Sunday, April 15, 2007

Artist Bio : Dhiraj Choudhury

Creative connections
Dhiraj Choudhury has worked in a variety of media, but this 71-year-old artist’s driving force is his need to forge a link with people

Posted online: Sunday, April 15, 2007 at 0000 hours IST

It is not often that you get an artist who upholds the primacy of the line over painting. Nor do you often come across artists whose social concerns have been as intermingled with the aesthetic. Dhiraj Choudhury has mastered many an art form, but in any conversation with him, ever so often you find him stressing the emotional, the humane, the human aspect of art. “I am aiming to touch you,” is his oft-repeated mantra, almost an aphorism, coupled with “I cannot express myself in a few words.”

As Delhi hosts a retrospective of the master, the muse is in a distinctly nostalgic mood. “My work was exhibited at the first ever show at Lalit Kala Akademi (LKA) when I was just 26, and it feels special that my retrospective is being held here too,” says the Kolkata-based artist. The week-long retrospective is on at LKA, the ‘official’ home of visual arts in India, a venue he has been long associated with while teaching in the city’s Collegeof Arts.

Though he has worked with various media, Choudhury has been among the select few who has for long striven to promote the place of drawing in India, commonly considered just the starting point for the generally regarded acme of the visual arts—the painting. And often dubbed as a ‘classical’ artist, the determination to stick to drawings for long came from his sojourns in Europe in the ’70s, when he got to see the extent of popularity enjoyed by drawings in the continent, especially in France. But there was another, almost startling reason that caused him to stick to drawings for years. While installation, kinetic and pop art had already made their presence felt there, Indian students found it difficult to connect with their audiences by working in these genres. “In the ’70s, many students in art colleges came from lower middle class families, and it wasn’t easy for them to buy the materials, especially colours, required,” he reminiscences. And rather than see them whiling away time at canteens and coffee houses, he pushed them to pursue drawing, even setting up a club called Line. A persuasive individual, he even got top newspapers to give space not just to the literary or performing arts, but also visual. “There were many occasions when newspapers, then in black and white, even printed drawings on their front pages.”

The 1936-born Choudhury, who experienced partition first hand when his family shifted from Chittagong to Assam, loves to engage his audience. “For an artist, it is the content that is paramount. Techniques can be learnt… you have to be a good human being to be able to connect with others.” This was something he did with considerable success during his artist-in-residence stints in various countries, learning from them while increasing his awareness about Indian art and culture. And this symbiotic flow reflects in his works, which have drawn from diverse sources.

Largely a traditionalist in his work, Choudhury, in his early explorations of colour, gave way to the primacy of the line and stroke before long, even as verses became a recurring feature too. Prolific, his numerous series are represented at the retrospective, right up to his latest ventures, sculptures in bronze.

He, along with his students, has visited areas like Manipur and Gujarat, to work with the people there. “Delhi is glamorous, but doesn’t represent India. I have taken my students to villages in different parts of India to see that there is an India beyond Delhi. I am no social activist, nor a leader, but making students aware has always been part of my job.” Scholar and diplomat Karan Singh described his efforts thus: “For him, art is not a pleasure journey, it is a battlefield.” And to that end he is currently working on a project, ‘Creativity and Concern for Humanity’, which is the coming together of art, literature and people from different walksof life.

Influenced by poets like Rabindranath Tagore and Jibananda Das, their words not just appear often in his works, but have also gone beyond, to determine his choice of subjects. ‘Aamake du danda shanty diyechhilo Natorer Banalata Sen’ (Natore’s Banalata Sen gave me a little peace of mind—Das’ famous lines have been used for a series of paintings by Choudhury, lines he recites spontaneously, with passion. Accomplished at line, his works have also blended colour and form with rare skill, evident from his prolific work over the ages.

Choudhury is happy at the attention Indian art is currently getting. About his own work, he says with a twinkle in his eye: “My area is academic, and my struggle is almost over.” But there are concerns as well. “As the millennium approached, I was struck by the way the fabric of society had been breaking. Earlier, people came to cities to work and went back to their villages after retirement. But there are these huge residential complexes that people are going to. Comfort and happiness are different, and today there is no place for love, nor time for anyone else. Times like these have inspired me to draw from ancient subjects, when peopleconnected.”

Coming back to the present, Choudhury’s LKP retrospective is rich in the quality and range of work. More significantly, it also is a great example of art not remaining confined to the canvas.

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