow the lines of Kalighat. But then it's also true that my lines have probably been influenced by different sources, particularly my experience in design which I've already mentioned in another section.
RD: Let’s come to colours, which do you use the most and why?
JC: Black dominates my paintings. I’ve done many works in monochrome, just black and white. And then a very light colour, which is the colour of human skin, is also used, especially in my mixed media paintings. To that just a little cream or red or blue may be added, after which no more colour seems necessary. When I feel there's no need for more colour, I stop immediately. In other words, I bring into my paintings whatever colour may still be needed after all the black has been applied. Because I begin with black as the base, I add only whatever is absolutely necessary.
To create paintings by unleashing the tension immanent in colours-as we see Matisse or Picasso do-is not for me. I try to generate a psychological atmosphere which is not helped by colour in any way. Which is why I often keep away from colours. But at times I've also used colours with just a few lines. Like in some of my still life’s. Ultimately, the use of colours depends largely on the kind of painting I'm doing. But one thing is indisputable: I've always used black the most.
RD: Even in your paintings one can see the primacy of articulate lines, for they build up the basic scaffolding of form. What would you say?
JC: I agree that the line-drawing, that is-forms the base on which my paintings are created. We see this in many artists, by the way. In Picasso, for example. Or Husain. Or Souza. In my case, too, lines are the scaffolding, drawing is the base. But I must tell you that in a few of my oils and watercolours the line isn't prominent but blended into the pictorial scheme. But for a long time, from the beginning, in fact, my emphasis was on line. However, I still wish to experiment and I’m thinking of doing something with fewer lines and in terms of figures growing out of space.
PRESENT OVER FUTURE
RD: In this fast-paced world with its astounding social and technological changes and challenges, can art retain its relevance?
JC: Changes must come in art, too, Many things in art will endure but then again many things will change. Art as we know it in the traditional sense will, inevitably, invite technological innovations. But basic human tendencies cannot wither away. The most intimate compulsions of an individual have been and will always be defining features of society. Social mores change; ideas and expressions change. But the very essence of human nature remains the same. For example, even if romantic love were to become extinct, the sex-drive remains as it always was and as it always will be. Similarly, the sensibility that prompts art cannot die.
RD: It was there even in early man...
JC: Yes, because there are some fundamental areas in art which stimulate people. Take colour, for instance. Colour excites, inspires people. Form and structure provide mental stimulation. There's texture, too. And then, regarding design, we may like one and dislike another. So the basic matter of taste will always be there. Change doesn't mean the elimination of such basic responses. In fact, what has happened is that the modern age has thrown up new concerns which must seek new expressions, achieve new forms. Hence, art is being extended into new areas.
RD: Do you wish to reflect the changing times in your work? Or do you feel the story within remains the same at the micro level even as external changes go on?
JC: I certainly do. I feel whether and to what extent an artist reflects the changing times depends on the manner in which he responds to change. Some may choose to resist changing trends, whereas others may respond more readily to them. I personally feel my art evolved over the years as my many different ideas changed. This evolution can be detected in my work. Another point. External change is very apparent. Simultaneously, though the human essence remains the same, change at the micro level may also go on. It's a combination of the two that gives us the narrative of civilization, If man were immune to change either in his existence or his ideas, his work, his art would fail to evolve. Thus a person must have an open mind if he is to grow and evolve.
However, this does not mean running after fads. One can only incorporate something that appears personally valid. Change must, therefore, be anchored in conviction.
RD: You’d evolved your own language by the early 60’s. The basic concerns have endured. You’ve still manyyearsof creativity left. Have you ever thought of radical departures from the tried and tested to the exploration of something completely different?
JC: An artist’s language evolves over time through much thought. Personally, I’m not motivated by the compulsion to change for the sake of change. Rather, I’m motivated by the desire to be creative. And to say what I wish to in my own language. If some new element enters my work through my natural creative urge I welcome it. And I'd want change only if it appears vital to me personally. If it were to be something extraordinary.
Besides, my generation started off at a particular point in time with its own set of ideas. We have now reached this phase. And from here we might head for a new destination in the future. The journey of the self is something I always accept. I may travel in a new direction gradually. But what or how much change my work may go through is something I cannot measure beforehand, nor is such a prediction possible. But I do want to engage in creative evolution.
RD: Any inkling of what kind of art you might be drawn to?
JC: I don’t feel artists think of imitating others. I feel there still is scope for fresh explorations that are not tied to tradition. There's a healthy catholicity of trends now. That is, previously there was a linear evolution from one style or phase to another. From naturalism to impressionism to expressionism, semi-abstraction and abstraction through a distortion of form and perspective. But now many new elements have invaded art. It is no longer confined to the strictly visual. Art is being created through many different kinds of endeavour to achieve a hundred faces and expressions. If this new openness expands and refreshes my own particular idiom in a meaningful way, preserving the core of my concerns, I would welcome that. But change must come through a natural process of growth from my own position. Suddenly jumping into something weird with which my art philosophy has no link isn't acceptable to me.
RD: You’re an artist who's sensitive to the social climate. In recent years the world seems to have become more fragmented, disturbed, violent. How has this new-age brutality affected your work?
