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Jogen Chowdhury Born in 1939, Faridpur (presently Bangladesh), Jogen Chowdhury graduated in Fine Art from the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Kolkata in 1960. He later studied in France during 1965-1967 on Government Scholarship at Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris. Back in India, he was appointed a Curator for the Rastrapati Bhawan before taking up teaching at Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan where he later served as the Principal. Over the years, his works have been exhibited in various international exhibitions including the Triennales at New Delhi held in 1972, 1975 & 1978; at the Sao Paulo Biennale, Brazil in 1979; Museum of Modern Art and Royal Academy of Art, London in 1982, Hirschorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C. in 1982; II Havana Biennale, Cuba in 1986 and Takaoka Municipal Museum of Art & Meguro Museum of Art, Japan in 1988; Realms of Fantasy, Hong Kong, 2004; Inverting/Inventing Traditions, Grosvenor Vadehra, London, 2007. He has been awarded at II Havana Biennale, 1986 and at International Prints Biennale, Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal in 1995. He was honoured with Kalidas Samman by Madhya Pradesh Government in 2001. Besides these honours, he has received numerous National Awards. He lives and works in Santiniketan.
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My Painting

- by - Jogen Chowdhury

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

I used to roam about then in the woods, in the bamboo groves, along the banks of the village tank. In the courtyard of our house, I tried to plant saplings, hoping to make a whole garden out of them. With great concentration I watched the trees with their leaves, the creepers, the flowers and the flower buds and their distinctive shapes. Creepers with several species of gourd spread over the tin shed of our house. The heads of the creepers flourished and extended all around. In their growth, I noticed a strange organic structure and a tender rhythmic discipline, as they rose and fell in twists and curls. The natural forms of creepers and leaves had a strange fascination for me then as they have for me even now. All those charms of nature still float before my eyes. The other subject that had a hold on me was the forms of deities. I would observe the village potter - the kumbhakar – slowly molding the image, beginning with the straw frame, then adding the coating of clay and then at the end adding on the coloring. All this I would sit and watch closely and patiently. But what fascinated me most was the chakshudan of the Durga image - when the eyes were painted onto the face. I would wait in tense eagerness for that day. When the body of the goddess had been painted all over in sparkling red and yellow, only then was it time for the eyes of Mother Durga to be painted in, so as to complete her face. And with that the coloring too was complete - and the goddess came to life. She appeared gazing with eyes wide open - in battle against the demons. At the slightest provocation, those spellbinding eyes still return to my paintings, again and again.Most of Eastern Bengal consists of extremely low-lying land, full of tanks, canals and large extensive bodies of water. I made my own angling hooks and caught fish when I was quite young, or sifted water flowing along a drain to make a catch. I saw a rich variety of species of fish. My father, too, was fond of angling. Hence, my boyhood days were wrapped in water, fish, creepers and leaves. When we came over to Kolkata after India's Independence in 1947, we were completely cut off from our previous life in Eastern Bengal. We were still living in a village at the time of World War II and even though we did experience faint repercussions of the war such as the famine that came in its wake which took a toll on life in Bengal, we were spared its real impact. However, the communal riots between Hindus and Muslims which we saw after arriving in West Bengal, was the first experience to cast a dark spell on our minds and thoughts. The main direction pursued at the Government College of Art and Craft in Kolkata was along the lines of strict academicism. It was an art school set up by the British, and thus confined to drawing and painting things like still lives, portraits, life studies and composition. As a diligent student I found it quite easy to acquire real proficiency in these academic skills. But there was no creative thrust at all in the teaching methods practiced at our college. We fell back on our own cultural affiliations, scattered readings about the arts and studied art books and albums, driven by the intensity of our creative will, to pursue painting in the middle of all possible difficulties. We began to think seriously about painting the moment we had left Art College. What should we paint? And how?  Why should we paint? And then we discovered Rabindranath Tagore's paintings and writings on art and started reading them. We studied Abanindranath Tagore's paintings and writings and read hi Bageshwari Lectures. We studied the paintings of Jamini Roy, Benode Behari Mukherjee, Nandalal Bose, Ramkinkar Baij and several other artists. We also began to look at the paintings of foreign artists, the way everyone looked at them. We studied Degas, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Rousseau, Botticelli, Rembrandt, Klee. We even visited an exhibition of Kathe Kollwitz originals at the Indian Museum Hall and came away deeply impressed.
I started painting along my own ideas once I left college. I had meanwhile done such a large number of drawings that their influence surfaced quite prominently in my paintings. I used black ink and a lot of crisscrossing on cheap paper to produce drawings and paintings from my imagination, reflecting on the social and political upheavals of Kolkata and the melancholy and complexities that were a part of my own life. Financial strains forced me to draw on cheap newsprint and paint in oils on coated pasteboard, but all charged by new ideas. I painted a few canvases too, around the same time. But I have been able to preserve only very few of my works from this period. Most of these have been destroyed by termites or from other hazards. A few lie scattered here and there. My primary subject has been the human being. I was strongly influenced by leftist thought in this phase. I painted a series of oils titled, Representatives from Hell, on the theme of a band of avaricious men who exploited the poor to inflate themselves with wealth far beyond their needs and then turned into bloated monsters. It was the same idea that went into the making of my Man on Sofa. I did a lot of drawings, too in this phase, in oil or dry pastels, often large ones, always on newsprint. Simultaneously, in a more dramatic mode, I painted quite a few variations on Woman before a Mirror and Reclining Woman, which were romantic and poetic. But it was the free fluidity of the line and the complexities that it could create that achieved density in my work. They all bore the marks of the time and my life from that time. Around this time (1960-1965), I began to deliberate on the structural principles and codes of painting. I became particularly concerned about the issues of indigenous tradition and the influence of foreign art and the urge to paint in an original manner and with a strong sense of individuality. The one thing that remained imperative to me was that my subjects should grow out of my surroundings and my society. Questions of artistic style, aesthetics and modernity were a constant provocation. Before my first foreign visit in 1965, I prepared a few canvases, planning to paint a few large works. My imagination brought into play a whole series of manifestations on the decrepit way of life that I knew so well in Kolkata. But sadly, those paintings were never painted. In late 1965, I went to Paris on a French government scholarship. For long, I had cherished the desire to go abroad, particularly to Paris, where I could see the works of my favorite artists and visit museums. I spent two years in Paris, where I had a spacious studio in the Cite Internationale des Arts. I enrolled myself at William Hayter's Atelier 17 and L'Ecole Nationale Superiere des Beaux Arts. But what drew me more than France itself, were the museums and art galleries where I spent most of my time. And, of course, I thought about paintings all the time. The social and cultural differences came as a big jolt to me when I arrived in Paris straight from Kolkata. While there were similarities in several matters, the differences were quite glaring in terms of lifestyle and values. Initially, there was a phase when I could not decide on a possible subject. I was quite overwhelmed by the sheer range of the paintings and the great painters that I saw for the first time, and a strange restlessness gripped me in the alien social setting. I was, more than ever, intensely disturbed over choosing my own position as an artist, particularly as an Indian artist. Whenever I attempted to paint, restlessness would take over. Then, gradually the human being and the human body, independent of the constraints of time and space, started appearing in my works, quite simply and directly. I did numerous large drawings in this phase and in the oil paintings that I painted in this phase, the human body - the inside of the body - was my main subject. Before returning to India, I had the opportunity of visiting numerous museums, churches and galleries and watching paintings, sculptures and other works of art in France, Germany, Holland, England and Italy. They have remained a part of my experience and education in art. The one anxiety that haunted me on my return to India in 1968 was whether there was really anything left for us to do after the great achievements of the Western masters that I had seen so extensively displayed on my foreign tour. There was no point after all in replicating their paintings or works of art. I had by then rejoined my old employment in Chennai, where for almost one whole year I did no drawing or painting at all. With my knowledge of the state of art in India and the West, my thoughts soon began to take shape. Every day I spent some time writing down my thoughts on art till they grew to a manuscript of 100 pages. In January-February 1994, the Bengali fortnightly Desh published the text in four consecutive issues. The long track record of my thoughts at that point of time were on the art traditions of this country, Indianness, the influences of Western art, modernism and related issues considered as problems for an Indian artist to negotiate. At about the same time, I wrote a shorter three-page account in English of my thoughts on art. I found several powerful Indian artists at this point of time enthusiastically and unquestioningly adopting the styles, conventions and forms of modem Western