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Jogen Chowdhury Retrospective 1939-2016 Art Exhibition at Kalakriti Art Gallery (Day 2)

A retrospective show of various kinds of works covering the large time spectrum over fifty years from the early days till now certainly unfolds not only the trials and achievements but also the decisive moments and turning points in the career of one of the most celebrated and prolific artists of our times, Jogen Chowdhury. Truly, the viewers get a chance to witness this long and rich journey that commenced from late 50s when Jogen Chowdhury was a young tenderfoot in the world of art, with eyes full of dreams and fortitudes. For the artist concerned too it is an opportunity to rewind back, to replay the time, as it were, and to relive those moments which shaped him as an artist and drove him to work with an exceptional passion and vision.

Born in 1939, in an East Bengal village, now in Bangladesh, Jogen Chowdhuty right from childhood experienced a life troubled with the aftermath of Partition, displacement from a comfortable homeland and a difficult upbringing in a Kolkata refugee settlement. He lived and experienced the most transformative phase of modern Indian history i.e. 1940s and passing through the trauma and significant social changes he worked his way, along with others, through the following decades to reshape the history of modern Indian art in remarkable ways. Artistically gifted and determined, he complet ed his art education from the Government College of Art and Craft, Calcutta in 1960 with highest credits. He 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 then as a Curator of the Art Collection of Rashtrapati Bhavana, New Delhi (1972 - 1987). Finally he moved to Santiniketan as a teacher in the Painting Department, Kala Bhavana (1987). He formally retired as the Professor and Principal of Kala Bhavana in (1999) to devote full time to art and related activities. As an Emeritus Professor he is still attached to the college closely and carries on with his work actively.

Early in his career and more specifically after his return from France in the late 60s Jcgen Chowdhury developed his own individual style. In the context of the emergence of a new phase of modern Indian art in the 60s, when the likes of Hussain, Souza and Raza have already set a standard, in their own individual ways in the post-40s Indian art scenario, Jogen is an atypical artist who preferred to work mostly in pastels, water color and ink instead of oil-painting and strove to develop a visual idiom rooted in Indian soil without taking either any revivalist refuge or sentimental posture. He consciously stayed away from deriving his art out of any obvious model of Western modern art either. During his stay in Paris, he did respond to the prevalent trends of modern art, studied them carefully and even tried out a few works bordering on abstract expressionism in their tenor. Infact by virtue of his highly laudable proficiency in academic realistic idiom acquired during his college days in Calcutta, he was able to extend, alter and turn the skill upside down to explore newer avenues with great 61an. Several drawings, sketches and paintings done during the college days, Paris phase and inbetween are brilliant testimonies to his penchant for personalizing a representational language that had otherwise gone stereotypical and hackneyed. He made it possible, even in his classroom studies and academic exercises, by privileging subjectivity and emotional attachment over objective observation and dispassionate articulation, respectively. A retrospective view of his works confirm that the foundation for his unique stylistic tendencies was laid quietly early in his career and a conscious search later paved the way further. As he wrote in one of his autobiographical essays — ‘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?’ He continues, ‘I started painting along my own ideas once I left college. I had meanwhile done such large number of drawings that their influence surfaced quite prominently in my paintings. I used black ink and a lot of criss-crossing on cheap paper to produce drawings and paintings from my imagination, reflection 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 in oils on coated pasteboard, but all charged by new ideas.’

Jpgen Chowdhury’s personal style can be understood as a natural consequence of his own affinity with the organic energies of life manifested in nature and an incisive observation of life around. Even the pitch dark background or the sagging people with distinctive facial features or female figures with disturbing scars on their bodies have direct or oblique references to his own traumatic experiences of life around. These references make his works edgy and expressionistic often bordering on social and political satire. Through the caricature-like look of many of his figures Jogen does ridicule the corrupt and fraudulent characters he encounters in various social circuits. It is from the same stylistic mode that he can endow his images with erotic underpinnings as well. The apparent charm in his drawings, the linear insinuations certainly lead to a quality of elegance; at the same time it also leads to a sense of anguish and discomposure superseding the comeliness and visual enchantment. Sooner or later the viewer realizes that what one is discreetly drawn to a certain kind of enigma, a deep-seated agony built into the process of his working. The intensity with which Jpgen works it out is directly connected to his personal engagement with life and his quest for a viable mode of expression. The anxiety was embedded in this very quest as an artist, as a modernist whose life experience would never allow him to choose between hope and promise on the one hand and despair and edginess on the other.

