The Art of Jogen Chowdhury – Dark, Poignant and IntrospectiveCreators And Collectors
Dramatic, uninterrupted strokes merge to form dark, gripping figures in the work of Jogen Chowdhury, one of India’s most acclaimed 21st century artists. Born in 1939 in Daharpara, a village in Faridpur district of Bangladesh, Jogen is known for his forthright portrayal of the rot and pain that is an innate part of human existence.
(Photo credit: Rohit Chawla)
Beginnings in a Politically Charged Milieu
Art has always been an inseparable part of Jogen Chowdhury’s world - his father, Pramatha Nath Chowdhury, was a zamindar and artist who took interest in painting Hindu mythological scenes, and his mother, an expert in Alpana paintings. Jogen grew up in a politically charged milieu; he has remarked in interviews that his childhood in Kolkata was disturbed with political movements. While some of Jogen’s artworks from his years in Kolkata do depict idyllic scenes of rural life, it is pain and suffering that are ubiquitous in the artist’s work, drawing from his own experiences and surroundings.
An artwork depicting rural life (source: jogenchowdhury.net)
Jogen Chowdhury’s family bore witness to the Partition of 1947, and was forced to relocate from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) to West Bengal. The consequent trauma and struggle of refugees that Jogen witnessed first-hand had a major influence on him, evident in his vivid portrayals of the stark poverty and suffering in refugee settlements. Haunting memories of communal riots between Hindus and Muslims that he witnessed after moving to West Bengal, the famine of 1943 and the Food Movement of 1959, also cast a pall of gloom over the artist’s early years.
Reclining Woman, 1960 (source: jogenchowdhury.net)
Formative Years in Art
Jogen Chowdhury studied at the Government College of Art and Craft, Kolkata, from 1955-60, and worked as a designer for the handloom board, Kolkata, before moving to Paris in 1965. In Paris, he trained at the L'Ecole Nationale Superior des Beax-Arts from 1965-67 on a French Government Scholarship. Jogen learnt a lot from the art and culture scene in Paris, especially because it was entirely different from what he had been exposed to in India. In 1966, he was awarded the Prix le France de la Jeune Peinture in Paris. The years spent in Paris gave him an understanding of abstract art.
Composition - I, 1966 (source: jogenchowdhury.net)
A Full Circle
Returning to India in 1968, Jogen worked as a textile designer with the handloom board in erstwhile Madras, up until 1972. He held his first solo exhibition of ink and pastel paintings in the city, but most people found his artworks strange, dark and disturbing. Only one painting was bought, and that too, by a friend!
The artist’s stint in Madras was followed by a 15-year tenure as an art curator in the Rashtrapati Bhavan. There, while official work kept him engaged all day, he would paint till 2 a.m. every night. He created ten large paintings during this time, which earned him recognition in Delhi art circles. Life came full circle for Jogen, decades later in 2014, when he was invited to stay at the Rashtrapati Bhavan as its first artist-in-residence.
An artwork created during Jogen’s time in Delhi (source: jogenchowdhury.net)
Master of Unbroken Lines
Although prolific in the various mediums he has used over the years, such as ink and pastel, watercolour, oil and pen, the bulk of Jogen Chowdhury’s artworks feature unbroken, meandering lines in ink and pastel. This choice of medium came from the artist’s inclination to be individualistic. The distorted human figures in his artworks stand out in overpowering, unfaltering lines that run across the canvas, giving him the label ‘master of unbroken lines.’
Untitled, 1997 (source: jogenchowdhury.net)
Jogen frequently uses the tool of cross hatching to achieve variations in the tone and texture of his artworks. He prefers using black ink, as it brings out the darkness that he associates with life itself. Perhaps another reason for this choice, is that he had no electricity at home during his college days, which forced him to draw and paint mostly in black while working on his art at night, under the light of a lamp.
An artwork showing Jogen’s cross hatching technique
Depiction of Human Cruelty and Suffering
Socio-political consciousness and reflections of the inhumaneness abound in the world, pervade most of Jogen Chowdhury’s artworks, which are deeply allegoric and introspective.
Subtle expressions of pain can be found in some of Jogen’s earliest works, like the pensive ‘Portrait of My Boudi’ (1957) and ‘Namita’ (1957), a pastel drawing of his sister in front of a kerosene lamp. These subtle elements then gave way to his figurative works from the 1970s, which brought out the essence of the miserable human condition more boldly. In his famous painting ‘Tiger in the Moonlight’, Jogen made a strong statement against the Emergency period in India, which spanned from 1975-77.
Tiger in the Moonlight (source: jogenchowdhury.net)
The figurative paintings eventually transitioned into more complex, satirical paintings, which he made in Shantiniketan from 1987. A noted series by Jogen from 2005, reference the Abu Ghraib prison and the horrifying abuse of prisoners by American soldiers in Iraq. Jogen depicts the agony and torture of the prisoners through grotesque figures drawn with cuts and marks all over their bodies.
Abu Ghraib, 2005 (source: jogenchowdhury.net)
Awards, Accolades and Contributions
Jogen Chowdhury has had his art exhibited all over the world, and his work has also been auctioned by world-renowned auction houses. The critically acclaimed artist has been showered with accolades for his work. In 1986, he received an award at the Second Biennale of Havana, Cuba, and in 2001, he was presented with the Kalidas Sanman by the Government of Madhya Pradesh.
In 2016, Jogen started an art magazine, ArtEast, and in 2019, he opened a museum dedicated entirely to the visual arts. The first of its kind in Kolkata, the five-storey ‘Charubasona, the Jogen Chowdhury Centre for Arts,’ houses a wealth of his artworks, dating back to his childhood days, and traces his evolution as an artist.
Charubasona, the Jogen Chowdhury Centre for Arts (source: The Hindu)
The artist, now in his 80s, lives and works in Shantiniketan in West Bengal, where he is frequently visited by emerging as well as established artists. He gives back to the art community by regularly interacting with art students and helping them find their own distinct styles, and makes it a point to buy artworks by budding artists as a token of encouragement.