In a rare interview, artist Jogen Chowdhury speaks about his friend MF Husain, his guru Tagore and the thrill of selling a painting for Rs 150
As a seven-year-old boy in Calcutta, Jogen Chowdhury, now 72, would make clay models and paint them. Once, he made a peacock, with deep red and blue feathers, on the wall of his uncle’s house. It probably went without either his parents or uncle noticing at all. Today, his signature works, chiefly in ink, pastel and watercolour, can be sighted in nearly every prestigious museum and gallery the world over.
With his frail health, Chowdhury has withdrawn from public life. Open is lucky to catch him on a chatty, relatively unguarded day.
Q You haven’t been keeping well. Is your health alright now?
A (Nods) I’m fine, actually. Just that I cannot talk too much at one go. But I will try.
Q It’s a grouse amongst art lovers that you don’t have frequent exhibitions. Can one expect a solo show from you anytime soon?
A I don’t do too many one-man shows. The last time I showed solo was in 2006 in Kolkata and before that in 1996. Then, I had a drawing exhibition two months ago.. they were small works, less than a quarter sheet. During my entire artistic career I must have done only 20 shows. If you calculate I’ve done a solo show once in five years. But today, the scenario has changed. Young artists do 25 shows in five years.
Q Are you implying you’re not as prolific as some of the other artists?
A No, I work more but just that I don’t show too often. For instance, Ganesh Pyne must have done only three or four solos in his whole life but does that make him any less productive? I work slow but I work every single day. At the very least, I’ve made more than 5,000 paintings of all kinds.
Q What is your opinion on the current art market?
A A lot of has changed since I started. During my time only few people were engaged in art and they were doing it only because they were sincerely interested in it. Art wasn’t a business then; it was a matter of heart. Today, every city has at least 100 art galleries. Money has taken over art. When money comes everybody changes colour, including artists. During the time painters such as Benode Behari (Mukherjee) and Baij (Ramkinkar) were working, nobody was interested in investing in their works. In fact, I doubt if they knew what ‘sale’ meant. Nowadays, artists are brands. They run after money and mediocre works are being passed off as art. Having said that, every era has had its share of sincere artists and even today there are artists who are doing good work, who are clever enough to promote their work and yet know how to separate themselves from the money market when the time comes. They are committed to retain their creative identity in a very commerce-driven situation and that makes me happy.
Q Can you name those you think are “running after money”?
A (Smiles) It’s better not to mention them. But all of us know they exist.
Q At auctions, your artworks fetch a handsome price. What’s wrong with money coming in? Hasn’t it made an artist’s life easier?
A Yes, it has definitely helped. I held my first solo show in 1963. I rented a place and made my own arrangements. When I managed to sell a particular painting for Rs 150 I was on top of the world. Later, I gave a chai-and-snacks party to my friends. All I’m saying is, money shouldn’t affect your work. Until a few years ago artists were like poets who could write brilliant poems but hardly got paid for their work. A poet writes because he wants to, out of passion. Same goes for an artist. Today, Indian artists are known internationally and that’s made the art market stronger. (Laughs) But all said and done, you need money to buy bread.
Q Do you support the idea that art should come to the common man? For instance, Anish Kapoor’s show in Delhi and Mumbai saw phenomenal crowd.. people from all walks of life actually turned up to see installations which they didn’t know much about..
A Why not? If an Anish installation helps create art awareness what’s wrong with it? I’m sure people have understood what he’s trying to say and that’s why they went to see it. Why only Anish? The India Art Summit is another example where the common man showed so much interest in art.
Q New media is the next big thing. Can it ever replace traditional styles of painting?
A There’s a space for all sorts of mediums. They can grow side by side without harming one another.
Q Coming to your work style, your expressive, bold lines have become your trademark. But in the five decades of your creative life, you’ve produced works on different themes, including the Ganesas, satires on politics and even man-woman relationships. Why don’t people talk about that?
A Because stereotyping is commonplace here. Our critics have a limited understanding of the artistic process. It’s so easy to break down my work by saying they only contain expressive lines. I’ve done a variety of work, as you pointed out, but some people must have seen only one aspect or they must have seen me drawing lines and formed an opinion. I can draw lines without stopping and that must have got something to do with this image. I’m not the only one who does it. Laxma Goud can do it as well.
Q Are your works misrepresented or misunderstood?
A No, but I’d say a viewer with a sensitive eye can appreciate better. To understand art you don’t need to be a genius. Once, I was in London and was playing a Beethoven arrangement. A fellow came up and said he loved the tune. I asked him if he’s ever heard of Beethoven and he hadn’t. Yet, his ears could discern good music. Similarly, a man with an eye for visuals and concepts will appreciate a good painting.
Q Has anyone ever told you they don’t understand what you paint?
A Even if somebody does I wouldn’t bother. Einstein invented the theory of relativity. Let’s assume if he were alive and somebody had walked up to him and said, ‘I don’t understand your theory’, would that change his theory? However, those who don’t understand art are not wrong, just unaware.
