REVERIE AND REALITY | Jogen Chowdhury
Curated by Ranjit Hoskote
September 20 – December 7, 2019
At eighty, Jogen Chowdhury is one of India’s most distinguished artists. His vibrant imagination retains its dynamism, his curiosity about the enchantment of the everyday remains unabated, and he extends himself vigorously as a painter, writer, cultural organiser and institution-builder. ‘Reverie and Reality’ celebrates more than six decades of Chowdhury’s art. This exhibition brings together works from all phases of his career, embracing a variety of media and themes.
Born in Faridpur (now in Bangladesh) in 1939, Chowdhury was eight years old when the cataclysm of the Partition engulfed Bengal. In 1947, that year of mingled jubilation and lamentation, colonial India gained its independence at an enormous cost in death and human suffering, as well as a legacy of trauma and conflict. Families were separated and destroyed. Homes and homelands were lost. Two antagonistic nation-states were created. The artist’s family, hereditary landowners from East Bengal, were displaced and forced to migrate to Kolkata after the Partition, where they had to begin a new and difficult life.
Chowdhury’s cross-hatching works, their velvety black textures rendered against crisp white, have evolved from his childhood experience of sketching by the light of a hurricane lamp. The electricity, like the people’s confidence in a utopian future, often failed in the South Calcutta refugee colony where the artist grew up. In 1955, Chowdhury joined the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Calcutta, graduating in 1960. While there, he was trained in an orthodox academic paradigm, but this gave him both a sense of direction and a lifelong discipline. In the Calcutta of his teenage years, he was part of a generation that confronted history through a poetics and a politics of resistance, restless questioning, and bold expressive artistic statements. Little magazines, self-published books, reading circles, and revolutionary theatre were all integral to this milieu.
In 1965, the young artist was awarded a French Government Scholarship to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. In Paris, he also benefited from his time at the expatriate American printmaker S W Hayter’s Atelier 17, a crucible for advanced techniques in the graphic arts. Returning to India, Chowdhury worked briefly at the Weavers’ Service Centre in Chennai, before moving to New Delhi in 1972, as curator at the Presidential Estate, Rashtrapati Bhavan. Soon, he was invited to participate in two landmark exhibitions of contemporary Indian art, ‘Pictorial Space’ (1977) and ‘Place for People’ (1981).
Chowdhury is a member of that generation of Indian artists who came into their own during the early 1980s, emphasising the regional, the narrative and the allegorical in their treatment of the human subject. His colleagues in this generation include Vivan Sundaram, Gulammohammed Sheikh, Bhupen Khakhar, Gieve Patel, Sudhir Patwardhan, and Nilima Sheikh. Through the 1990s and the early 2000s, his work was shown nationally as well as internationally, while he became a well-loved teacher and academic administrator at Visva Bharati, Tagore’s utopian forest-university. He lives and works in Santiniketan, Calcutta and New Delhi.