Amidst a host of paintings and drawings of Jogen Chowdhury’s mature years exhibited at his first retrospective at Nandan, Kala Bhavan, held between February 11 and 28, a pair of recent drawings/paintings may catch the eye of the viewer by virtue of their extreme simplicity. These two works seem to indicate a new phase in the development of this 74-year-old artist who, as this exhibition demonstrates, began his training at the Government College of Art & Craft by doing routine academic work and some paintings in the tired Bengal School style.
Chowdhury is famous for his depictions of corruption and degeneration, both moral and physical, and venery in a dark, dreamlike setting through often grotesque and distorted images of corpulent politicians and eggheads, and the elderly, dwarfish roué in the company of buxom beauties in the very best of Kalighat pata traditions. These should have been repellent images of ugliness but Chowdhury’s refined aesthetic sensibility transforms them into pictures of great sensuousness, eroticism and beauty, transcending the theme of societal decadence.
Chowdhury’s paintings owe much of their beauty to his masterly handling of lines that mark the contours of his drawings. His lines seem to develop organically, like some creeper undulating gracefully in a manner similar to that of the alpana, which, till recent times, used to grace the floors and walls of homes both in cities and villages on every festive occasion. This is standard Jogen Chowdhury, and of that there was aplenty in this exhibition curated by Sushobhan Adhikary, curator of Kala Bhavan. There were 179 works in all, going back to 1955.
These works, covering a huge span of time, belong to the artist’s personal collection, and the two mentioned above are quite different. These are not beautiful in any conventional sense. For they are more like geometrical drawings —one of them a square with one corner folded (picture), and the other a triangle — both criss-crossed with lines as in graph paper.
But they are not as simple as they look. For if one observes them closely, one discovers tiny explosions and rashes of colour — red and blue and occasionally yellow —against a uniform dun-coloured backdrop. Even the lines of the grid are not ramrod straight. Each is like a squiggle in a child’s drawing.
More interestingly, a single line rises vertically against the grid in the case of the square figure, and zigzags against both folds of the triangle, turning them, so to speak, into the kantha, the poor man’s shawl made with used cotton saris and dhotis. The surfaces of both these pieces of cloth have holes on them, as is usually the case with the kantha, the type devoid of ornamentation still widely used in both villages and cities.
Chowdhury, born in 1939 in Bangladesh’s Faridpur, had moved to Calcutta in 1947, just before Partition. During his student days, he had sketched the refugees, hordes of whom had descended on Calcutta and taken shelter in Sealdah station, which remained squalid, messy and smelly for years. Chowdhury had done several sketches of the refugees in his youth, but, surprisingly, these pencil drawings bear no suggestion of their travails. There is no denying that the girl and that old woman are poor but there is no indication of their misery and degradation in these pictures.
These two recent paintings, which could easily be passed off as abstract works, on the other hand, speak so eloquently of poverty without any tangential reference to misery. They need no footnote, quite unlike the current practice of making art work that would be incomprehensible without exhaustive explanations.
This being quite a large exhibition, covering two floors of the Nandan building in Santiniketan, many of his paintings rarely seen today were on display. Among them were his early oil paintings of the bald, grim old man with a grooved face and a large belly, whom he called Representative from Hell, who reappears in many works. It was done in 1965 in Paris.
The Retired Horse, which has turned into a skeletal being — a familiar sight in Calcutta — is another such rarity along with his powerful, sculpturesque drawings of the torso that has become a solid mass of flesh, scarred and indented. All these works go back to the 1960s. They have a direct link with his more recent drawings from which all details have been banished so that the beauty of the line born of supreme confidence and command shines through. The heavily sequinned ones, however, look over-wrought.