Drawing life lines

Different strokes

Drawing life lines

Veteran artist Jogen Chowdhury, whose retrospective exhibition Compelling Presence is currently on at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Bengaluru, is widely known for his individual style, prodigious output and unique portrayal of life around him. “The pulse and rhythm of Jogen Chowdhury’s art comes from a filial affinity to nature and milieu,” observes art historian R Siva Kumar. “His art is rich in suggestions.”

From his early days, Chowdhury was interested in sketching, doodling and drawing. Born in a village in Faridpur district of East Bengal (now Bangladesh) in 1939, he was hardly 8 when his family moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) following the Partition. Initially put up at a relative’s house, the family eventually settled in a congested refugee colony and endured dire conditions. The city was politically charged and communally divided, making it difficult for the refugees to rebuild their lives. “The communal riots between Hindus and Muslims cast a dark spell on our minds and thoughts,” recalls Chowdhury. “Living in Calcutta those days affected not only our immediate physical condition but also our thought processes and the works we made later. Even today, some of those memories haunt me and get reflected in my work.”

It was during the brief stay at his uncle’s house in Calcutta that Chowdhury made his first drawing; the image of a peacock was sketched on the wall using red and blue pencil. Later, at the Government College of Art and Craft he was formally exposed to the rigours of academic figure drawing, anatomical studies, and rendering of objects. Several works in the retrospective exhibition show his mastery over line, form and colour even as a young student.

After graduation, Chowdhury taught art in Howrah Zilla School before joining the Handloom Board, Calcutta as a designer. In 1965, a French government scholarship took him to Paris, fulfilling his long-cherished dream to go abroad and see the original works of Western masters. During the 2 years he spent there, he enrolled himself at the famous William Hayter’s Atelier 17 and École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Art. He also visited numerous museums, churches and galleries in France, Germany, Holland, England and Italy, which became an integral part of his learning.

When he returned to India in early 1968, Chowdhury was appointed as a textile designer at the Weaver’s Service Centre, Handloom Board in Chennai. In 1972 he moved to Delhi to become the art keeper at Rashtrapati Bhavan; a position he held for 15 years before heading to Santiniketan in 1987 to join the painting department of Kala Bhavana. Although he formally retired as the principal in 1999, the 77-year-old artist continues to guide young practitioners in his role as professor emeritus.

In August 2014 he was invited by the Rashtrapati Bhavan as its artist-in-residence. Presently, he is a sitting Member of Parliament.

The mysterious line

In his long career Chowdhury has worked in several mediums, but his reputation as a master of the mysterious line precedes his other achievements. “Jogen is a superb draughtsman from the start,” writes noted historian and critic Gita Kapur. “The line, while it alludes in its every twist and turn to art-historical trajectories, Indian and Western, depends also on a consistent quirk that Jogen calls his originality and that we may call the morphology of Jogen’s imagery. His distinction lies in that he uses and destroys the virtuosity — making the line serve for tortuous goings on inside as it does for social caricature and ornamental exuberance.”

Chowdhury’s exceptional talent primarily lies in the deployment of a graceful and sinuous line to define the character of the entire image. “A simple line has the power to breathe life into an image,” he says. “Lines can be poetic, poignant and lyrical. One can study the intricacies of human figures, postures, gestures and emotions through fluent lines.”

Another aspect of work that has been widely admired is his crosshatch painting. “I started developing the ideas for crosshatch paintings in the late 1960s, not just as a technique, but as an intense journey through space, form and dimension. Today, my crosshatch paintings are popular, but when I put up my first exhibition in 1970 in Chennai, only 1 work got sold out of the entire collection of 30 paintings; the price I got was a princely 400 rupees!”

Canvas of intrigue

Chowdhury’s images are inundated with an array of men and women placed in enigmatic situations and inscrutable conditions. Many of his drawings and paintings portray scenes of heightened eroticism or biting satire. His captivating compositions show intriguing forms and gestures of the protagonists.

As Kapur points out, the female figure is almost always sympathetically portrayed by the artist. “But the male is a foppish dandy, violent husband, bogus priest/preacher or, as of today, a corrupt intellectual, leader, bureaucrat, moneybag is severely dealt with,” observes Kapur. “There is a streak of voyeurism in Jogen’s work regarding his own social class and its sexuality. Relationships are observed and critiqued sympathetically.”

Chowdhury attributes his artistic success to the simple act of watching life around him. “I observe people and through my work try to grasp the wide range of human feelings, emotions, behavioural patterns and conditions. I can still recall the drawings I made in my youth of the countless refugees who came to Sealdah railway station and lived in pathetic conditions. I am deeply impacted by societal issues — be it poverty, human rights violations (as in Abu Ghraib), or social unrest (like the Gujarat riots). My work has always had that social connection. I have also believed that even through a simple image one can convey many things. I find the need to not only try to create and narrate visual stories but also to comment on power structures, politics, sexuality and humanity at large.”

The retrospective exhibition at NGMA, which presents a wide range of Chowdhury’s work done in different stages of his creative journey, concludes on May 22.

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