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Evolution of an artist

- Formative to Recent: Jogen rediscovered

Even for those familiar with his work, CIMA Gallery’s exhibition, Jogen Chowdhury: Formative to Recent, beginning on Wednesday, is most rewarding. For here one can see before one’s eyes the artist’s evolution from a student of the Government College of Art & Craft to a mature and mellow practitioner who was open to the influences of both the modernists of the West and the various registers of Indian art from the classical to the folk.

From a young art college student, who did the standard still life, the studies in watercolour of Calcutta, hamlets, and genre scenes harking back to Bengal School, he progressed to dark and introspective self-portraits of the artist as an angry young man.

His family was forced to leave what was East Bengal then and seek refuge in Calcutta, and in those dark days when thousands of men, women and children had turned certain areas in the city like the Sealdah railway station into a sprawling relief camp, the station platforms turned into an open-air studio for the budding artist. There are some very strong studies in dry pastel of the denizens of Sealdah station who had turned it into their makeshift home. It was quite obvious from the confidence with which he wielded the pencil that he was a great draughtsman in the making in the late 1950s.

A generous scholarship took him to Paris in the mid-1960s, when he was trained at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts and Atelier 17 of William Hayter, which, at that time, was the finishing school of many a talented young Indian artist. Besides the portraits and sketches of several European sitters, it was then that he started drawing those flaccid, baggy torsos of naked elderly men and women with thin and knobbly arms. These bloated torsos, some in oil, had a monumental quality as if flesh had turned into stone hewn by his brush. It was more of a boulder than a body. The elderly couple of the same period with deeply grooved faces envisaged the striking series that he did later which emanated a strong and pungent odour of dark sexuality and perversion.

It was notable how Chowdhury had begun to distort form as his lines became more fluid, reminiscent of the alpana that all Bengali women, particularly the ones in villages, were adept at creating on the floors of their homes. Limbs and extremities became more luxuriant, languid and graceful like the tendrils of creepers on the thatched roofs of villages. Chowdhury had a highly sophisticated vision but the manner in which it found expression was deeply rooted in the Indian traditions of patachitras and alpanas.

This was evident even when Chowdhury made forays into surrealism. His vicious caricatures of pot-bellied and lascivious netas, who were closer to giant gourds than humans, fiercely critiqued the country’s political situation. Even more fascinating were his evocations of an oneiric void with fish and fruits floating in it. Echoing Rousseau, tigers leap out of the darkness suspended over a sleeping human being. A giant putrefying flower blooms like an umbrella above a woman seated on a throne. In a voyeuristic scene, a woman sits undraped on her bed, her back facing the viewer. Her lover or perhaps an intruder peeks at her from behind the bed. It looks like an Ingres painting after corruption has set in.

The decorative element was inherent in Chowdhury’s style, but as in the work of K.G. Subramanyan, it is not just embellishment for its own sake. It highlights the folk element in his style. Even when Chowdhury did a series on tortured and wounded visages and bodies in the aftermath of the Gujarat carnage, the faces bearing deep gashes strongly recalled moulds used to create the clay deities worshipped in Bengal. The intricate crosshatching gave a three-dimensional quality to these works. The lacerated cadavers had the organic form of folk toys. Their terrifying beauty brought home the horror of mindless violence.

With age, he dares to be even more simple, leaving his lines to do all the talking. Like a folk artist who has broken out of the mould, Chowdhury uses a pen directly on paper. The lines meander across the white surface and forms take shape as if of their own volition.

In his 75th year, Jogen Chowdhury’s journey continues. He is experimenting with oil paints, and his latest work is Durgashakti, an icon of the power of women inspired by a woman officer who was in the news recently. He would like to use the medium “spontaneously”.