Jogen Chowdhury’s new gallery is a much-needed pick-me-up for Kolkata’s art world

“The people of Calcutta are not that interested in the visual arts. This gallery may reverse that trend.”

Updated - June 08, 2019 08:35 pm IST

Published - June 08, 2019 04:01 pm IST

Inside the gallery.

Inside the gallery.

It was the turn of the last century, and there was disagreement in Kolkata’s art world. The established Western style, shaped by the European art academies faced a challenge. The likes of Abanindranath Tagore, Ernest Binfield Havell — principal of the Government School of Art (now the Government College of Art and Craft) — and later, Havell’s successor Percy Brown, were firm in resisting the imposition of academic training. Instead, they fell back on indigenous and Oriental aesthetic traditions to develop a distinctly Indian style of art, even taking an interest in Mughal miniatures.

This was the genesis of the Bengal School of Art. Later, Kala Bhavana in Santiniketan, too, laid emphasis on Asian aesthetic traditions, giving rise to the original impulse behind the modernist art movement in India. Yet there is not a single gallery anywhere in West Bengal where you can see this movement unfold before your eyes.

The Indian Museum does have a beautifully refurbished painting gallery, but Bengal School paintings of masters like Abanindranath, his elder brother Gaganendranath, and Nandalal Bose are few and far between. Victoria Memorial Hall has a rich collection, but given the prevailing political climate, one wonders about the fate of the planned new galleries where such art was to be displayed. Gurusaday Museum, a unique repository of folk art from undivided Bengal, is struggling to stay alive, as the Ministry of Textiles has stopped funding it since 2017. Some young people are making a valiant effort to collect funds, but its future is uncertain.

Evolving art

This lacuna has been somewhat filled, though in a small way, with Jogen Chowdhury’s five-storey building devoted entirely to the visual arts. The first of its kind in Bengal, the museum is on a street opposite the busy South City Mall on Prince Anwar Shah Road. Charubasona, the Jogen Chowdhury Centre for Arts, was inaugurated in April in the presence of the eminences grises of Kolkata’s cultural world, including poet Sankha Ghosh, artists Rabin Mandal, Ganesh Haloi and Partha Pratim Deb, actor Soumitra Chatterjee, litterateur Sirshendu Mukherjee, and art critic and historian Pranabranjan Ray.

A painting by Chowdhury.

A painting by Chowdhury.


Chatterjee praised the initiative, saying, “The people of Calcutta are not that interested in the visual arts. This gallery may reverse that trend. Little was done in the past to highlight the works of Bengal School artists. Their works are neglected and scattered all around. I don’t mean to glorify the past, for art cannot remain stagnant. But unless one knows history, how does one make headway? That is what artists like [F.N.] Souza and [M.F.] Husain and even Rabin Mandal dared to do. But the works of masters like Abanindranath, Gaganendranath, Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar [Baij] must be studied as well. Moreover, at this gallery one gets the opportunity to see a good number of Jogen’s works, which have been sold all over the world.”

The top floor of Charubasona is dedicated for seminars, while the works of promising young artists will be exhibited in the ground floor gallery. The inaugural exhibition, titled Illustrations of Mahabharata of the Late 19th to Early 20th Century , was curated by Jyotirmoy Bhattacharya.

A wealth of work

Two floors are set aside for a permanent exhibition of Chowdhury’s works, dating back to his childhood days. This is also a first for an eminent Indian artist from Bengal, where practitioners are more often than not unaware of the whereabouts of their early works.

Displaying a wealth of his artwork in 16 rooms, these two floors document Chowdhury’s evolution as an artist, beginning with his childhood botanical and later architectural drawings. Within a short time, his mastery over drawing the human body had became evident from his studies of refugees at Sealdah station in the 1950s — his own family had been forced to leave East Pakistan and seek refuge in Kolkata.

In the 1960s, Chowdhury trained in Paris, at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts and Stanley William Hayter’s Atelier 17. After his return to India, he discovered a perfect metaphor for the putrefaction of the country’s political system in the corruption of human flesh. Gradually, he began to make brilliant use of folk forms like alpona and patachitra in his compositions, as their terrifying beauty hammered home the horror of mindless violence as in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom.

Practical professionalism

Deb, who was dean of the faculty of visual arts in Rabindra Bharati University, from 1998 to 2003, said: “Art colleges are not grounded enough. The stress on Western art instead of Indian contemporary art is excessive. The professionalism of Jogen Chowdhury is admirable.”

Chowdhury at the inauguration.

Chowdhury at the inauguration.


Another floor is given up to residencies — two young scholars specialising in art history will be sponsored for two years. The adjoining library is well-stocked with books from Chowdhury’s private collection, including a range of reference books on Tagore’s works both in the literary and visual arts fields. Each individual space is well lit and air-conditioned. There is provision for conservation and restoration of Chowdhury’s works and photographs, and a publication unit as well; for the past four years he has been publishing a magazine named ArtEast .

Chowdhury commented: “The visual arts are usually neglected by the media. These arts deserve more visibility. More people should visit museums, and the government, too, should take more active interest.”

The most striking aspect of this art space is the touch of professionalism in everything from security to lighting, and it is obvious that Chowdhury is equally passionate about the practicalities of exhibiting art.

The writer focuses on Kolkata’s vanishing heritage and culture.

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