While explaining the artistic struggles of his early life Jogen writes - ‘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 it 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 modern but only as far as they remain 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.’ Yes, certainly they did but not witlfout the pain and sufferings integral to any organic worldview of an artist.

Jogen has thus evolved a remarkable way of connecting his art with the human condition. As he himself says, ‘Man and life, their complex co-existence, are the central concerns’ of his art. Simultaneously, he is stimulated by nature’s organic quality, its design value and the rhythmic construction. His associations with the Handloom House and Indian design in general and his fascination for Alpona (traditional floor designs of Bengal) are clearly discernible in his ability to render his forms with a unique sense of rhythm which bequeaths the forms with a tantalizing decorative appeal. This decorative quality provided a new allegory to him - allegory of love and renewal of life. Jogen Chowdhury’s deep faith in the incessant flow of life despite death and violence or the other way round create the necessary ambivalence that sustains his restive edgy quality of line that is partly instinctual as much as the organicity of nature and the sensuality of life.

In most of his works till a certain period Jogen Chowdhury’s proclivity for doodling, criss¬cross hatchings and impassioned marking bring in an inimitable notion of drawing figures, vegetations and even objects. Whereas most of the artists draw, trail, build, paint, carve or construct, Jogen Chowdhury stitches, as it were, his figures. “Like women crocheting apparels, he knits them into shape - squiggle by squiggle — interlocked into quivering, heaving, criss-crossed surfaces.” -- writes R. Siva Kumar. Even if they melt back into the unnamed pitch dark space they are surrounded with or submerged in, the sluggish, sagging bodies will leave behind the traces of lines, marks and textures planted in our mind, in our sub-conscious. They will hover in a subliminal space radiating ripples of inescapable sensations so effortlessly created by his innate sense of rhythm. As Sivakumar writes, ‘... his (Jpgen’s) subtle ability to uncover the sensuality at the heart of events, to draw them together and to slip his longings and fears into a variety of things, truly distinguishes his work of the last 50 years. And behind his ability to gather everything in a cadenced, rhythmic embrace lies his genius to reach out and internalize the other.’ Unmistakably, it is the deep and powerful empathy that makes the process of internalization work efficaciously and the represented object paradoxically ceases to be an object - it rather begins to share the psychological space of the artist. The classical binary is suspended for a while; empathy builds up a new intervention into the representational language of art.

Thematic concerns too have seen an evolution in Jpgen’s art. Motifs have expanded in identity and style. He has also worked in other mediums (oil, acrylic, serigraphy, and lithography) and explored different techniques and execution methods. Despite these shifts off and on what is consistent is the human warmth and intimacy his art exude. With this profound unfailing concern Jpgen Chowdhury’s art continues to attract global attention and international recognition.

In many of his later works one finds clear references to specific incidents or moments that surpassed all levels of cruelty unleashed by human greed and inanity. Eschewing any narrative trappings these works however are rich in allusions and shorn of any decorative cryptograms. Consequently, his figures now writhe in pain, their bodies (if not the face so much) scream, howl and bellow in torment. Significantly, in these images evidently the suffering is primarily a physical one. His sublime bodies have become the sites and targets of mindless violence. Earlier if he was drawing his forms like ‘crocheting apparels’ and knitting them ‘into shape - squiggle by squiggle’; now it is no more a needle, he has a sharper tool in his hand. He does not mind if the knife makes screechy noise. He even makes the works hold on to that din relinquishing the safety of silence.

Space, whether constricted or open-ended, mimetic or non-representational, more often than not implies time. And time, in Jogen Chowdhury’s art, is usually slowed down. Time assumes a lingering character, ticking away slowly like a predicament. This experience is heightened when we respond to the ‘waiting’, ‘anticipating’, ‘yearning’ quality of the relationship between the figures themselves and between the figures and the surrounding
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