When Derek Quizzed Jogen

When Derek Quizzed Jogen

March 6, 2014

Painter and newly-elected Rajya Sabha MP Jogen Chowdhury opens up to quizmaster and Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien about painting and politics, Hendrix and Husain, wine and women! For t2:

Derek O’Brien and Jogen Chowdhury sharing a light moment

Derek: I have to start with a serious complaint. I have decided that I won’t talk to you! For many years you have been telling me that you’ll give me a crosshatch painting. I have been to your birthday party and asked you for a crosshatch painting, gone to Santiniketan and asked you for one. Now that you are a Rajya Sabha MP, at least give me the painting now!

Jogen: Yes, now I have to give it to you! I’ll make the painting in Delhi.

Derek: Yes, I’ll make the arrangements.

Derek: Jogen da, if I had asked you six months ago that you were going to become an MP, would you have believed it?

Jogen: No, I was unprepared.

Derek: How did it happen?

Jogen: I was quite surprised when she (Mamata Banerjee) asked me if I would be interested in becoming a Rajya Sabha MP. At first, aami ghabre gechhilam (I was nervous). I was in the car returning home from the Academy of Fine Arts in the afternoon (January 19) when she texted me to call her back... I told her that I have a lot of problems. That my wife (Shipra) is not well, that I have a lot of pending work. I spoke to her for about 40 minutes. Then she told me, "Take the post. You’ll like it." I was quite tense. Then I told her, "Let me ask my wife." But my wife didn’t give me any definite reply!

Derek: Do you discuss everything with your wife?

Jogen: No, but if I don’t discuss these things with her then I’ll get into trouble the next day! (Grins)

Derek: Hmmm… do you discuss your paintings with your wife?

Jogen: No… that’s my area. (Smiles)

Derek: Why do you think Mamata Banerjee has made you a Rajya Sabha MP?

Jogen: That I don’t know. (Grins)

Derek: You are not involved in politics, you have not taken part in party programmes…

Jogen: I really don’t know.

Derek: How was your first political experience when you were filing your nomination papers in the Assembly last month?

Jogen: It was very tiring on both the days. I had to start in the morning and it went on till late night.

Derek: Are you in touch with your friends from Art College?

Jogen: Yes, with a few.

Derek: They are not as famous as you are. How do they react to you now?

Jogen: Of course they respect me.

Derek: Are you first an artist, painter or a teacher?

Jogen: First I am a human being.

Derek: There was a huge crowd at the opening of your new exhibition 'Formative to Recent' at CIMA Gallery. Why? What is the appeal of Jogen Chowdhury?

Jogen: Yes, there is an interest, people are curious, they want to know what I am working on, which is why they keep coming back for more. It was so crowded that even Soumitra Chatterjee had trouble getting in!

Derek: How did you develop your signature broad brush lines/strokes?

Jogen: It was there in my early sketches.

Derek: But it became your signature style.

Jogen: I do all sorts of work, from crosshatch paintings, pastel drawings to oil paintings, but then one day I had to complete a series of drawings in a day...

Derek: So you started doing lines to speed things up?! I’m teasing you…

Jogen: People feel only big oil paintings make for great art. But that’s a wrong notion. A small drawing is equally great. The famous Swiss-German painter Paul Klee did these superb small drawings. The way he explored line, form, space, colour, texture in his paintings is fabulous.

Derek: Broad brush strokes is your speciality. People can recognise your work without your signature. How does it feel?

Jogen: It feels great. These brush lines have become my trademark.

Derek: How did you start working on crosshatch paintings?

Jogen: I started developing the ideas for crosshatch paintings when I was in Madras (in the early 1970s). Just like bees make their hives, I put together these crosshatch paintings. Since I take a long time to make these paintings, all these different thoughts come together. There is this intensity in the paintings and a three-dimensional quality to it. When I returned from Paris (in the late 1960s), I started thinking about what I can do that would stand out.

Trinamool Rajya Sabha Chief Whip with the newly elected MP

Derek: Tell us five things we don’t know about you. Is it true that you spent time with Jimi Hendrix?

Jogen: I met him at a restaurant in London in 1968. My friend was the manager at the restaurant, and he told me that Jimi was a regular at the restaurant. He asked me to do his sketch. So one day I went to the restaurant with my drawing paper, and Jimi arrived in the evening with his friend Rita Tushingham. So I did four-five sketches of him in two-three hours. On one of the paintings he wrote, ‘The Greatest Artist of the World’. I was 25 or 26, and I was really excited then.