JC: What you ask reminds me of Rabindranath and how he’d seen a crisis in civilisation during the Second World War, It's not war now but violence within society, terrible conflicts over caste and religion, inhuman cruelty towards women, greed, jealousy, killings, How ironic that we’d once imagined a future progressive society. Think of Abu Ghraib prison. The Gujarat riots, Rape of women. Even the political violence in our Bengal villages, What man inflicts on man, whatever be the cause, is terrifying. In fact, that you could say is the real focus of this exhibition, the present crisis in civilisation we are passing through,
RD: You’ve remained an idealist in the sense that you still wish to see a better tomorrow. But there's a contradiction between your idealism and the reality around. Does this cause cynicism in you?
JC: Cynicism is defeatist. I do not give in to cynicism. I want to remain positive and make an effort to do something positive.
RD: What is your reaction to computer graphics? Do you feel computer graphics can claim legitimacy as art?
JC: I think computer graphics are one of many contemporary techniques being exploited in post-modern art. The novelty of computer graphics may yield some valid contribution to art and result in serious work. I feel what technique has been used is not of critical importance; rather, what art has been created is. If computer graphics can lead to work that has validity in artistic terms, why should we not accept them? There can be no controversy about that. Now, even oil paintings are making use of computer graphics.
One problem remains, though. The longevity of computer graphics is not known for sure till now. But I feel if serious experimentation can be done with computer graphics, people will accept that, too. However, it is still true that people value works which have the touch of human hands, That, too, we must keep in mind.
RD: But you, too, have taken advantage of this new tool, haven’t you?
JC: I feel an artist can choose any medium he's comfortable with. What I did was take computerised prints of some drawings which I wished transformed to large sizes. It was interesting the way I could change the background.
RD: A new worry is the market in fakes. Haven't you been faked, too? What do you think should be done to check this?
JC: Those after quick bucks resort to corrupt ways. Unfortunately, there are dealers who're more interested in ill-gotten wealth than the health of art., Fakes undermine the art market. I m told my line drawings are indeed being faked. Yet, buyers can tell a copy from the original because the fake drawing lacks the spontaneity of my lines, I know this because buyers contact me to check the authenticity of what they’ve acquired.
Art institutions in the West have standard scientific techniques to spot fakes. Artists must become more alert to the problem and guard against it.
RD: In what way? Would proper documentation and dissemination of knowledge through websites help? Like maybe having just two or three recognised dealers and letting the public know about it? Or say, making copyright laws in such a way that prevents any work from being exhibited without the artist's knowledge?
JC: Proper documentation would-certainly check the problem. I maintain a register with photographs of my main works. I also use a code number. Perhaps a new system could be introduced whereby artists would give numbered certificates to buyers, However, maintaining control over sales isn’t easy for an artist even when he/she is alive. What happens after his/ her death? Only an all-India institution can make the effort to monitor art business and prevent malpractice.
RD: Who are the younger artists to watch out for in Bengal? There’s a general feeling that, apart from a few exceptions, nothing much is happening here.
JC: That is the case in every metro. Only a few artists are engaged seriously in art. The majority remain unremarkable. Not everything being hailed as avant-garde will stand the test of lime. Young artists suffer from insecurity so they wish to do something that will fetch them instant attention. But such an approach may be at the expense of emotional depth and intensity of genuine feelings.
It is not true to say that nothing is happening here, There are a number of young artists who are engaged in serious work but are yet to get attention and exposure outside Bengal.
RD: You’ve lived a full site and been through different kinds of experience. What would you say is life’s most valuable lesson?
JC: I could answer this inmanyways, for life throws up different kinds of experience and ideas. And one of them would be my meditation on mortality, impermanence; the thought that whatever we may have done, may have achieved will all be gone one day. Nothing ultimately lasts and that haunts me. The truth is that a man must live and then leave the world when the time comes. He cannot take anything with him. So our baser selves, our lust and greed and envy, man's injustice to man, all seems meaningless to me. In this uncertainty, we yet need to live happily in our own small way. Such thoughts occupy my mind. There were those before me who mulled over these eternal concerns. And today we dwell on the same things from our perspective.
RD: A gifted few may even fry to leave their footprints in the sands of time?
JC: To think that you've become somebody and will leave footprints is false vanity. I don’t think that way. To me, engagement with life is much more important than what I may leave behind afterwards.
RD: Finally, where do you think would art figure in the life of an individual?
JC: There are many who are sensitive to art and appreciate it. They come to have a look at works of art and derive pleasure from them, But then again there are those who look upon art merely as investment or objects of business transaction. Art has figured in these two different ways, sometimes as business and sometimes as pleasure. Let us take up the principle of pleasure. We get pleasure in nature and in many other areas of life. But art has a very crucial role in life the world over. If today we were to take the arts out of human life, the world would be shorn of grace and charm.
Here I’m not talking only of visual art but of the arts, which include music, dance, cinema, architecture. There's art in interior decoration, art in our clothing; indeed, art is woven into the very fabric of life in many subtle ways, If we were to subtract the arts from life, life would be reduced to a utilitarian skeleton. We cannot imagine life without art.