Saswati Chaudhuri completed her BVA from the Government College of Art and Craft (GCAC), Calcutta (1979-1986), where she was mentored by Niranjan Pradhan, Ganesh Haloi, Bikash Bhattacharya and Isha Mahammad. She has held 10 solo shows since 1982 and participated in group exhibitions. She is a recipient of the President’s Gold Medal in 1982 from the Indian Society of Oriental Arts and Jr Fellowship (Painting) from Ministry of Culture (1998-2000). She has taught visual art schools and colleges (1987-2021).
1. When did you decide and what prompted you to become an artist? Please give a brief account of your challenges and struggles in your journey as an artist. Any role models?
SC: Becoming an artist was not my conscious decision, it was perhaps my destiny. I was creative since childhood, but I was unaware that there was something like an art college. I loved subjects like mathematics, science and history, and enjoyed doing craft and working with varieties of paper. My drawing was good (my parents were also good at drawing) and I would draw using only pencils and Chinese Ink because at that time colours were not available with me. When I was in class 4, my Mama gifted me a watercolour set. I used them by self-practice like tempera since I hadn’t been taught watercolour techniques by anyone till then. My ink portrait drawings were published in the children's section of Bengali newspapers Jugantar and Basumati in Calcutta.
My maternal grandfather greatly supported my art. He gifted me a set of three books – the ‘Rupavali’ series by Nandalal Bose in Ajanta style – which became my drawing guide. After my class 12 final exam, one of my father’s friends took me to the Government College of Art & Craft, Calcutta, in 1979 and got me an admission form. Looking at the building and large sculptures I fell in love with the college but cried thinking that it would be impossible for me to gain admission there. I was upset that no one had told me that such a place existed on earth. May be that was my call and answered by destiny, I passed the admission test with 14th position, where more than 2000 students appeared for only 60 seats. That time it was only a Diploma college and we became the first degree batch and had to go through lengthy seven years of academic training, including two years of the foundation course.
I got the best teachers at that time – Ashesh Mitra, Niranjan Pradhan, Ganesh Haloi, Bikash Bhattacharya taught us; Isha Mohammad was our principal who was also a very caring teacher for painting oil on canvas. Mural and graphics (printmaking) were compulsory for painting students, so I enjoyed learning them too.
One of my printmaking works was awarded the Gold President’s Medal by the Indian Society of Oriental Arts, Calcutta in 1982, which I received from the then Governor of Bengal Shri B.D. Pande. More awards came for painting in 1984, 1986 and 2013 (State Gallery of Fine Arts, Kavuri Hill, Hyderabad).
I have faced many struggles as an artist, but my main search has been to discover my own style. Oil on canvas is my primary working medium and my favourite. Later, I experimented working with diverse mediums. I developed a fluid, semi-realistic style that is visible in all my works. After my marriage, family and job, my artistic practice became very challenging. Health issue was also there during 1995 and 1996, and I had to undergo a major operation due to pregnancy complications. Another extremely testing time was 2008 to 2012 due to separation, divorce and assuming the sole responsibility of my child’s future. It was tough to face all these challenges without family support or a job. I was forced to live on rent but my love for art continued in all situations.
Taking short breaks in between, changing mediums, I carry on my work. Art energizes me and keeps me working on subjects from life. As my journey has not been rosy like a fairy tale, I observe things on ground. Humanity is my religion.
I do not have any role model though I respect all my gurus and Ganesh Haloi is like my father. Niranjan sir is also very close to me. I am fascinated by European old masters from Italy, Florence, Holland and I love Paul Gauguin, Peter Paul Rubens also British artists like Turner and Constable. This may be due to my specialization in the ‘Western style of painting’ in GCAC, Calcutta. My academic study has given me a global thinking but the richness of Indian art and architecture was also part of our studies, besides methods and materials. I feel I can bring back my confidence and passion to continue my art amidst life’s ups and downs due to my strong foundation and also because of my innate nature to learn and continuously update myself.
2. What art projects are you working on currently? What is your inspiration or motivation for this?
SC: I am working on several art projects: (a) The mix-media project continues, based on my socio-political experiences and understanding. A selected collection was presented in my solo show ‘Reject Nation’ at Triveni Gallery, New Delhi, recently. The works Hot Headed, Leaving the Crown and The Dancers are from this project. (b) Kedarkantha 1, 2 and 3 are mix-media drawings, in memory of a Kedarkantha trek I undertook in 2018. It was a life-changing experience, which I transferred onto canvases. (c) Life series paintings using acrylic on canvas. (d) Women in different times done in oil/acrylic on canvas which are inspired by my understanding of society, mythology and literature (Intimacy, Nightout and Trinayani)
Leaving the Crown
Kedarkantha 1, 2 and 3 (from left to right)
Life series: Speculation, Womanhood and Meghdoot 1 (from left to right)
3. Contemporary art has become very diverse and multidisciplinary in the last few decades. Do you welcome this trend? Is this trend part of your art practice?