Q Is there anyone whose opinion you usually count on in terms of your art?
A (Laughs) My own. Look, about my works, I think only I can comment best because only I’m aware of the process that has gone behind the making of a particular painting.
Q Does that, also, mean you are your staunchest critic?
A Yes, yes. If my work is bad, or not up to the mark, I take the blame.
Q Be honest, there must be somebody in the world whose compliments you cherish dearly?
A (Thinks hard, puts on his skullcap as it gets nippy outside) Bhupen Khakhar. He used to like my work. He has said that on many occasions. Atul (Dodiya) is fond of my work. These people have the eye and the intelligence to look through what’s good and what’s not.
Q What about M F Husain? Does he like your work?
A He has remarked a few times and given me positive feedback. I think Husain has included me in his list of ten favourite artists. But then, those lists keep changing.
Q According to you, is Husain over-rated?
A He’s definitely a great personality. He’s been tenaciously working for 70-80 years and I admire that tenacity. In a few years, he’ll be 100 and that’ll make Husain even rarer. Which artist can claim to have lived for 100 years and painted for 80? In terms of his output, Husain must have surpassed Picasso in numbers a long time ago. But that’s a problem with Husain. He has given us some beautiful works but mostly he repeats himself, especially, now. But that’s my personal opinion. There’s no doubt that Husain is one of the most important painters India has ever had. His contribution is immense.
Q Those who know Husain intimately never criticise him. Those who hate him call him all sorts of names. You seem to be somewhere in the middle with your views on Husain?
A I’m not against him. I’m very fond of Husain. I know his family well enough and they are very nice people. I know Shamshad and his other sons. Just that, there are some of his works which I love and some which I’m unable to react to.
Q In your personal opinion, who’s India’s greatest artist?
A For me, there are three – Tagore, Baij and Benode Behari. I also like Tyeb Mehta. These artists are dead but you can see their influence everywhere in art. (Laughs) I don’t want to talk about the living ones because that’ll not be nice.
Q Both Benode Behari and Baij looked up to Nandalal Bose as a major influence. Why have you excluded the teacher himself?
A Yes, I like Nandalal but he comes after Tagore, Baij and Benode Behari.
Q You’ve assumed the role of a mentor now. You have recently started an art centre (Santiniketan Society of Visual Art and Design). What next?
A Priority is to make sure the art centre functions well. It’s for the young artists who’ll work here. Personally speaking, I want to devote time to my art. I’ve had enough of commercial pressure. I want to paint for myself.. paint for the pleasure of painting, nothing else. As long as there’s food at home and money to buy materials, I’ll be satisfied.
Q What do you want to be remembered as?
A I’m not so ambitious that I want to be remembered in a certain way. If my work is good enough and is remembered 100 years from now, I’ll be happy. In my heart, I want to make a good society in which there’s freedom of everything, for everybody.
Q Although your work touches upon society and politics, you are personally against the Left. Why don’t we see an open display of your political ideology on your canvasses?
A In my works of last ten years or so, I’ve expressed myself explicitly – on the Gujarat riot, terrorism and corruption. But I don’t like calling a critic home and showing him, ‘See, this is what I’ve done. Write about it.’ As far as ideology is concerned, I don’t want to be put in a box. I’m all for freedom of speech, expression, movements and people. I hate violence. I don’t support the Communist ideology. The Left in Bengal has a different agenda. They want to take power by domination. Their study of society is not correct. Communism has validity but not everything. That’s why I’m not in favour to anyone. I want a government which will look at the betterment of the people.
Q It’s very rare that painters get into politics. Why?
A I have no answer to that but I can speak for me. I’m aware of the life conditions around me but I don’t think I’d like to be a politician. I’m interested in contributing to the society but within my ways as an artist.
Q You moved to Santiniketan in 1987. You never thought of settling in Kolkata, Delhi or Mumbai?
A I came here because I was inspired by Tagore. I quit my job at the Rashtrapati Bhavan and shifted here. I use Kolkata as a base city. I’ve stayed in Delhi but I can never settle in Mumbai for sure.
Q Is it fair to say that artists work best in isolation?
A You mean I’m isolated? I’m as connected to the outside world as anybody else is. I have a phone, I get magazines, I write my poems, I write articles, I interact with people all the time.. where am I alone? I’ve lived in several cities, including Delhi, Kolkata and Paris and then I’ve travelled so much. You see all an artist, somebody like me, needs is a good combination of silence and interaction.
Q Lastly, you did your first painting on a wall in your uncle’s house. Do you sometimes think about those days?
A I miss those days. What I did at my uncle’s house was not an artwork, it was a quick drawing. I used red and blue pencils to draw a peacock. I must have been seven then. I don’t know who lives in that place anymore. Even if they must have peeled off the paint, my drawing would be there.. some traces of it, at least. (Laughs) That’s the power of art.