Derek: I also heard that you are a great connoisseur of wine!

Jogen: I developed a taste for wine when I was in Paris in the mid-1960s. I remember going to the vineyards and wineries there.

Derek: But do you have wine and paint?

Jogen: Yes, I have done that in Paris. We would have Bordeaux wine.

Derek: So Jogen da, now that we know you are a connoisseur of wine, what else do we not know about you?

Jogen: Nothing else! Or maybe you would like to know about the other ‘W’ in my life, apart from wine! (Everyone laughs out loud)

Derek: Do you have a muse, or do you keep changing your muse?

Jogen: (Laughs) At one point of time I was also quite attractive. Do you agree?

Derek: You are still handsome!

Jogen: Now I’m not that young! But talking about muses, there was a French girl, I forget her name… she was part of a ballet group. I had just arrived in Paris, and her brother was in my class. He introduced me to her in a restaurant and I feel she was attracted to me! And later, I remember throwing a party at my studio in Paris, and she had come over. We were supposed to go out and get food for the party, and so I asked her what she would like to have. She replied, "I like you!" (bursts out laughing) I drank so much wine that night...

Derek: Any other stories involving a muse?

Jogen: I had met this half-Japanese girl in Paris. I had also done a portrait of her. Later, when I showed the portrait to my wife, she took hold of it and tried to destroy it! (Laughs) She was attracted to me. But then she maintained a distance since she associated famine and poverty with Bengal! Which is why she was detached, and did not want to get into a relationship with an Indian. But she kept in touch through letters. Then later, when I was in Madras, she came down to meet me and we spent some time together. Then she went back...

Derek: So after you married boudi, you reformed?!

Jogen: (Laughs)... I wrote her a long love letter to which she replied that she had got engaged to someone! I got so sentimental that I tore the letter into pieces and threw it away. All this happened before marriage...

Derek: What’s your birth sign?

Jogen: I’m an Aquarian.

Derek: You are emotional and sentimental?

Jogen: Aquarians are like that…

Derek: How did you meet boudi? Was it an arranged marriage?

Jogen: Yes. I grew up in Sahidnagar, Selimpur, and her brother was close to my family. He would come to our place. And my sister first suggested that we get married. We got married in 1970. 

Derek: And were you a struggling artist then? How would you describe yourself?

Jogen: I had some kind of a social status. I was a good student who had got a lot of awards.

Derek: How much did you earn?

Jogen: Rs 700.

Derek: Who gave you that?

Jogen: The central government. I was an art designer at Weavers’ Service Centre. Sunil Das, Arpita Singh, KG Subramanyan had worked there.

Derek: After you finished art college, you became a teacher in Howrah Zilla School. Then you joined Weavers Service Centre…

Jogen: Yes, and after three years I went to Paris on a scholarship. After staying there for two-and-a-half years I came back to the same job but in Madras. I was there for four years. Madras was so quiet then.

Derek: Did you sell any paintings then?

Jogen: Ummm… I put up my first crosshatch painting exhibition in 1970 (he had done a few exhibitions before that) in Madras. Among the 30 paintings put up for display, one was sold. My Austrian friend bought it for Rs 400. That Rs 400 painting will now go for Rs 40 lakh.

Derek: Where is that painting?

Jogen: In Austria.

Derek: What happened after Chennai?

Jogen: I went to Delhi in 1972, and became the curator of paintings in Rashtrapati Bhavan. Later, the post was changed to Keeper (Art). I made that happen. I was in Rashtrapati Bhavan for 15 years.

Derek: How many presidents did you get to meet?

Jogen: I joined when VV Giri was president, and then there were Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, Basappa Danappa Jatti (acting president), Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, Giani Zail Singh during my tenure.

Derek: You and your wife will be going to live near Rashtrapati Bhavan in the next two months. How are you feeling? Nostalgic?

Jogen: Yes. Maybe certain things have changed.

Derek: Jogen da, what is that one defining moment or turning point in your life?

Jogen: There are a few. The first one was when I went to Paris. It’s a major part of my life. I was living in a refugee colony in Selimpur then, and it was a huge thing to go to Paris… very few people went to Paris at that time, and when you reached Paris, you didn’t feel like coming back.

The next turning point was when I went to Delhi, where I made a name for myself (in the 1970s).

Derek: What is a day in the life of Jogen Chowdhury?

