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Jogen Chowdhury retrospective: Between the lines

Artist Jogen Chowdhury at The Gallery Cafe, Kalakriti. Photo: Sangeetha Devi Dundoo

Artist Jogen Chowdhury at The Gallery Cafe, Kalakriti. Photo: Sangeetha Devi Dundoo   | Photo Credit: Sangeetha Devi Dundoo

Reckoned as ‘Master of Lines’, artist Jogen Chowdhury showcases his retrospective exhibition in the city

He paces up The Gallery Café and Kalakriti gallery, observes the order in which the paintings are displayed and suggests changes. Labels like celebrity artist and ‘master of lines’ sit lightly on his shoulders. Jogen Chowdhury views the paintings at the café and says, “Some of these are what I did as part of my course work in college. They are my most original works.”

This is the 77-year-old’s first retrospective exhibition (on till March 20) in Hyderabad and gallery owner Prshant Lahoti reveals it took two years to convince the artist to showcase his work in the city. The Gallery Café showcases his early paintings. Step into Kalakriti and you see his paintings in Paris in the 60s, followed by his period in Madras, Delhi and Shantiniketan. “The idea is to let viewers see the change in my work over the years,” he says.

Chowdhury has brought to the city several small, medium and a few large paintings. Paintings from Prshant Lahoti’s personal collection will be on display at Trident, Madhapur.

Kolkata to Paris

He talks fondly of growing up in Kolkata, where his family settled after Partition. “I come from a village,” he says. The small town moorings are evident in his early works that depict scenes from rural life.

He began working in Kolkata as an art designer in the handloom board before moving to Paris in 1965. “I travelled by ship. The art and culture scene in Paris was different. I learnt a lot,” he reminisces.

Madras musings

Returning to India in 1968, he worked as an art designer with the handloom board in the then Madras, till 1972. He refers to the city as Madras, not Chennai. “Madras is what I know,” he smiles. A collage of oleographs with figures of gods and goddesses punctuates the other series. “It is a one-off work. I wanted to do something from what I observed in Madras. I collected oleographs, made a collage and gave it an abstract look,” he explains. Paris, he says, gave him an understanding of abstract art and he incorporated Indian elements.

His choice of ink and pastel on paper as a medium came from an inclination to be individualistic. “I was looking for a form of expression that had something to do with my childhood, in a style that’s not common. Since college days, I was good with line drawing and water colours,” he reasons.

He recalls his first solo exhibition of ink and pastel paintings in Madras, organised by art patrons Sarala and her father Moti Daruwalla. “Everyone thought my work looked dark; something unknown. Only one painting was bought, that too by my friend Arvind,” he laughs.

Years later, Chowdhury’s paintings were auctioned for Rs. 1 crore and eventually, Rs. 3 crore upwards. “With time people liked what I painted. After a point, the money doesn’t matter as much as whether I am happy with my work,” he quips. He gazes at his early works and smiles, “These are dear to me though they didn’t sell for crores of rupees.”

The artist mentions two well known art collectors, one from India and another from Japan, who vied for a large painting done by him. Though it was a bone of contention, he decided not to sell it for now. “I want to make a museum of my work in Shantiniketan,” he says.

Rashtrapati Bhavan

For this, he counts on his experience from his 15-year tenure as curator in Rashtrapati Bhavan. “There was no concept of a curator then. My designation was art keeper,” he says. He had access to nooks and corners of Rashtrapati Bhavan, where he placed artefacts and paintings. “I had the help of Ashok Mitra to establish a museum in the Marble Hall, with paintings pertaining to British era. Once, I found precious paintings at a godown — a large painting of Queen Victoria, during her coronation at the age of 16. We also found an oil painting of Lord Clive.”

Official work kept him engaged all day and he would paint till 2 a.m. “I did 10 large paintings during this time, which got me recognition in Delhi art circles.”

In 2014, he revisited Rashtrapati Bhavan as its first artist in residence. “It was like going back home,” he beams. Now a Rajya Sabha MP, the artist says he manages a 60 per cent attendance.

The veteran artist wants to focus on large paintings, more on canvas than on paper. “That will help me stand and paint. It’s a strain on my neck if I bend and draw, these days,” he signs off.

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Printable version | Mar 28, 2020 7:00:57 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/jogen-chowdhury-retrospective-between-the-lines/article8252842.ece

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