‘The Afterlife of Silence’ in-depth analysis of Jogen Chowdhury’s still lifes

Playing truant from school isnt always for fun. In the case of Anuradha Ghosh, it opened up the wonderous world of art and has culminated in ‘The Afterlife of Silence (Niyogi Books), a definitive analysis of the still lifes of Jogen Chowdhury, one of Indias best-known exponents of the genre — with a promise of much more to come.

“I remember playing truant, when I was in high school, to visit the exhibition of Picasso’s graphics at Birla Academy (in Kolkata). The venue was some distance away from my school, and I remember having walked all the way to it, and of course the sense of absolute wonder after watching the show. The other show that left a deep impress on me was “Visions”, an exhibition with the works of Bikash Bhattacharjee, Ganesh Pyne, Somenath Hore and Jogen Chowdhury.

“I remember this was two days before my secondary school-leaving exam results were due to be published. This was also the first time I saw a number of Chowdhury’s works together, and I was completely fascinated by them,” Ghosh, an Associate Professor in English at Dinabandhu Andrews College, who began her career as a journalist, told IANS in an interview.

Though she had written extensively on poetry and cultural studies, her first stint with art writing came a few years later, with the persuasion of Vikram Bachchawat, the owner of Aakriti Art Gallery, who published a number of her articles in his journals, “ArtEtc” and “ArtNewsandViews” and asked her to speak in seminars and on occasion of major exhibition inaugurations.

“It was as if I found a new life. I have no hesitation in admitting that without Vikram I would not have found my calling. He also published my monograph on artist Samindranath Majumdar, and then my co-authored book ‘The Great Journey of Shapes: Collages of Nandalal Bose’. Another important matter was living with a practicing, passionate artist (Samindranath Majumdar) and watching firsthand the workings of the creative process.

How did the present book come about?

“We had actually been planning a show of Jogen Chowdhury’s still lifes for the India Art Fair of 2019, along with Uma Mitra of Art Exposure — the show did not happen for various reasons, but during one of the brainstorming sessions we came up with the idea of the book. At that point we had conceived it at an accompanying publication to the show.

“But gradually the book became the main focus, and Jogen-da got really interested in the discourse that was developing specifically around his still life paintings. He took a lot of effort to find the images of his still lifes, even very old ones- and once I got the images I was fascinated to discover that these constituted an enormously significant part of his oeuvre, something that has never been critically explored. I took a leave from my college and settled down to a period of absorbed, and very rewarding, research,” Ghosh explained.

Noting that Chowdhury’s still lifes have never been critically discussed as a separate series, the first challenge was to isolate the artworks which could be considered still lifes per se, and then to identify his other paintings which used these still life motifs as many-layered metaphors.

“Bringing the book together called for a methodology which would examine not only the historical situatedness of the genre, especially in the European context, but also the way in which its essential features developed newer connotations in other times and other climes.

“And then it was fascinating to slowly unskin the ways in which Chowdhury irradiates the familiar still life elements with evocations of his own located culture,” Ghosh said.

Her initial research involved a close tracing of the manner in which the evolution of the modern still life had been at the very centre of 20th century Western avant-garde art, and of course she had to study again the history of the still life itself. She was a little surprised to see that not a lot has been written about this genre worldwide: if one compares it with landscapes, or say, the nude, one would be struck by the considerable lack of critical interest towards still life.

“I tried to understand the postcolonial anxieties, the contested terrain where complex questions of identity influenced the reception of Western art influences. I researched in detail on the careers of an earlier generation of Indian artists, and their unique ways of negotiating with the Western ‘modern’, a journey that had been Jogen Chowdhury’s as well.

“And there were loads of articles and essays on Chowdhury, and his own writings on art – the latter I found to be extremely illuminating. Researching for this book had been an incredibly pleasant – and fruitful- experience for me,” Ghosh said.

How did the title come about?

“I actually remember the exact moment when it came about. By then I had already finished reading (American poet and memoirist) Mark Doty’s intriguing book on still life, and a sentence from it had been haunting me for quite some time: ‘still life resides in absolute silence’. We were discussing about the proposed still life show at Jogen-Da’s place, when suddenly the title came to me, instinctively, not really as a product of conscious thought.

“Later I found it to be quite the perfect title as it encapsulated not only the silence and the stillness so central to still life, but also the movement of its implied narratives, which continue to have independent afterlives even beyond the frozen moments within the artworks. In fact the title captures the in-betweenness of still life, its connection both with life and death, stillness and movement,” Ghosh elaborated.

Thus, the images of Chowdhury’s artworks, beautifully reproduced in the book, catch the eye and stir the imagination with their striking colours and in some cases, bold subject matter. The book features about 80 visually striking images of Chowdhury’s artworks and include some of his best-known paintings such as from the series “Reminiscences of a Dream”, various still life paintings of flowers and cut fruit, and iconic works such as “The Empty Carpet”, “Nati Binodini” and “The Silver Throne”.

What of the future? What’s her next project?

“I have already finished a book on Jamini Roy and the manuscript is undergoing the editorial process at this moment. For a long time I had been pondering about a book on landscapes in Bengal Art – you could say it’s been my dream project for quite some time. It’s also an ambitious one, as I would need to look closely at about a century of Bengal art, from the early decades of the 20th century, including the three Tagores — Abanindranath, Gaganendranath and Rabindranath, Jamini Prakash Ganguly, Gopal Ghosh, Nandalal Bose, right up to many of our contemporary painters including the abstractionists.

“This, too, is a rather unexplored area, and I have already started research on the project. And about the future – who knows? These dark, difficult times have recalibrated the very meaning of aspirations. I do not have much of a social life – I love to stay in, read, write and see, and maybe explore (American poet Sylvia) Plath anew with my son. I just want to be able to go on doing precisely these, till that final bell, when it’s really time to stop,” Ghosh concluded.