art and abstract art in particular. I felt that this was a surrender of sorts on the part of the Indian artists and that this restrained the development of our art and divested it of significance. What I felt quite strongly about was that we needed to create something new and original - something which could not be accomplished either by replication of Western art or by falling back on 'Indian art', in other words, on ancient India and its heritage alone. I felt that we should create something new only out of the genuine feelings that rose from our involvement in our own lives, which of course, could draw quite naturally from the East and the West, the ancient and the modem, but only as far as they remained related to the artist's personal quest. The work technique could be essentially personal, with the artist withdrawing from the entire hullabaloo outside to start his creative adventure in a solitary comer in his own small closet. The other idea that struck me was that it was my own characteristics that would define and determine my art and its conventions. My memories, my dreams, my thoughts, my environment – they could all become subjects of my works.

Thus, when I started drawing in black ink alone, on paper a series of works, primarily in numerous lines, followed my own ideas and my own style with fish, flowers, hands, leaves and creepers, apples floating in space, breasts, butterflies, piles of clothes in a mess and teacups as my subjects. I have a feeling that the first pictures that came in this phase were more strongly charged with sexuality, with unintended traces of Freudian psychology. I thus completed in this period a long series of works grounded in dreams and super-realism. The pictures that came later were more social and dreamlike. This difference can be traced to the fact that the first group was done before my marriage and the second group came after. I consider this a valid factor behind the qualitative difference between the two groups. A few small drawings done in this period went to determine the thematic content of my pen-and ink works that followed. As a matter of fact, a total human figure does not appear in any of the pictures that I can recall from this period. But the fragments of an inner life and the environment that appear in these works are primarily autobiographical. I did some works in this period centering on the jacquard loom. All these works were products of fantasy and imagination.
After four years of service in Chennai as a textile designer, I moved to Delhi in 1972 with a job in the President's Estate. Delhi was then a vibrant center of cultural activities with a rich artistic environment, particularly with the activities of the Lalit Kala Akademi and the National Gallery of Modem Alt. In the 15 long years that I spent in Delhi, I formed numerous contacts and connections with artists in Delhi and from all over India.
In my lonely setting in Chennai, I was extremely personal in my choice of subjects. But in Delhi, I considerably extended the range of my subjects drawn from a more extensive life environment, including men and women, political leaders, gods and goddesses, rural people, leaves and flowers. Though the subjects became more varied, the technical mode remained almost unchanged. I was still seeking to realize the subject of the picture from numerous criss-crossing lines in pen-and-ink on paper. I had, of course, by then started using oil pastels more frequently. The size of the works grew larger, and I was able to paint quite a few significant works in this period.
In works like Noti Binodini, Sundari, Life 1, Life 2, Tiger in the Moonlit Night and Ganapati - several of them quite large in size - I was able to express my ideas quite closely. But what was most important was that a clear artistic conception and genuine passion went into the making of these works. I had seen a performance of the play Noti Binodini around this time at the Kalibari in Delhi. I found the persona of Noti Binodini to be intense and fascinating. I treated her face with great sympathy, giving it both pathos and luminosity, and charged her body with feeling. Sundari actually portrays an imaginary prostitute who looks at her naked body reflected in the mirror admiringly. The feet and touch of Birbhum terracottas, the Kalighat pats and the figures that I carved in my childhood seem to have left their traces on the form of Sundari's body. Life 1 grew out of something quite funny: A pile of bedclothes and pillows were lying in a mess in a corner of the small room on the terrace that my wife, Shipra, and I had rented in South Delhi when we first arrived there. There was something strongly sensual about the accumulation of the layers of bed sheets and the side pillow. Tiger in the Moonlit Night is primarily allegorical, painted in the days of the Emergency(Dicatorial) rule under late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.. Painted in a mocking vein, it has fantasy for its main thrust. I found Indira Gandhi's Emergency to be an enormous lie. Still, the tiger that represented the Emergency was only a paper tiger, floating clawless, toothless and ineffectual in the air, with India as a woman in disarray lying underneath, with a half-moon in the sky. I put all my passion into the work, used minimal coloration, stuck close to gray and black, and allowed my imagination to give it an intensely personal quality.
I did several small 'faces' in this phase, depicting people of different characters and different kinds - bureaucrats, leaders, ministers, film stars, dancers, sycophants, village chieftains and lovers. The sheer range of characters, temperaments and manners that I observed in the people that I saw around myself fascinated me. I portrayed them
from an essentially personal perspective. In my characterization of these people, I crossed the bounds of realistic representation and let imagination take over. Pictorial values have in many cases called for necessary and spontaneous reconstruction and distortion of the anatomy. This is something that has been in my works right from the beginning.
I painted Mona Lisa in my Dream around this time. Several famous painters have painted the Mona Lisa from their imagination and according to their will. This was a work in the same spirit. I painted a few imaginary still lives, all made up of irrelevant subjects, like a plate on a table and an eggplant on a plate. I felt that these simple, everyday objects could very well be the subjects for art. At this point, I also painted several pictures of village folk and ordinary people. I found these works to be quite significant. I exhibited most of these works at the Dhoomimal Art Gallery in Delhi in 1981. In these works, I tried to project - in my own way - the people of this country and particularly their more rounded anatomical forms and postures. In a series of three: Man on the Floor, Man Sitting on a Mat and Man Sitting 0/1 a Sofa, I sought to project in simple terms the three classes in Indian society.
After a long stretch of 15 years in Delhi, I came to Santiniketan (Biswabharati University) in 1987, and have been there ever since. Before I left Delhi, I painted a few 'couples', men and women sitting together intimately, with touches of satire, humor and sensuality in close juxtaposition. While in Delhi, I had also painted in oil a few small works following primarily the forms of men and women, but adding a little reality of my own making. I have always been fascinated by the conventional forms of a sari draping around a woman's body, and I have sought through that image, forms of my own making, in a new manner.
At first, I could not quite concentrate on my arrival at Santiniketan. Finding myself in the seclusion of trees and greenery, a setting that was such a departure from the bustle of Delhi, I was for sometime in a state of fitfulness about my painting. Though immediately on my arrival, I did paint a series of small watercolors and completed some of my unfinished works from Delhi. But then I started working in many ways with pen-and-ink, pastels, pen and brush, oil pastels and oil, dealing with a wide variety of subjects. I did pictures of various kinds and modes.
One cannot imagine a life without the arts. I have always felt that the arts enrich and extend life as a whole and that they are not there only to serve life, but rather that they constitute a large part of life. Every field of life bears a trace of art. Whenever I have sought for subjects for my paintings, I have felt the tremendous lure of this
life in all its diverse manifestations, the dream relationships that bind man to man, man to nature, the intricacies of relationships and their tugs, strains and mysteriousness. Hence, men and their settings has remained the main subject of my pictures, the same now as 30 years ago. In these last 13 or 14 years in Santiniketan, I have produced a considerable number of works with man at the center. But in Santiniketan, I have also been under an extremely personal compulsion to engage in a fresh perspective and primarily in line drawing. For a long time, I could not concentrate on any large work. For all these years I have made numerous drawings in simple, easy flowing lines
mainly in black oil pastels or black ink and brush.
