‘Art is more than unbroken lines’

Jogen Chowdhury, whose retrospective is showing in Bengaluru, talks about finding art everywhere around him.

April 23, 2016 04:05 pm | Updated 06:17 pm IST

'When I get involved in something, it has to be in-depth’. Jogen Chowdhury at work. Photo: special arrangement

'When I get involved in something, it has to be in-depth’. Jogen Chowdhury at work. Photo: special arrangement

Ask artist Jogen Chowdhury what he feels about being called the Master of Unbroken Lines, there is a good chance his reply will surprise you. “I am not happy,” he says, shrugging his shoulders to emphasise his discomfort. “Master of Unbroken Lines is not a serious phrase. Art is more than just unbroken lines.”

We are sitting in one of the smaller rooms behind the office of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), well-known in Bengaluru for its sylvan settings. At 76, the spry Jogen da , dressed in a blue cotton kurta, white pyjamas and the ubiquitous embroidered jhola , is overseeing the unpacking of more than 200 works that have come from Kolkata and Hyderabad. These are to be mounted for a retrospective in the city titled ‘Compelling Presence’. About 90 per cent of the works are from his collection and the rest have been sourced from private collectors. The works span the past six decades and the show is testimony to his prolific artistic career. Jyotirmoy Bhattacharya, co-curator of the show, points out that Chowdhury is not just an important artist; he is the “face of Indian art”.

Even his early watercolours and drawings, like the ones he did at the Ecole Nationale Superieur des Beaux Arts in Paris as a student in 1965, command attention. The men who are unpacking the works pause for a few minutes to take a look at the six-feet-long drawing titled ‘Abu Ghraib’. He made it as a reaction to the torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. While the gaunt form is in despair, the lines are overpowering. They run from end-to-end without faltering and the drawing has a painterly quality. “Some of the best artists like Van Gogh poured their entire magnificent energy onto the canvas through the tip of the brush. For me, the vibrations in my body come out as the line.”

As the wooden crates are pried open and the works unveiled from layers of bubble wrap, it is easy to see why he is considered one of the most important figures in Indian contemporary art. The New York Times , in a review of his works displayed in a group show in 2002 in New York, called him an exceptional satirist.

Born in Bangladesh, Chowdhury remembers the trauma of Partition and the subsequent displacement of his family from a small village in the erstwhile East Bengal to the city of Kolkata. From the beginning, he says, his thoughts were on serious matters. He remembers wondering about infinity as a class VI student — imagining a wall half-way across the universe and wondering what lay beyond it. “I was preoccupied with the concept of infinity,” he says. As a teenager, he would go to The Indian Museum in Kolkata and stand in front of a sculpture of Buddha and be “hypnotised by its meditative force.”

Force, transcendence, meditative, supernatural — these are the words he uses to explain art. “I will try to keep it simple,” he warns, before embarking on the exposition. “When something has been created out of something and the creative mind infuses it with a transcendental quality, making it out-of-the-world, sublime, meditative, or even supernatural, that is art,” he says. “The beholder should be able to enjoy it with a feeling that is of a higher nature.”

“Difficult to write, is it not,” he asks with a twinkle. For Chowdhury, art is not just painting. “I find art in music, in structures, in simple things like how the Japanese keep their homes.” It’s this creativity that has been the catalyst for his foray into poetry, textile designing, and photography. “When I get involved in something, it has to be in-depth. I have a serious mind.” His wife, Shipra Chowdhury, who has been sitting quietly beside him, can’t resist smiling. “When he is in front of the computer, or is painting or writing, he forgets about time,” she says. “I have to force him to eat.”

Chowdhury has written extensively on art, on art understanding and aesthetics. In one of his essays on art appreciation, he drew a diamond and divided it into three parts. The uppermost portion depicted sensitive people — such as Aurobindo, Tagore, Einstein — who understood art. The middle portion was for the average man with a bit of understanding of art.

“The majority of people like popular things, which is not wrong,” he says. The third portion was meant for those who do not get art at all. “Understanding art is inherent in a person,” he explains. “For those who don’t get it, (art) education will just act as a cover-up.”

Chowdhury’s works have been influenced by several factors. When in Paris, he played Western classical music which suited his mental state then. As the music reverberated “outwards”, his works merged towards abstraction.

Back in India, he worked as a textile designer in Chennai and was later curator at Rashtrapati Bhavan for 15 years (1972-87). For a long time, he played Indian classical music, which “coils inwards” and his subsequent works reflected that. Today, Chowdhury doesn’t play any music while painting. “I am not a religious person,” he says, while also dismissing notions of the ‘mind’ and ‘heart’. He believes that one reacts with the brain. Still, nature instils a sense of wonderment, and when he looks at a flower, its colour and form, he is sure there is a bigger force at play. Philosophy, then, becomes another point of influence. As does real life.

He points to a satirical painting of a couple — a potbellied politician and a voluptuous woman with bare breasts — and says a scandal involving a politician from Odisha triggered it. “There is no fun in direct statements; the fun is in suggestion.” Apparently, the politician’s face is that of his attendant in Rashtrapati Bhavan. His wife shakes her head in loving exasperation.

Chowdhury made a strong statement against Emergency — his famous painting ‘Tiger in the Moonlight’ is allegorical and mocking. Still, he admired Indira Gandhi. “She had a keen sense of aesthetics and took special interest in the art displayed at Rashtrapati Bhavan. When important guests like the Queen of England or the Shah of Iran visited, she personally chose the art to be displayed.”

His home in Shantiniketan is the hub of all matters art, where artists come in droves to visit Chowdhury. No one is sent away without a meal. Chowdhury has recently started an art magazine called ArtEast and, as the chairperson of Rajya Charukala Parshad, he has been the catalyst for books and art shows. He buys the works of young artists to encourage them.

Walking around the small room in NGMA and taking in the works stacked against the walls, Chowdhury talks of his plans to open a museum in Kolkata for his private collection. He is confident it will happen soon. Then he pauses near a table. One of the drawings placed on it has a piece of broken glass inside the frame. “While reframing, that piece was not removed.” He laughs at the irony of a broken glass encased within the drawing of unbroken line. It is a sign to change that title. “Maybe you can think of something else?”

Jayanthi Madhukar is a freelance writer who believes that everything has a story waiting to be told.

(Compelling Presence, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. , April 22 – May 22, National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru.)

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