In Jogen Chowdhury’s 80th year, an exhibition that celebrates the leading modern artist

There are many luminous points of entry into Jogen Chowdhury’s ongoing exhibition at Kolkata Centre for Creativity, but let me start with the moment when Chowdhury walked us through it, alighting with joy upon some sketches he had done as a student at the Government College of Art & Craft in Kolkata. “I didn’t realise I had rendered details so faithfully,” he exclaimed, espying a Rajnigandha stalk and a croton cluster drawn with botanical precision. At another point, he stepped back to admire a single coloured work hanging dramatically on a wall of monochromes, and pointed to curator Ranjit Hoskote. “It was his idea to do that. See how it lights up the space.”

It was a remarkable engagement to witness, as he moved among the frames: “Those storks… I called them Bakasur! I drew them when Leftist violence had erupted in Bengal. See how they are eating people.” Then, in front of another frame: “How perfect that form is! It could be a sculpture.” The evident delight with which the artist was rediscovering his own journey of 65 years was a beautiful testimony to the curation, and also to the spontaneity of Chowdhury’s self-reflexive response to his artistic career. It was art historian and art teacher assessing the artist with unselfconscious transparency.

Curation, that much-abused word, isn’t just about gathering images on a wall but about discovering the hinterland of imagination that informs the art, said Hoskote. He also avoided the word ‘retrospective’, despite putting on show 175 works in multiple media along with an array of lateral material. “These are serious practices that have been cheapened by misuse in India,” he said. “I prefer to let the viewer decide.”

In Jogen Chowdhury’s 80th year, an exhibition that celebrates the leading modern artist

The exhibition uses chronology flexibly — the paintings keep time with the years but also with certain frames of mind that produced similar works. This elastic approach suits well the whimsicality of Chowdhury’s art. And captures too the many theatres of artistic practice Chowdhury has been engaged with — from art to poetry to artistic discourse to academics. Hoskote’s fondness for architecture weaves into how he has used what he described as a “marvellous and versatile space”. He has played with the curves and drywalls to create parallel and converging narrative lines, with corners and junctions often mirroring thoughts and images and the horizon extending dramatically. In the aisles are the vitrines showing off the spillovers from Chowdhury’s enormous energy — diaries, sketch books, book covers, poems, even a wonderful catalogue with miniatures he had sketched of the works on show.

There is poignancy in tracing Chowdhury’s journey from 1955 to 2019. It follows not just the artist’s evolution but India’s too, and he is aware of it. “If society does not exist, my work doesn’t exist, I don’t exist,” he said. And even as the artist’s preoccupations morph or reappear or disappear over the six decades, the country itself comes full circle — the Bangladeshi refugees at Sealdah station painted in the 50s presage the Assam of 2019 that prepares to make refugees of citizens. His corpulent merchants and politicians of the 80s could be fresh off today’s crony capitalist meat stalls. The Abu Ghraib series could be fluidly renamed The Lynching and lose nothing. For Hoskote, this journey is not so much circular as spiral. “It’s a dance,” he said, “and it celebrates Jogen-da’s continuing relevance.”

The being and the body

In Jogen Chowdhury’s 80th year, an exhibition that celebrates the leading modern artist

If the works are infused with the human condition in each era, they are also about the human being and the human body, something the show accentuates. Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk speaks of the body “joining within itself everything with everything — stories and heroes, gods and animals…” Chowdhury’s bodies do this, fusing fact with legend, the sublime with the ridiculous, human with monster, but their stark lines conceal as much as they reveal. If there’s overt sensuality in the sinuous and contorted limbs, there’s hidden distaste too. Couples sit together in post-coital languor but seem spiritually miles apart. Chowdhury’s bodies make you recall Bhupen Khakhar’s — flaccid, distorted, bulbous, signalling desire but also fastidious revulsion; intimacy tainted by disillusionment. When I mentioned this, Chowdhury said, smiling, “Bhupen is one of my favourite artists. I was also one of his.” But unlike Khakkar’s busily populated backdrops, Chowdhury’s figures loom against stark darkness. “I like the dramatic,” he said, “in situation, posture, gesture.”

Returning in 1968 from the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Chowdhury consciously rejected abstractionism. He recalled that decision now: “I asked myself: what is really mine?” It made him revert, instinctively, to his roots. His works are redolent of his East Bengal childhood (the family moved to Kolkata after Partition) and if early works recollect the palms he climbed and the pukurs he fished in, his later forms are inspired as much by his Shantiniketan sojourn (he taught at Kala Bhavan) as by patachitra, shora paintings, alpanas and folk tales, adopting the almond eyes, the strongly foregrounded image and the thick lines, as well as the abundance of pictograms like fish and fruit. In a 1995 diary entry, Chowdhury writes, “Black lines are mine… they express my deep-rooted self.” He used these, along with his famous cross-hatching and textured skin, to lend an element of dark caricature to every canvas, which gives them their contemporary, often political, edge.

Beyond the eye

In Jogen Chowdhury’s 80th year, an exhibition that celebrates the leading modern artist

There is darkness, of course, but there is also much more: fun, satire, carnality and sly laughter. “Dark is connected with my psyche,” Chowdhury said, “but I am always looking towards the light.” And this jostling makes his works disruptive, ambiguous. If the over-ripe bodies suggest the erotic, they also reek of decay. The Boy with Swan is as playful as it is deeply sexual in its almost Leda-like imagery. In the gigantic Life-II, where a man peeps at a naked woman from behind her bed, Chowdhury uses gesture and contour to unsettle, to juggle the horrific with the banal.

Does he plan ahead for this effect? “I am not unconscious of what I am creating but at the same time, at the time of creation, an artist becomes totally unmindful,” he said. “Subconscious and conscious thinking go together, like a beni, a braid.” Hoskote pounced on this with delight, “Reverie and reality!” he exclaimed, referring to the exhibition title that takes off from an oeuvre that is based on realism but goes further and deeper. It harks back, said Hoskote, to the idea of pratyaksha and paroksha. “What you see is the pratyaksha, but the artist transforms it into the paroksha, something beyond the eye.”

In the gallery, as we looked at tortuous limbs and misshapen bodies, Chowdhury said, “If god can create giraffes and lions, I too can elongate hands and twist legs. It’s my right. It’s my power.” It was an extraordinary assertion of faith in the power of his creativity. A power he continues to revel in at 80 but one with which his relationship now seems more relaxed and playful.

ON SHOW: Reverie and Reality: Jogen Chowdhury, Kolkata Centre For Creativity, till December 7



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