Jogen: In the ’70s and ’80s, I would work from 8 pm to 2 am since I was working at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Now I usually work from 10 am to 2 pm and then from 8 pm to 11 pm.

Derek: How would you like to be remembered 50 years from now?

Jogen: How can I say that!

  • Jogen met guitarist Jimi Hendrix in London in 1968
  • He is a wine connoisseur
  • He was a curator in Rashtrapati Bhavan from 1972 to 1987
  • He has worked at Weavers’ Service Centre

Derek: Would you like to have a Jogen Chowdhury Museum in Calcutta? Is it your dream?

Jogen: I feel my works have contributed to not only Indian art but world art as well. But Europe isn’t too keen on recognising the work done by us here. They have their own standards. They are self-contained. Like we don’t know much about art in the Far East. Maybe there are many interesting artists over there. I would like to keep my works somewhere in Calcutta.

Derek: Can we say Santiniketan is the factory and Calcutta the showcase?

Jogen: (Laughs out loud) This question is for those who take part in quizzes!

Derek: MF Husain was the last high-profile painter who went to Rajya Sabha. We hear that in six years he gave zero speeches but did around 50 sketches. Will you do the same?

Jogen: No, Husain was self-centred. He was engrossed in his own work. Uni nijeke niye thakten. I would like to shed light on issues that would help improve society.

Derek: And what if your opinions don’t go with the party line?

Jogen: Then I’ll accept what the party has to say. I would discuss it internally. But if the party’s opinions are wrong, then I’ll try to make them see reason... aami improve korate pari. We need that space. We (artists) are not great politicians but we have good ideas.

Derek: What’s your view on the word ‘buddhijibi’?

Jogen: Apparently they do a lot of academic work, but actually very few, like maybe 1,000 ‘buddhijibis’ have emerged from Bengal in the last 60 years. There is Amartya Sen. Effective buddhijibi kojon? The numbers of effective buddhijibis are very less. What sort of change have they brought about? We have to understand that. The so-called buddhijibis hardly have any connect with reality.

Derek: Let me ask you a few difficult questions. If Jogen da is no. 1, who is no. 2?

Jogen: There are many. We won’t identify them since the rest will then get demoralised!

Derek: Who are the current living artists in India who you really respect?

Jogen: The ones whose works I really like have passed away — Francis Newton Souza and Vasudeo S Gaitonde.

Derek: No one living?

Jogen: (SH) Raza’s work is interesting, Arpita Singh is my contemporary, there is Sudhir Patwardhan...


Nati Binodini, Her Silver Throne, Tiger in the Moonlit Night


Bali, Leningrad, Prague

Derek: Are there any talented artists in Bengal who can become Jogen Chowdhury in 30 years?

Jogen: There are many talented, promising artists in Bengal.

Derek: What is your advice to young people who are just starting out?

Jogen: Be honest. You have to work very hard, sincerely and diligently.

Derek: What has been the saddest moment in your life?

Jogen: When I had gone to Santiniketan for a job and they rejected me... this was probably in the mid-1980s.

Derek: What did that failure teach you?

Jogen: Nothing much, but I had expected to get the job.

Derek: Whenever I come to your place, I see people of all age groups here. There is such a great comfort level with you. How do you do that?

Jogen: I can communicate well. And I don’t think about ageing!

Derek: So you still feel that you are in Paris… (Everyone bursts out laughing) And I’m still waiting for the crosshatch painting…

Jogen: I will give it to you at a discount. But don’t reveal the actual price! (Laughs)

Jogen’s Pick

Derek: Sourav or Sachin?

Jogen: Sachin. I used to watch all the Test matches when Sourav and Sachin were playing.

Derek: Fish or meat?

Jogen: Fish

Derek: Ganesh Pyne or Bikash Bhattacharjee?

Jogen: Both are equal

Derek: You are already talking like a politician!

Derek: South or north Calcutta?

Jogen: South

Derek: Santiniketan or Calcutta?

Jogen: Calcutta

Derek: Broad brush strokes or crosshatch?

Jogen: Crosshatch

Derek: Paris or London?

Jogen: Paris

Derek: French women or Bengali women?

Jogen: Bengali

Derek: Madhuri or Rekha?

Jogen: Neither. I liked Smita Patil. She was spontaneous and sensitive. And Waheeda Rehman.

Derek: Satyajit Ray or Rituparno Ghosh?

Jogen: Satyajit Ray

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