Standing in Mughal Garden under the afternoon sun, it took the West Bengal-based artist less than ten minutes to sketch the Rashtrapati Bhavan on canvas. Complete with the columns and the tricolor fluttering on its central dome, Jogen Chowdhury points out that the details are missing in the hurried work. “It’s a mere impression. It also shows I can work fast,” says the artist. “The environment is inspiring. Imagine waking up listening to a peacocks every morning and seeing such massive greens,” he says.
It’s a sound he has woken to for 15 years. The 75-year-old was an art keeper at the President’s home from 1972 to 1987. He is again a resident at the estate, as the first artist-in-residence, under the initiative announced by President Pranab Mukherjee in December.
“The initiative is an attempt to encourage established as well as young and upcoming writers and artists by facilitating them a stay close to nature in the picturesque and serene surroundings of Rashtrapati Bhavan,” reads an official statement. With his previous experience at the venue, a recent entrant in the Rajya Sabha and known to Mukherjee, Chowdhury seemed like a natural first.
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Walking down the marble floor, the Santiniketan-based artist seems at home here — he recognises some staff and also the corridors. The room where he worked is now assigned for other duties, but his portrait of VV Giri is in the presidential collection. A portrait of the current incumbent is also underway. “I don’t like making portraits, but I really admire him,” says Chowdhury.
He also recalls his meeting with Indira Gandhi fondly. “She took active interest in the display at Rashtrapati Bhavan. She used to give advice when we had important state guests. I remember when Queen Elizabeth was visiting, we put a large painting of the Taj Mahal behind her bed,” remembers Chowdhury.
During his stint as the Art Keeper — a post that has now transformed into Art Director — the artist had also initiated an inventory and also made purchases, including a set of Binod Behari Mukherjee’s works. “At that time we could just walk around. I used to walk into Ashoka Hall for programmes, now that seems impossible,” says the artist known for his bold lines, cross-hatchings and distorted human figures.
His themes have varied from social concerns to the elephant god Ganesha, political satires and more erotic depictions.
The luggage back from the 15-day residency will not comprise any large work, but Chowdhury is making “layouts” in his sketchbook.
More political and social satires can also be expected, with the artist making frequent notes in the Parliament. His attendance record?
“Around 20 of 30,” he says, adding, “Tendulkar is not very interested in politics, I am keen to bring a social change and work for the people.”