As for the subject matter, these drawings have dealt with human figures and nature alike, with flowers, leaves and creepers, birds, flower vases, butterflies, etc. With these numerous drawings, I have deliberated on the rich significance of lines, particularly their vitality, and along with it, their impetuous flow, their forms and their rhythm, and above everything else, their delicate vibrations - supernatural vibrations, if there were any. The forms of flowers, creepers and leaves, and the way they approximate to the forms of the human body have also been of great interest to me. The trees are as alive to me as is a human body of flesh and blood. This is a belief that I have nurtured for a long time. I find all the objects of the world charged with life. The origin of this notion lies, of course, in the Upanishads, the Bhagwadgita and Rabindranath Tagore. But I find it corroborated by modem science. It is a conviction rooted in my consequences.
In these 13 and 14 years I have practically produced only a few series of drawings in which there has been a sure growth of coloration, particularly in oil pastels and crayons. I have occasionally done watercolors too. Even now, in intervals between other kinds of work, I continue to draw.
A special factor that has emerged in the Indian art scene while I have been at Santiniketan is that a lucrative market has been found for Indian art for the first time ever. The rise in the sale of Indian art is because of various reasons. There was a time when we would sell just one or two works at the most in a year. But a massive boom in the art market has brought affluence to the artists as well as created a commercial setting for artistic activity in general, something that was inconceivable a few years ago.
This new situation saddled all the established artists with the challenge and responsibility of retaining their creativity and the freedom of their individual contemplation. Through this period I remained involved in teaching at Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan, serving for a spell as the head of the department of painting, and later as the principal of the institution. Hence, for a few years I did even not have the time to devote my mind entirely to painting. But I made time to draw numerous small works in penand- ink and oil pastels. In 1988, I held an exhibition of a few small works in Bangalore. Soon after, I participated in the exhibition held to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Gallery Chemould in Mumbai. A few small watercolors were also included there. The CIMA Gallery in Kolkata displayed quite a few of my major works in exhibitions in India and abroad. They were pictures that I think carried the impress of my individual style and my perception. For the exhibition entitled Fantasy, I enjoyed working on a number of allegorical themes.
In 1996, CIMA Gallery held a solo show of my works. What was important about this show was that most of the works on display in this exhibition were in oil. I had stopped working in oil for a long time and would once in a while do one or two works in oil. This time, I completed quite a few large works in oil. All these works were defined in simple and straightforward lines, though they had grown out of a few subjects, forms and thoughts entirely of my own. I enjoyed bringing to the same body the contradictory elements of realism and two-dimensionality.
A subject that has often returned to my pictures is the body - realistically formed – with supernatural eyes from traditional Bengali sculpture. I have used realism and decorativeness simultaneously in the structuring of a work. There was another subject with which I had a lot of fun, though in just a few pictures. This was the seeking of a new figural form out of the mingling of the postures of popular dolls, particularly the dolls of Krishnanagar and those of real human beings, facilitating a tone of humor and satire. I have found this subject quite new and creative. My works in this mode have, of course, my usual dramatic spirit, forn1 and style.
In 1999, I took voluntary retirement from my teaching position at Kala Bhavan, but I occasionally still take classes there. From then onwards, I have devoted myself to my art more single-mindedly. I have completed works in pen-and-ink and pastels, and have dealt with new subjects with a different manner of expression. I still feel that a lot more could be done on paper or canvas. All these thoroughly used old mediums can turn new with the changing demands of creativity. I am convinced that it is the creative artist's modern perception that redefines the older mediums of artistic making as modern. The older mediums that have been considered powerfully expressive in the past still continue to serve the demands of art, and will do so in the future too. And, the newer artistic mediums will extend the possibilities and scope of artistic creativity still further in the future. At the same time, artists will be required to make their choices of the new mediums from the needs that are defined by their creativity. A whole range of new and strikingly original mediums will be put to use in the service of art. But all this will depend eventually on the creative artist's personal will, style and individual quest. The mediums that express art are now entirely free. Driven by my creative urge, I too, may some day use a few of these newer mediums, just as I feel the urge to use mediums such as sculpture, terracotta, or graphics.