There has always been an effortless Indianness to Jogen Chowdhury's art, a regional Bengali flavor which, is freely reflected not only in his human subjects, their garments and the spaces they inhabit, but even in the organic elements of his plants and flowers, particularly the many petaled lotus that Jung had once likened to the unconscious which, includes memories and ideas. It is refracted as well as in the artist's vibrant versions of the everyday and in his dark-shrouded worlds of dream and fantasy.
His intuitive images, liberated from naturalism and fueled by residual memory and vivid' imagination, give utterance as always to the symbolic and subconscious. The representation may initially seem parodied and in different ways forms appear disjunctive and distorted, yet their introspective personal qualities emerge through a process of viewing, culminating in a strong psychological reality that is an integral subtext to this artist's interest in primary human experience.
By drawing energy from his own culture and history, and situating it in the contemporary context of his concerns, he creates pictorial metaphors that have a surprising range of versatility. For the artist it is a way of apprehending the world, As his subjects change from that of reflective dream states to the satirical figures of the corrupt and politically powerful, or from evocative objects radiating subtle eroticism to the more overt man-woman liaisons fraught with longing and disappointment, it is as if Chowdhury has distilled the sweep of his experience into a moment of intense feeling. His muted palette- often just black.& white and their tonalities-as well as his complex, layered compositions-with images that evolve through the gathering darkness of cross-hatchings-are a part of this intensity, as are his recent more austere and reductive drawings of the violated human figure crushed by today's sexual and political transgressions.
For Chowdhury, drawing has always been a process of recognition and discovery. The artist who is deeply disturbed by the increasing violence all over the world particularly the kind that systematically targets women and the barbaric political variety that has taken to tearing apart peace loving people and even families as seen recently in Bengal has in the last few years been drawing simplified yet magnified torsions of the human body in a bold and public way. His emblematic strokes, drawn in his staples of ink, pastel or an occasional watercolor wash, are rare in their clarity and grace of vision, and uninterrupted in their flow of figure-enclosing outline. The violence inferred is in the posture, in the nudity, in the baldness of heads that are sometimes impacted with vicious damage. But it is also in the sudden slash that stabs the bodies, denoting a festering wound or a psychic fissure that desperately needs to be bound up and healed.
One is struck by Chowdhury's disparate subjects and his use of transforming, potent yet open-ended images that hold their own' as abstract entities. Through their prevailing sense of isolation, he creates ah unembellished and introspective meditation on life and living and its psychic underpinnings. In using his sources with deliberation, the artist has never been overwhelmed by either art history or developing art trends influenced by the west. Instead, by creating a highly, individualized art, by doing his own expressive thing he has continued to bring a breath of fresh air to Indian contemporary art these past 40 years.
Jogen Chowdhury could be living on the other side of the moon instead of in Santiniketan. Given the distance from Mumbai where I live, it was simply too far away to travel. And telephonic interviews, like virtual ones, just don't work, especially with artists; somehow it has to be a one to one situation with a mutual rapport established. The possibility of the commissioned interview taking place was steadily receding as the deadline kept getting closer when, magically, just like one of his dream images, the artist materialized. He was in town, but on a tight schedule and would try and. see me in between his previous appointments. Chowdhury, who will be 68 this year, is a warm, unpretentious person who laughs easily and has probably been among the more popular teachers at Santiniketan. Though he retired as Principal and teacher a few years ago, he has continued, to live and work as an artist close to the campus, whose students - past and present -and faculty, are like his extended family. So indeed are the numerous visitors and artists, who like, the students, come seeking his advice and guidance which, is generously dispensed, much like his efforts are, to subsidize funds for the University and a number of art projects and institutions in Bengal. At the interview which, took place partly at his hotel, partly in taxis that Had-to be taken, and partly in the library' of a medical consultant's office (made available since the waiting room was full with patients), Chowdhury gave me his undivided attention as if the interview was all that mattered. At the end of the peripatetic evening which, Had all the hallmarks of a Jogen Chowdhury painting--- intensity, concern, humor, irony, insight the artist had given me deeply felt answers to all my questions that, like his remarkable drawings and paintings, reveal more the longer one studies them.
Kamala Kapoor (KK): Who would you say have been your greatest influences?
Jogen Chowdhury (JC): I have always considered Abanindranath Tagore, Binode Bihari Mukherji and Nandalal Bose as among the great masters of the past. However, as an art student in Calcutta, I had begun to admire MF Husain's paintings and had been moved as well as influenced by the work of Kathe Koliwitz whose exhibition had come to the city. Later, I went to study in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and was able to see a great deal of western art, modern as well as contemporary, but it was Picasso to whose works I was deeply drawn. You could say he has been my greatest and abiding influence.
