Veteran artist Jogen Chowdhury talks about his journey in art and about the power of the flowing line.

Famed for his dexterous preoccupation with the unbroken line, veteran artist Jogen Chowdhury is the contemporary of some of the best known names from the 1960s Kolkata art scene – Bikash Bhattacharjee and Ganesh Pyne, to name a few. His first solo show in Kerala is on at OED gallery in Kochi.

Despite sharing an aesthetic unity with them, Jogen, like the rest, displays a strong individuality in style, thought and process. The main element in art, for him, is the visual impact along with the story. Jogen tells powerful stories, contemporary and fresh, hard-hitting and political, social and subtle, but the one quality that his works have is a visual draw that has fetched top prices in the art market.

Professor Emeritus at Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan, Jogen reached his present position after holding various appointments as artist, curator, teacher, writer and poet. Born in 1939, the artist’s childhood in village of Daharpara in Faridpur district in East Bengal, “from where Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was”, remains a live inspiration. Travelling theatre performances, Pooja celebrations, a culturally active family, idol makers, paddy fields and ponds were early images that left indelible impressions on the artist. The Partition led to a traumatic displacement from a peaceful village to a city where refugees were pouring in. The Sealdah Railway station with homeless families squatting with hope and hunger writ large on their faces stirred the sensitive young eight-year-old. “We had a problem of existence, a problem of living,” he says, recalling the tough times.

It was also a time when the Left voices began getting louder. Jogen was inspired but only to a point. Though there were three party members in his family and he saw their commitment, he formulated his own ideas. “I was not convinced. I was appalled at the way Hungary was taken by Russia, I did not like the suppression of freedom of expression and felt that the Left did not believe in idealism.”

Idealism was, for the young Jogen, an artist’s mind. “Abstraction is the root of every creative activity or every form of art,” he says. At art school Jogen went through the much regimented style of the British art syllabus, learning drawing, still life and portraiture, making compositions and acquiring all the technical abilities. His family too was conscious about art. Jogen had access to books on art and history. He recalls his obsession of collecting art pictures and pasting it in a scrap book, which he still possesses. Cut-outs of works by Gopal Ghosh, Nandlal Bose, Picasso’s Pigeon and Abhindranath’s works were all part of his collection and a learning process. “I had a dream, a secret sense of doing something,” he says, recalling his motivated, thrilled state of mind. Art was his calling and he was being drawn towards it, inexplicably. Kolkata of the time was a hot house of political and intellectual ferment. He read the young Jyoti Basu’s fiery views in journals and he wolfed down Abhindranath’s essays – ‘Bhagyashree Lectures’ on contemporary art.

He learnt about keeping traditional art relevant. And then he took his position, something that stands good till date.

A two-year stint in Paris, where he did his higher studies, exposed him to Western influences. Back in India he worked at the Weaver’s Service Centre, Handloom Board, holding his first exhibition in Chennai, which was inaugurated by K.C.S. Panicker. “Cholamandal has just started then,” he reminisces. For the next 15 years Jogen served as a curator in the Rashtrapathi Bhavan, an active period in his career. He founded the Gallery 26 and Artists’ Forum in Delhi. He later resigned and joined Visva Bharti as teacher.

Jogen’s active career in art began in the 60s when abstraction was a trend. People reacted radically to it. “For many people abstraction is an extreme form in art. For me it exists in everything,” says Jogen who has written extensively on the concept of the abstract. “Realism, Expressionism, Fantasy or Dream and Abstraction are the four elements in art that will prevail before and after a concerted movement on it is over. Abstraction will keep evolving with new images and new gestures,” he says.

Despite coming from a school that has its mooring in a different generation Jogen is abreast with changes in the field. In fact, he endorses it. “New media does not impose itself on painting or sculpture. It is taking another road to express the human mind, like in music, film, dance and theatre. It is due to the development of a new culture. It throws up fresh possibilities to express.”

Coming back to the flowing line, his signature style, Jogen explains with care: “Despite many images, a big painting can be lifeless. But a simple line can vibrate with emotion that emanates straight form the heart. It can hold hundred per cent feeling. That’s important for me,” he muses. Inspired by Paul Klee and quoting from his book, The Thinking Eye, Jogen says that a line vibrates with energy. He speaks of the ‘nervous line’ infused with a sense of infinity. “A line must be living,” he says with conviction. Today Jogen has drawn the line across the national and international art scene, joining frontiers, crossing borders, crisscrossing, all on the strength of the straight black line.

(The show is a collaboration between gallery Veda Chennai and OED gallery, Kochi.)