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Jogen Chowdhury: Pastel, Pen and Paper

Drawing from a dynamic perception, Jogen Chowdhury’s art is an intricate collection of carefully stitched lines. Both provocative and pacifying, his suite at the India Art Fair was a delight that irked sensibilities and refreshed perspectives, writes Uma Nair.

Pastel and paper—the oldest tools in the art world become instruments of iconic birth in the hands of a highly skilled draughtsman; and, anatomy is his strong point. Jogen Chowdhury, the artist who lives in the tropical environs of Shantiniketan, stunned art lovers with his suite of works at the Sanchit Art Booth at the India Art Fair this year.

To look at his surreal figurative forms is to know that he creates in his own island of narratives—everything from life around him becomes a part of his tale but it is the observation and sensitivity of watching both men and women that become his leitmotif. Here at the IAF in Delhi, this suite was a veritable lesson in the art of creating figurative forms with elegance and elan.
Memories and dreams
So each part of a body is a study in anatomical perfection—Jogen's drawings are both facile and have an inherent decorative element that is suggestive but not dominant. Even when he distorts his drawings, they do not violate the rules of construction because the exaggerated limbs, fingers, torsos all seem natural and fluid in their curious contours. In an early note he had mentioned:
"What I felt quite strongly about was the need to create something new and original, something which could not be accomplished either by replication of Western art or by falling back on Indian art, in other words, on ancient India and its heritage alone... The other idea that struck me was that it was my own characteristics that would define and determine my art and its conventions. My memories, my dreams, my thoughts, my environment –they could all become subjects of my works." (Jogen Chowdhury, Enigmatic Visions, Glenbarra Art Museum, Japan, 2005, p. 28-29).
French connection
From a scholarship that took him to Paris in the mid-1960s, at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts and Atelier 17 of William Hayter, Jogen has created his own orbit of fantasy and career graph. Other than European portraits and sketches, it was here in Paris that he started drawing those quirky, fleshed out torsos of naked elderly men and women with thin and knotted fingers and queer arms. These distinct torsos had a monumental as well as mesmeric quality—as if the flesh had turned into crackled textures hewn by his brush. The elderly couples he created with deeply grooved expressions became an unforgettable series that emanated strong and rustic odours of both sensuality as well as a perception of the deeper tones of cultural contexts.
Surrealism and realism
In this solo showing, you can glimpse his deep understanding of surrealism as well as a modern stroke of realism. If 'Politicians' is about tensile caricatures, then his 'Man Lying on Khat' and 'Man on the Floor' are perfect renditions of textural terrain and expressionism—both pot-bellied and curvaceous, with their dhotis rendered in fine fabric strokes, it is fascinating to see the detailing of the cross-hatched textures and the tones of pastel woven into the form. The man on the khat lies on a pink pillow, the mattress having an earth soil tenor; while the man on the floor is a part of a rustic terracotta-toned evocation.
The pièce de résistance, however, is his Untitled 2014 work of a woman with a skull in her hand. In a voyeuristic scene, the woman stands undraped with her bulbous breasts; she does not face the viewer. Her profile shows her fine features, while it is the skull in her hands threaded into its own solitude that catches your gaze. The skull and her hair taut as a bun along with her vastra that hangs limply from her torso make for an enchanted scene. It is clear that Jogen has, over the years, been context to develop his own unique approach in the treatment of the figures in his canvases and sheets of paper. He has, in the past, spoken about how he drew inspiration from folk art sources, including Kalighats and Battala woodcuts.
Fantasy and reality
The current works demonstrate Chowdhury's referencing of local traditions and popular visual culture to comment on the complexities and contradictions of Bengali middle-class society. The 'Woman with a Necklace' is a fine example of how he combines fantasy with reality to produce figures that are far from beautiful or pretty, but they are characters that belong to his own choreography—sometimes grotesque but full of feminine characteristics and qualities—like the long hair, the almond-shaped eyes, the pencil-thin lips and sinuous curves. "The sheer range of characters, temperaments and manners that I observed in the people that I saw around myself fascinated me. I portrayed them from an essentially personal perspective. In my characterisation of these people, I crossed the bounds of realistic representation and let imagination take over," he affirms.
'Face of a Girl' and 'Young Boy' are two works that exemplify how Jogen controls fluid contours of the faces he creates and tightens with cross-hatching and then heightens with touches of colour the distinct emotion of expression and individuality in his human studies. The absence of a background allows us to focus purely on the subject, evoking a sense of human drama with the sense of solitude.
Cross-hatched lines
Jogen weaves into his figures a spidery web of dense cross-hatched lines, which he fleshes out with hints of soft dry pastel. His words about his early days give us an idea of how his past shaped his art. "We did not have electricity in our house and I had to read by the hurricane lantern. I had to fall back on black and white because we did not have enough light...We had a miserable state of living when we came to Kolkata as refugees...The crisscrossing lines, too, may be carrying traces of the environmental and mental complications of that time."
The intricate crosshatching that he weaves into his human figures and faces add an element of three-dimensional hues. The signature of the organic, as well as the troubles and trials of life too, come to the fore. With age, these works tell us that the most important foundation for art is knowing that, lines must do all the talking. Like a folk artist who has found his own pathway, Jogen revels in using a pen or pastel or even pencil directly on paper. His lines meander magically across the white/cream surface of paper sheets and his human forms take shape as if of their own volition wanting to narrate their own tales in the figment of his own fiction.
As in much of our folk art, there is a strong decorative element in all of Jogen's compositions, but he does not use this for mere embellishment. They give an iconic edge to his works even as they seem to belong to realistic situations, blurring the lines between the real and the surreal. At the India Art Fair 2018, this suite personified the truth that small is beautiful and presented the mind and deep signature of originality in the hands of a modern master.

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