SC: I welcome this trend. In every profession time is a factor, so we have to embrace new techniques and methods to update and expand our knowledge. But I somehow cannot take performance art into this fold. The performing arts and mime are already there, so I wonder what makes it different. I may understand later; I believe in learning till the last breath.
4. Does art have a social purpose or is it more about self-expression?
SC: I think it is a mix of both. Self-expression is the main part but as artists are also part of society, there is a connection. This may not necessarily relate to a particular time, but an artist must read and be aware of current affairs. Reading and research help to visualize ideas. For creativity there is no rule. Responding to experiences through visual expression based on seen or unseen truths, an artist may create anything in a distinctive style and aesthetic. I somehow feel artists document his/her time through artworks he/she creates. One cannot be completely detached from time and the social environment because true artists are sensitive and are blessed with sharp observation as well as fine thinking.
5. Where do you create your art? What is your process?
SC: I work in my home studio where I live with my son. I prefer working at home, where I have all my books and references. We have an extra room, where there are two easels and good space to work on big canvases. And for small works I use my large working table and table easels.
My work process depends on the medium I am using. A fluid semi-realistic style can be found in all my projects. When working with oil on canvas I use the technique of old masters, textures and flowing lines. For acrylic colour my process is a combination of oil and watercolour methods, finished with fluid lines and forms. Mix media works starts with pen drawings and gradually I use other materials and finish with acrylic. As I always experiment and develop new things at work it changes from time to time, but my style can be visible clearly.
6. You used mixed media as your medium of expression for your solo show on socio-political themes. Has that become your primary medium?
SC: No mixed media is not my primary medium of expression. I started with oil on canvas from my college years and I started acrylic on canvas in 2001. Drawings using various mediums are also a very regular practice for me, starting from my college days like any other artists who have had an academic training. Mix-media drawings and collage-based mix media happened to me just exploring materials, especially the varieties of paper. Since 1990 along with my canvas paintings, I started doing mix-media works almost daily. I even started a daily diary of mixed media in 2005 which I discontinued after a few years but restarted working with it during the pandemic time. Mix-media works are spontaneous self-expression. I use this medium when I am dealing with strong emotion due to a particular situation or experience on which I want to make a statement about the time I am going through that may be personal or social.
Working on big canvases are a comparatively long process for me; however, I somehow find that changing mediums time to time keeps me energetic. I enjoy experimenting and visualize some ideas looking at an unusual material. Both my canvas paintings and mix-media works are not entirely planned. It starts with a basic structure based on my thought process and layout. Then gradually the work takes its own shape as if my work speaks to me guiding my hand. This is the part that is so much enjoyable and can only be sensed during the making of an artwork. The conversation between me and my work gives the final shape of my work. For me expression and making a statement is very important. I believe in speaking and my language is the visual form that is not completely abstract.
7. Tell us about any other interest you may have besides your art practice. Does it get reflected in your art?
SC: Before marriage I practised vocal music in the Hindustani classical tradition for 12 years and played the violin for nine years in the Western classical mode using staff notation. In some of my drawings and paintings musical symbols as well as Bengali and Hindi texts can be seen composed in a textural manner. I spent a considerable amount of time reading as I did not have many friends. My family changed cities several times till I reached the ninth standard. My parents provided plenty of books for me, visited museums and heritage sites very often as my father was a photographer besides being an engineer. There was a dark room at home. So, photography as well as writing in Bengali, Hindi and English started from my childhood. My mother taught me Hindi and Bengali literature while my father always used to speak to me in English. I still continue photography and writing in English regularly on art and artists. In 2022, my photograph received the first prize in Wikipedia museum-photography contest in collaboration with The Heritage Lab. I also write regularly for the Colour Canvas newspaper, Art Soul Life magazine and Indian Creative Minds. In the forthcoming issue of Indian Creative Minds four of my recent articles will be published including the cover story.
I did an MA in Museology in 2014, as I had interest in museum and curatorial studies. My writings have been published in the annual journal of the Museum Association of India (which is being published since 1946). I am a life member of the association and have presented papers on subjects that connects art, museum collection and society, during national and international conferences held in Delhi, Lucknow, Kolkata, Chennai and Ahmedabad. I have also worked with teams from IGNCA, National Museum and SRAL, Netherlands, in different projects in the fields of painting and textile conservation.
(All images are courtesy of the artist, Saswati Chaudhuri.)
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