KK: What happened when you returned to India?
JC: I remember when I got back home I was full of so many thoughts and ideas and would write them all down exhaustively in a journal even as I kept on searching for aboriginal and contemporary expression of my own. Perhaps the very first art works I made were collages created from illustrations of Tirupati images. After this came the pen and ink cross-hatchings and around '69, with the "Reminiscences of a Dream" series, expressions of a very personal aspect of my life-began.
KK: These works have a dark, otherworldly quality of magic and sorcery; their surrealistic looking visuals are compelling. Being dream images they are also complex and multi layered as well-as mysterious. For this reason- one attribute a symbolic significance to them as well.Couldonecallthemsurrogateimages that represent/something different from what they seem? Presumably Freudian and Jungian interpretations of these images would yield possibilities of understanding them as symbols of original or long repressed feelings, or of an inner world perhaps, or of a journey of self-discovery?
JC: All these are possible. They may not be directly autobiographical but in a subliminal way they are. To give you a straightforward example, before my marriage, I used to draw a lot of snakes and strange creatures but after getting married these images stopped appearing. Association is also intrinsic to my work; the images are very connected with my early life in rural Bengal and with its ethos. As a child I often used to go to the village pond to catch fish, There were lotuses blooming everywhere, The goddess Durga is such a powerful presence in Bengal; I was mesmerized by her yellow painted eyes. Images like these still haunt my dreams and paintings. Besides, I believe there is a mystery to life, which cannot be explained by any amount of logic---it is beyond reason; as such these images are like inexplicable experiences. I am not the kind of communist who disbelieves in spirituality. I believe everything is vibrant, everything lives, and also that everything is ephemeral.
KK: The fact that you use repeated images such as the lotus and the fish, throws up other questions such whether you actually dreamt those images, remembered them and then painted them or did they appear of their own accord as if from the weave of the canvas, the texture of the paper, the stroke of the pen or the oil pastel?
JC: For me the tactile experience is very important, so what you are suggesting is possible. Even the bare touch of a line, or just a vibration, or the sensation of any material can trigger a response. I have a fascination for fabric, for instance and for texture, and I have a very organic sense of design, I feel a sculptor's sense of touch perhaps I could have been a sculptor. I remember the terra cotta images of Bengal, the whole feel of their surfaces, their planes At the same time I believe that while image may be the base of a work of art, it is not the' ultimate; there is so much else.
KK: Could you elaborate upon your own words: "My paintings and drawings are not made; they grow out of me, as plants grow".
JC: My work is very physical. I feel the whole organic experience: the curves, the flow, the growth itself, the whole sensuality at play, even the gravity that pulls down the forms and the energy that contradicts it.
KK: Your works have always included expressive studies of women like the recurring one with the wistful face staring mid-way into space. It is face that reflects more than just a tinge of loneliness. She even repeats the same chintz choli in each picture and the off-white sari that faithfully coils around her breasts and shoulders in rope-like swirls. Is this a portrait of someone you know?
JC: No, it’s more a collection of images, of moods and characteristics observed in general and then stored and used; the total culture of a person. When I look at someone, I try and go through to their pasts, to their experiences, almost like an x-ray looking into them. It's, a very psychic thing.
KK: So these works go beyond portraits in their iconographic complexity. This probably conjures up a world of meaning that extends both your technique and subject to its own dialectics. Was your well known ink and pastel portrait of Noti Binodini done in '75, realized the same way?
JC: Yes, the image grew in my mind after I saw a play of the same name by Nandikar in Delhi. Binodini was an accomplished woman who herself used to write she wrote her memoirs. But she was a stage actress a celebrated one of some notoriety and was trying unsuccessfully to get recognition as a "respectable" person in society. This was in the Calcutta of the late 19th century, a very insular and-conservative place. I think a sense of sensuality and dignity comes through in the form, along with a feel of alienation and a welling sadness.
KK: To go back in time after the "Reminiscences of a Dream" series where did those acutely satirical depictions of politicians, priests, bureaucrats and businessmen come from? They were usually portrayed in self-indulgent situations lolling against the suggestive props of a pillow or a bed. Their visual renditions seem encoded with the degradations of the culture that produced them. But what really caused a stir were the iconoclastic depictions of Ganesh, which were at the same time strangely empathetic.
JC: I was reacting to the corruption and rot in society, among the rich and the people in power, Generally it was a period when satirical attitudes and critical assessments found expression in my work along with the attendant grotesquerie and exaggeration. However the Ganesh image has to be understood in context. In Bengal where Durga permeates every nook and corner, Ganesh does not have the same significance as in Maharashtra. In Bengal where he represents business people, Ganesh has a different connotation.
KK: There is so much darkness in your works, the "Reminiscences of a Dream", series particularly. A sense of enveloping blackness.
