The creative journey of Jyoti Choudhury


Shoma A. Chatterji profiles the art journey of Jyoti Choudhury, a talented artist who had her first painting exhibition recently, at the age of 92.

Can anyone imagine a male painter having his first art exhibition, a solo show, at the ripe age of 92? In an art ambience dictated by patriarchy as much as the society is, I do not think this is possible, at least in India. But Jyoti Choudhury`s three daughters, Aloka, Tulika and Lipika have made this possible.

Jyoti remained a successful wife and mother for decades and kept a very low profile so far as her talent in visual art was concerned. It never even occurred to her to imagine that her art works were worthy of display at an art exhibition either in a group show or in a solo show.

A young Jyoti was studying at the Government College of Art and Craft in Kolkata when she fell in love with her tutor who encouraged her to pursue art and also got her admitted to the Art College directly into the second year. But she quit studies to relocate to Bombay when she married him and he decided to move over to Mumbai in 1953. Her tutor was none other than Salil Choudhury, the miracle musical talent who has left behind his own distinctive school of music as a musical heritage and brought in fusion music into Indian cinema long before the term “fusion” became infra dig.

Salil Choudhury encouraged Jyoti to pursue her art and she did, between her busy schedule as wife and mother, playing host to her husband’s music crew and assistants and students who would walk in casually and stay back for lunch and then, after rehearsals, sometimes, for dinner. In those days, strugglers in the Bombay film industry found smooth and easy access in the homes of their mentors and Salil Chowdhury’s flat, first in Andheri and then at Pali Hill was no exception.

Jyoti`s inspiration to paint came from her maternal grandfather who mostly painted the figures of gods and goddesses. When Jyoti painted, Salil too felt inspired and spent his spare hours painting. Jyoti painted him while he himself was painting and this time, she used oils but sadly, none of these paintings have survived the onslaughts of time. He also bought for her books on art and on paintings to keep her work going. But with three little daughters one after another and a very busy husband who kept odd hours of work, she could hardly make time for her creative pursuits.

Her long trips to Darjeeling and Delhi, USA and UAE, added to her inspiration and her creative instincts. The blooming gulmohur outside her balcony, the fishermen’s boats beached at Mahim, stark desert fortifications standing in sharp contrast to rolling Himalayan hills were all subjects that inspired her work. The ‘bai’ who washes her dishes is portrayed with the same passion as the cat reclining at her window. Her bold strokes, along with the directness and vividness of her paintings restore freshness to our perception of the everyday life.

“I had no special subject in mind when I sat down to draw or paint. I would work on anything that took my fancy – nature, landscapes, portraits, black-and-white charcoal sketches of people and places, anything. I usually worked with pastels. So, I did not ever think of focussing either on a particular form or a specific content,” said Jyoti in an interview just before her first exhibition in Mumbai a couple of weeks ago. Now, she cannot move out of her Mumbai home any more but is visibly happy with the fact that a solo exhibition of her works has at last been organised for the first time.

“Jyoti Chowdhury is no ordinary artist. Wife-mother-homemaker-artist, over the years she has juggled her familial responsibilities with her passion for art – with equal assurance. Her devotion to art not encroaching on her role as a housewife but, instead, offering her the complete freedom to devote time to both with equal fervour. There was always time for a quick sketch of what caught her fancy whilst the next meal simmered on her stove. And the fruit of her perseverance is sweet, as this exhibition demonstrates” the creative souvenir-cum-invite to the Bombay exhibition stated.

A cultural organisation in Mumbai called Milon Mancha, organised an exhibition of her chosen works under the title – Jyoti’s Journey – Life on a Broader Journey, for two days beginning on 29th February,and they are planning another exhibition in Kolkata soon. She lived as a single mother for many years when her daughters were growing after her husband Salil Choudhury left the family to seek new roots. But all that did not dampen her spirits and her cheerful demeanour.

Like most talented wives of her time, Jyoti never cared to highlight the creative side of her life. The walls of their home were dotted with her art works but she did not say that they were her works unless specifically asked who had done the paintings. And now that her works are on show, one keeps wondering when and how she did this all and also confronted her personal problems with that ever-smiling face.

Shoma A. Chatterji

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema, twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards.