Beyond the darkness

On the sidelines of his largest retrospective till date, Jogen Chowdhury talks about his art and writings

Published: 26th March 2023 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th March 2023 12:52 PM   |  A+A-

Jogen Chowdhury

Jogen Chowdhury

Placed in the centre of a room full of varied canvases at the Gallery Art Exposure retrospective, Into the Half Light & Shadow Go I, in Delhi’s Bikaner House, is a non-descript notebook. On the cover neatly handwritten in Bangla is the name of the owner—Jogen Chowdhury. Titled Amar prothom sketch boi (My first sketch book), the book is dated 1955. This was the year Chowdhury enrolled at the Government College of Art & Craft, Kolkata. He admits that before he joined the college, he was never trained in art. “My art came from observing. I was very good at that,” he says.

Growing up in Daharpara village in Faridpur district—which is now in Bangladesh—Chowdhury would observe his mother draw alpona (a folk art of motifs painted on the floor in white) and the idol-makers sculpt terracotta goddesses. Till date, the 84-year-old’s steady hand and controlled lines are reminiscent of alpona, as is his trademark of drawing elongated, oval-shaped eyes like the kumhars (clay craftsmen) creating the eyes of the goddess.

Forced to migrate to Kolkata during Partition when Chowdhury was nine, the once-affluent family was in dire straits. Chowdhury’s canvas—influenced by those difficult years—is a dark one. It is this childhood that he still carries with him. In fact, one of his early works showcased at the exhibition is that of his elder brother studying by an oil lamp, engulfed in darkness. “That was my reality. We didn’t have much. I would come back from art college and practise by the lamp light, even as my brother and sister would study. The darkness is what I lived in and breathed and what I portrayed on canvas,” says the artist, known for his pen and ink works.

The ongoing exhibition boasts canvases and drawings from 1955 to 2023—over 300 works in all. This is the first time that Chowdhury’s oeuvre covering his entire life in art is on display. Needless to say, it helps you understand the artist a little better. For instance, there is a section where the works have moved towards abstract, with paint layered on paint. The year was 1965. This is the time Chowdhury was studying at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Here he saw for the first time works by Pablo Picasso. “You cannot live through a time and not be influenced by it. In Paris, my style completely changed. So much so, that when I returned to India in 1968, I could not paint for a long time,” says the artist, who instead wrote poetry during the time. 

His first book of poems, Hridoy Train Beje Othey, was published in 1970. Does he still write? “Of course. Painting is not the only thing that occupies my day. I write essays—one of which is soon to be published. I write poems, I doodle, I encourage young talent. I’m constantly working,” says the octogenarian, who is now looking forward to putting together a new show of his oil works, a medium he has rarely worked in earlier, barring a few abstracts and self-portraits.

On his return to India, he was recruited by doyen of the arts, Pupul Jayakar, as a textile designer and worked with the National Handloom Board in Chennai. It was during these years that his art evolved the most. He found his cross-hatch technique—maybe inspired in some way by the textiles he was working with—and also formed a deep connection with artist Bhupen Khakhar, famously known as ‘India’s first pop artist’. “It is a surprise that till I was in Chennai, I was not familiar with Bhupen’s art.

Later when I met him and saw his art, I realised what a tremendous talent he was. While his peers recognised the greatness of Bhupen, it took a long time for the world in general to wake up to his art,” says the artist, who paid tribute to his friend with His Peaceful Life in Heaven: Homage to Bhupen in 2013. “Bhupen deserved more,” says Chowdhury, as he brushes aside his wispy white hair.

India Matters


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