February Issue 2008
The Art of Dialogue
An exclusive exhibition of paintings by Delhi-based artist Prem Chowdhry was hosted by JI’s Gallery of Fine Arts in Karachi recently.
A social scientist by profession but an artist at heart, Prem Chowdhry enjoys the rare satisfaction of pursuing an art practice that draws in meaning and content from her research studies, particularly those related to cultural norms and gender issues in India. Her interest in art was sparked when she encountered it as a subject in school, but hailing from a family with a strong academic tradition she was, in her own words, “literally pushed into doing her BA, MA and Ph.D.” Her passion to paint, however, continued in tandem with her career as an educator and an independent researcher. Entirely self taught, her aesthetic expression, free from the baggage of (art) academic disciplines, evolved on the basis of experimentation and intellectual growth. She had all the freedom to play and invent, and acknowledging the critical readings of her art, found her roots early. Recalling her first exhibition in 1970, she remarked that “in those days art criticism in India was very strong. Art critics were very helpful in endorsing encouragement through critical evaluation,” but she lamented that “over the years their role has totally disappeared. It is all page three, there is no serious art criticism now.”
While escaping the rigours of specialised art training, Prem nonetheless found her own chains. Her acrylic and oils on canvas on display at JI’s resemble etching on plate or woodcut print in effect and appearance, such is the tenor of her scratched surface linear impressions. The artist discloses that she approaches her work methodically by first resolving her aesthetic problems of compositional placement and tonal values through finished drawings on paper. Once transferred on canvas, the largely figurative content is painted black. She then scratches and scrapes out the colour with sharp metal (often surgical) instruments like a blade or knife to create a linear trajectory. “Almost putting a handicap on yourself and then overcoming it” is how she describes the laborious and challenging regimen of creating a fine parallel line and crosshatch technique so peculiar to the severe pen and ink medium.
Using a style of drawing that veers close to the primitive, naÃ¯ve mannerism of painting, she references the folk ideology of myth and fable to build her narrative. In her monochrome works, it is the manner of dress, facial expressions and body language of the figures and the flora and fauna of a rural milieu that sets the stage for her discourse. The ‘bird’ in various representative guises, such as crow, parrot, dove or raven, is a constant, and she also makes effective use of trees and foliage as decorative, religious or mythical emblems. But the paintings are essentially a dialogue on the status of women. “I am making a feminist statement in certain ways — borne out of my research — weighing situations, observing how the political and the social conditions impact gender disparities,” she says to elucidate her conceptual thrust. A painting titled ‘Crossing the Boundaries’ shows a woman thoughtfully eyeing a border line which can be variously interpreted as a comment on personal or political limitations. The bird is most often used as a narrator in her compositions. The painting ‘Monologue’ is based on the origin of the bird as a raconteur. The parable behind it is that in order to preserve the chastity of the woman, after the man went away, the bird was left behind to engage her with an endless series of stories on the assumption that she would be totally engrossed and would not go astray. Terming it as man’s concoction for ensuring fidelity, Prem makes her point. Other works like ‘Bond 3â€² and ‘Dialogue with Self 3,’ where the male presence is depicted in a positive light, are also there as reflections of reality. A huge painting enacting a fertility dance and/or echoing environmental concerns, reminds one vaguely of Boticelli’s ‘Primavera’ and his rendition of the three graces, goddesses of charm, beauty, nature, human creativity and fertility. The statements issued in a local idiom are, nonetheless, relevant to womanhood everywhere.
Having always painted in black and white, Prem’s foray into colour is fairly recent and the showing at JI’s is her first public display. Creating stark, sharply lined works in black, emphatically offset on a consciously constructed (with acrylic) ground of pristine white, is an arduous exercise where “the margin of error is so great you cannot afford to shoot out in any direction.” By contrast, working in colour was child’s play for Prem. The paintings were milder in impact with a bent towards the decorative but the content was pithy and invited debate and conjecture. Technically, she approached the compositions through spatial division. The figures were juxstaposed against optically balanced colour planes and a folksy palette of traditional reds, yellows, blues and greens which made for instant impact — but it was in the monochrome art where her individuality is most apparent
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