The self-portraits — there are five — prelude the narrative of Jogen Chowdhury in Cima Gallery’s current show, on till March 29. Even though only one of them is in oil and photographically realistic. The rest are drawings. In ink and pastel on paper but one also in wash. The features are sharp, which suggest his upper caste antecedents. But the face is lean. Even hungry. It articulates the hard knocks the uprooted zamindar family of Faridpur, (Bangladesh), had to take in an alien land on this side of the border, and a cold city at that, where grey concrete replaced the tender greenery and water bodies of his village.
The hunger is of the kind that can devour the world. Particularly in the oil, where you sense a nascent storm gathering on his brow. The skin between the eyes is creased in the sketches as well. The eyes have a steady, brooding intensity as though seething with strong emotions kept in tight check. But they are also watchful and defensive, exposing his vulnerability. The mouth isn’t just unsmiling and set but, particularly in the oil, surly. Only in the last self-portrait is there a maturing composure. But that’s dated 1984, when Chowdhury was already established as an artist with an evolving signature and working as a curator at Rashtrapati Bhavan.
The rest are dated between 1960 (when he passed out of the Government College of Art and Craft, Calcutta) and 1964, the year before he left for Paris on a scholarship for training at École Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts and then at Atelier 17. Things started to look up at college (1955-1960), when he began doing well. But the acute financial and psychological strain the Chowdhury family went through as refugees left its fortuitous mark on his art and is evident in the self-portraits: the dark and featureless ground in the oil and charged cross-hatching.
The college exercises — sketches, still lifes, portraits, watercolour scenes, some in wash and in the Bengal School manner, pastels, and prints — are confident but not unusual. They certainly don’t presage the direction his stylistic journey was to take, although the tendency to abbreviate details can be seen as early as 1959. In fact, his sympathy for the deprived indicated a Chittaprasad-Abedin-Hore track (No 43).
But no. Paris and Europe opened up his horizon and threw him into, what he has himself confessed, “restlessness”, triggering a search for an “authentic sound”. Already, in the early 1960s, he’d reflected a certain gritty harshness of tone. Sooty pastel torsos of sculpturesque volume (Nos 74, 75); darkening ground (No 66); surface paint and form broken up into crusty segments (Nos 63 and 65); human beings mangled into grotesque caricatures (Nos 65, 69); cross-hatching (No 61); tell of this fluid period.
It was when, on his return to India in 1968, he went off to Madras, and then to Delhi (1972-87) that Chowdhury truly came into his own. The leashed emotions of the earlier works were shed for a more distanced, if acerbic, voice as a stylistic simplification evolved: the dark ground that had originated with insufficient light at home became more unrelieved, oppressive, solid, eliminating social milieu for an anonymous limbo; figures and objects were in lighter shades and scarred with minute, angry cross-hatching. Organic forms and the human body — overripe, bloated, slithering, tumescent, malformed, with boneless, elastic fingers — took on a metaphor for rot (Nos 89, 99). Still lifes, dislodged from Cezannesque orientation, sought a different dimension altogether, sometimes in a tone of searing banter (No 102).
Even though colour flooded into his canvas when he relocated to Santiniketan, the banter, the squinting irony, remained a hallmark of his art. But the lines increasingly gained strength and gravity, at times infused with the flow and rhythm of alpona (No 123). Some of his best works from this period show how outlines, splendidly bare, can convey a disturbing baritone without saying much, whether the format is smallish (Nos 114, 126) or large (No 118). The socio-economic commitment of his youth, the embattled humanism — as troubled by Abu Ghraib as by Nandigram (No 1) — hadn’t evaporated, but had merely rejected shrill visual manifestos for an idiom that’s chilling in its clinical, aseptic understatement.
It’s his very humanism that sparked Chowdhury’s political activism. And activism often demands obligatory gestures in response to issues. Like women’s empowerment, for example, which the artist has addressed in his most recent work displayed here, the resplendent Durga Shakti (2014). But can obligatory gestures come from a creator’s deepest, driven core?