Into the Light a Legacy Unfolds

“But it was the free fluidity of the line and the complexities that it could create that achieved density in my work. They all bore the marks of the time and my life from that time.” -Jogen Chowdhury

Self Portrait ( 1963 )

Born to a Father who drew and sketched occasionally and who was also an avid art buff, it becomes very easy to see from where Jogen Chowdhury got his flair for the arts. Growing up in Daharpara (Faridpur, modern day Bangladesh), he freely enjoyed the country life, but at the age of 9 was compelled to move to Calcutta – the city where his artistic career truly began.

Curated by the eminent Jesal Thacker and Jogen’s own student Soumik Nandy Majumdar, ‘Into the Half Light and Shadow Go I’, was a retrospective of the artist showcasing his works from 1955 to 2023. Presented by Gallery ArtExposure, the show borrows its title from the poem (Sensation) of avant-garde poet Jibanananda Das, who ushered a new era in the history of modern Bengali Poetry. The show was displayed on both the floors of CCA (Centre for Contemporary Arts) in Bikaner House.

319 artworks were on display and were divided into different sections all entitled from the phrases of the Jiabanananda Das’s poems. Continuing along the ground floor a wide variety of his artworks could be seen on display. Where most of them are part of works that he made before his trip to Paris on a scholarship. There was a room showcasing the various self-portraits that he drew in oil, ink, pencil, pastel, etc. Then there was a room displaying several works with emaciated human figures made in broad brush strokes, and then in another room, one could see a variety of works that were from his college days, including outdoor watercolors, sketches, still life , portrait studies, etc.

Our House in Dhakuria (1955)

The oldest artwork in the entire collection, also on the ground floor, was made in the year 1955 – the year he joined the Government College of Art and Craft, Calcutta. It is a pencil sketch of his home in Dhakuria. Like living-breathing history right in front of my eyes. Also beginning from the same year, was a copy of his sketchbook titled ‘Amar Prothom Sketch boi’ (Bengali for ‘My first Sketchbook’), which was one among 3 sketchbook copies on display. Going through the various drawings and studies in the sketchbook was a treat, and so interesting were the works, that many viewers remarked how they craved to have one for themselves. According to the curators, the artist mentioned that, when he had just entered college he did not have enough skill, but possessed great observation, and that through constant practice he improved. Which is something anyone could see when they moved across his works over the years. His studies/explorations in watercolors and pencil sketches getting much finer and livelier over the years.

Along the staircase to the first floor several other works were on display. As I moved above, the works slowly started to become more abstract, as if carrying me to a different era. Most of the works on the second floor were made after the year 1965 – works that he made in Paris, and after he came back.

A person with a keen eye would be quick to discern that most of his works have a prominence of ‘Black’. According to Jesal, this comes from one of his earliest memories of living in a refugee camp post India’s partition. A memory of his elder brother reading a book under the twilight of a hurricane lamp which points to why the exhibition is titled as such. I find this interesting because this is in contrast to a few works exhibited in the show that he did during the later periods of his life. These experiments and explorations done in and after 1965 have a stronger prominence of colour. It’s like maybe for sometime in his life, he had let go of his pain and struggle following the partition and reveled in the world of colour for a while.

But frequently he would return to figuration or mediums like charcoal or ink as if it were his instinct. Interestingly, I noticed that he would do this with works very personal to him. For example, in a set of works that focused on the study of the torso, the curators explained that French gastronomy did not suit his digestive system very well, and he made those works expressing his discomfort.

Untitled (1967)

In the same room as the torso sketches, one could see few abstract paintings by the artist. These were some works that I had not expected to find in a Jogen Chowdhury show. The brush work was very different, relinquished of control, powerful and allowed to move free across the canvas. Even though a bit on the pale side (maybe due to age), but nevertheless colourful. This work for me was an icing on the cake, highlighting the artist’s incredible versatility and ability for experimentation. I feel that his travel to Europe was important in taking his artworks to newer heights. It provided him a different environment than what he had back home. It appeared that his experiments with abstraction enhanced his other compositions but interestingly also made the black in his later works much darker.

To sum it all up, I can say that experiencing this exhibition has been both surprising and delightful to the eyes. Not only has it been an honour to meet him in person but to also witness a career longer than 60 years put on display. it has been incredible to witness history, and experience a legacy unfold in front of my eyes.

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