JC: To begin with I worked a great deal in unlit spaces. There was no electricity in the home eventually allotted to my family when we came to Calcutta due to partition. So when I was in art school. I used to work in ink and black color at night in the light of a hurricane lamp. Prior to this we lived in a refugee camp and later with a paternal uncle, whereas my father had been a zamindar in what became East Bengal and then Bangladesh. Suddenly we had lost everything including our land. It was a life of devastation and deprivation. It marks you as different. The sense of tragedy and depression was overwhelming and in so many ways it has stayed with one. Everything really was dark. And it reflects in the work.
KK: There are many questions about your color spectrum. The "Dream" works amongst others have had a dark palette, then there has been a great deal of black and white and always a restrained use of color often muted and organic has prevailed, sometimes relenting when a stain of soft color emerges from the cross hatchings. It is only on the odd occasion that have you lifted the ban with the use of oil; paint, when you have allowed color to flare boldly. How would you describe your recent color spectrum and choices?
JC: Unlike for most other artists, color for me is secondary I give other elements more importance. Color, its tonality, intensity or withdrawal, gets sorted out in the process of the work; for instance if I'm painting, the necessity of a psychological element may be the decisive factor. My intention is to bring out the subject in such a way that color is associated with its development.Besides,Iworkalot withink, and black is synonymous with this medium. Actually black, white and gray are the tones that I work with.
KK: The folk elements in your work, particularly of Kalighat, Kantha and Jatra, in terms of patterning, gesture, pose, the use of cloth as in drapery and of theatrical exaggeration, have stayed on in different ways these past 40 years. Taking this as just one example of say artistic expression and integrity, would you agree that you as an artist find ample inspiration and influences in your own roots and culture and have never felt the need to absorb international trends or respond to pressures of western art avant gardes?
JC: Sometimes I tend to think we are still limping along carrying a colonial load. Look at the way artists take everything for a 'jhanki' to Europe. Why is it so essential? There are so many contradictions in the artists themselves, I for one have no desire to be famous, nor can I be swept away with passing phases. We should have our own integrity, our own pride; we speak best in our own language. One acknowledges new ideas, new art forms but western influences have always been there, even when I was a child, even when. I was a student. So what is all this fuss about globalization? Certainly one is open to changing situations and if there is anything that touches one or changes one, we will be affected in certain ways, But why be uprooted for its own sake? In the end people remain who they are, Why lose one’s identity in the broader sense of who you are and where you are from? Even if you keep the global situation in mind, you can only be connected to something original if you are connected with your own situation. The originality of one’s own experience is unique.
KK: You once said and I am quoting you now: "We must discard and reject outright these outward or foreign influences which can disturb or confuse a search to create an idiom which is true to the soil".
JC: I do not discard everything, only things which have no relevance. For example Picasso has profoundly affected me. I would like to add that I like a lot of post-modern art. It .is also possible that in the course of time I may well change the way I work, but I don't think it is essential to be-recognized by the west.
KK: Your densely crosshatched network of lines creates complex textural qualities and effects of chiaroscuro from which figures evolve. Elements of distortion, impart a psychologically charged perception to the personal and the everyday. The sensuous physicality and psycho-social tension of say a couple, a repeated motif .in your work, caught in a still and private moment, is revealed in a gesture, or a glance, or a posture that is just that bit off center, just that bit exaggerated. A probing loneliness often alienates one from the other. Works like these, with which you have been identified for the last 5-6 years, have given way to an equally expressive but sparer articulation of clear and continuous lines that draw a figure without a pause. A similar sense of alienation is radiated by these figures as they kneel, stoop or curl up in a fetal position. These solitary figures against a neutral background often seem to have suffered a slash suggesting a physical wound. How did this very markedly different language develop? ..."
JC: Mine has been a gradual growth of form through the sketch to the drawing to the cross-hatchings and on to these linear images that finally become abstract. I have always considered drawing a total art form; it is my ultimate expression I must have done at least a thousand ink, pastel and wash drawings in the last couple of years and I also use large format paper or canvas---up to 9ft by 6ft. Also, unlike the non-emotional art of today, my work has always been involved with all the areas of Shakespearean emotion: love, anger, jealousy, remorse and violence. Indeed, violence today is a chronic activity. The slash you mention does represent a wound and can be interpreted in several ways. My artistic concerns are to do with form and language, so whether an image is made with sentience or with perception, whether it is made precisely or distorted, there can still be a sense of infinity and openness to it, it can still become abstract. All real form must vibrate with an abstract quality, with a sense of eternity, otherwise it will not be significant form. As Rabindranath Tagore once said: "Ruper madhye arup": in the form must be the invisible and supernatural.