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Jogen Chowdhury: A Retrospective

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Clearly one of the most prolific artists of the 50s, whose works span every medium and genre possible, a celebrated painter, whose works stand as a stark mirror to the times they were done. The living legend, Jogen Chowdhury, is an inspiration to generations of artists and art lovers. This interview is from early this year (2016) when he was in Hyderabad to attend a retrospective of his work – around 300 of them – that belong to his personal collection and a considerable number that belong to Prshant Lahoti (Owner of Kalakriti Art Gallery, Hyderabad) displayed at the gallery.


Looking at all of them at one place was like watching Jogenda, as he is lovingly called; grow up as an artist, a human being, and an activist, whose voice is his art. He was born in 1939, in an East Bengal (Bangladesh) village and was brought up in a Kolkata refugee settlement.

And no wonder that his art reflects his life troubled with the aftermath of partition, the hardships of refugee’s life and evidently his drawings of the human forms with its stark lines evoke a darker emotion. Be it a horse, an old woman or an impoverished man – all the sagging lines, the impoverished bodies and effortless line in black ink tell the story of life as seen through personal experiences and the world around him.

As a young artist, he did pass through certain predictable phases during his journey to realisation of true self. The scenes of village life from his childhood memories, of people doing their work, of the flora and fauna, etc, done in watercolours – are poignant in their representation of rural life.

Jogenda’s watercolour recreating village life

The well-worked portraits of people in their many layers not just stand as an image, but uncannily reflect the mood and character of the person painted; and above all, the early works, seem like a promise for a great future of a restless artist.

He worked his way, along the side of others, through the following decades to reshape the history of modern Indian art in remarkable ways. Artistically gifted and determined, he completed his art education at the Government College of Art and Craft, Calcutta in 1960 with highest credits and then, went to Paris on a Cultural Exchange Scholarship for higher education at the Ecole Nationale Superieur des Beaux Arts and the Atelier-17 In 1965.
He worked as a textile designer with the Weavers’ Service Centre, Chennai (1968 – 1972) and later as a Curator of the Art Collection of Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi (1972 – 1987). Finally, he moved to Santiniketan as a teacher in the Painting Department, Kala Bhavan (1987). He formally retired as the Professor and Principal of Kala Bhavan in 1999 to devote full time to art.

Like Ravindranath Tagore, whom Jogenda refers to as the first modern artist of India; he too refuses to conform to a particular genre or style. “I am inspired by the spirit of Tagore. He was not trained and had never been to an art academy, but became the most significant artist. He had come out with elements different from others of his time. His paintings were modern, yet probably more Indian than anyone else,” shares Jogen Chowdhury.

In many ways, Jogen’s works fall in the realm of modern and contemporary, yet with an Indian metaphor. To him, the modern need not be a blind devotion to western concepts. And this he had learnt during his time in Paris, he says.

“Paris taught me what not to paint. When I went there, I saw a lot of European art and realised most of what we do has already been done. I was surely influenced by their expressionistic work. But, I thought – as an Indian painter, what shall I do? That reflection changed what I did. During those days, I also wrote a long essay of 100-pages that were later published in Bengali. And, all this thinking helped me grow as an artist. The writing helped me understand what I should not follow,” he recalled.

The understanding also gave way to a body of work that kept evolving with time, went from elaborate works to minimalistic drawings, from black ink to dabbling in colour and back – each no less in intensity or passion it evokes. His forms and mediums are many even though he prefers to work with pastels, watercolour and ink instead of oil paints. His themes are infinite, but the premise is constant – ‘life’, that continues to inspire him till date.

True to what he believes, Jogenda’s work always reflects the modern thought. Be it his representation of the ills of the society, and his response to it, his drawings of political figures from the time he was a curator at Rashtrapathi Bhavan, his religious iconography bordering on satire from his stay in Chennai. The tangible aspects of life get an intangible treatment of the contemporary in his works, and this he does staying true to his Indian roots.

And precisely for this reason, he has come to be an artist of international reckoning. However, he speaks of cultural imperialism and shares that despite some great artists being from Japan and other Asian countries, the west always promotes their artists, who at times are indeed mediocre. “We can be international, wherever we stay. We don’t need to be jazzed by others. We should be truthful and original to be international,” he advises.
The article was first published in The Hans India
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