The story of Indian Art #24: Jogen Chowdhury

A look at the life and work of the eminent and inspirational Indian artist, Jogen Chowdhury, who developed his style of painting upon returning from Paris.

Born in 1939 in Faridpur, Bengal, Jogen Chowdhury studied at the Government College of Art and Crafts, Kolkata, from 1955-60, followed by a stint at L’Ecole Nationale Superior des Beax-Arts, Paris, in 1965-57 on a French Government Scholarship.

Jogen Chowdhury at an exhibition of his work.

Jogen Chowdhury at an exhibition of his work.

In 1966, Chowdhury was awarded the Prix le France de la Jeune Peinture in Paris, and, in 1986, received an award at the Second Biennale of Havana, Cuba. He was presented the Kalidas Sanman by the Government of Madhya Pradesh in 2001.

His early work reveals an attention to figuration that remains. In an interview, Chowdhury commented that, in his early works, “the space projected a simple iconic presence. A spatial sequence was worked out but the space was not complex. The background seemed to vanish.” Anshuman Dasgupta describes these works as more iconic and more dramatized; per contra, Chowdhury describes his later works as “now more personalized and subtle”.

Artwork by Jogen Chowdhury

Artwork by Jogen Chowdhury

Marrying traditional imagery with contemporary ideas and turning it into a skilful blend of urbane self-awareness, deep introspection, and a highly localised Bengali influence is, in a nutshell, the art of Jogen Chowdhury.

Speaking on contemporary art, Chowdhury maintains the necessity of a uniquely Indian approach to art, as opposed to the blind aping of Western trends, “To be global you do not have to do something that is imitative of America, Australia or England. It has to have an authenticity, which is not what blind imitation allows for.”

“My background is relevant,” he once remarked in an interview, explaining that his life in Calcutta was “quite disturbed with political movements. This has a definite influence on my work like the Ganesha period. The Bengali business class worshipping the icon, and their corruption, how they degenerate just like the flesh.”

Face with Protruded Tongue by Jogen Chowdhury

Face with Protruded Tongue by Jogen Chowdhury

The famine, the Partition, and the food movement all cast a pall over his formative years, and a quality of darkness may be seen to inhere in Chowdhury’s work. Yet as well as an indicator of sadness, this darkness can be understood to evoke an aura of mystery. It is an effect enhanced in Chowdhury’s more recent works, which, increasingly, crop the central image.

Chowdhury explains that “The purpose is to hide some parts. The moment I show the entire figure, the interest in the details would be lost. Earlier on, the figures were observed in their natural bearings which came through expressionistic stylization and the weight of reality was greater. There is an effect of distancing today.”

The artist lives and works in Santiniketan. If you’re interested in getting to know the Jogen Chowdhury story much better, this is a good place to begin.

Avinash Subramaniam

Avinash has been an advertising writer, fiction writer, poetry writer, freelance writer and serial wronger. Other roles he has been in include those of an editor, brand builder, and teacher. His interests include advertising, scrabble, body building, chess, cinema, making money, reading, internet culture, cricket, photography. To hear him air his thoughts, follow him on Twitter @armchairexpert.

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