Bijon Chowdhury: Painting as Social Protest and Initiating an Identity
by Mrinal Ghosh
An essential element in the paintings of Bijon Chowdhury (1931-2012) is his political consciousness generated out of his very sincerely cultivated commitment towards socio-temporal reality and protest against exploitation of human being by the centers of political and economic power causing devastating decay in human values and existential conditions. He had deep faith in Marxist ideology but he never allowed his art to turn towards political propaganda. Search for an indigenous identity through confluence of tradition and modernity was an important feature of his works. In the paintings where he highlighted political and social protest he used to turn his robust and powerful imageries into iconic symbols generating rebellion and aspiration to come out of the decadence and defeat of humanity. His series on Return of the Hero of 1968 and Fallen Hero of 1979 exemplifies this trend, where the fight of humanity against the opposing forces is highlighted through cubist and expressionist dramatic formal structures.
Horse was an essential subject of these series of paintings. His horse was the symbol of dynamism and power. The hero, his protagonist character, fights against the opposing forces riding and moving on the horse back. Sometimes he returns victorious, sometimes defeated. The defeat and humiliation that our nation suffered, the dominant force of youth had to confront, due to colonial oppression, due to national and international commotion, wars, communal strife, violence and belligerence of the of the agencies of power before and after the freedom of our country have cumulatively instigated him towards the rebellion expressed in these series of works.
But his rebellion was not limited within this negative compassion only. His political personality, his love for the tradition and culture of his country inspired him towards search for an indigenous identity in his paintings. He felt the classical sculpture, classical and traditional music and folk painting of our country contain the wisdom on which our civilization has been built up through out the ages. He explored these sources to build up the form of his painting. His forms turned sculpturesque. Within the voluminousness of the figures he expressed the exuberance of an inner force coming out towards the surface expressing a positive spiritual sensibility that our sculpture contains, which also has been a source of beauty in our Kalighat paintings. Music came to be an important theme for his paintings. He also used classical, folk and mythical episodes as subject of his painting. Search for an identity exploring all these elements became an essential feature of his expression.
Actually he started his artistic career through the search for the tradition. As early as 1962 in his solo exhibition held at Art and Prints Gallery of Kolkata he explored the forms of Kalighat paintings. In a review the news paper Statesman wrote, “He has drawn on traditional Pat and terracotta techniques.” The paper also commented, “It cannot be denied his works are fundamentally Indian in exuberance and spirit.” Meditating within this traditional spirit he extended his search towards Western modernist forms like cubism and expressionism and through the confluence built up his own idioms of rebellion and identity that has made him an important exponent of Indian art activities of 1960-s.