Obituary

Dhiraj Choudhury: The unsung legendary artist

Dhiraj Choudhury was not only an iconic modern Indian painter, but was also an art teacher who loved his profession. He always inspired his students to develop a social conscience in their art

Photo by Girish Shrivastava

Girish Shrivastava

Dhiraj Choudhury, a modern Indian painter of international acclaim died on June 1, 2018, in Kolkata. Born on April 1, 1936 at Brahmanbaria District of Bengal under British India, now in Bangladesh, the revered painter taught at the College of Art, New Delhi from 1961 to 1996.

It was a privilege to meet the legendary artist Dhiraj Choudhury, a young-at-heart artist, and hear what fuelled his imagination and inspired him to create such a fabulous and magical world of art. At 82 , he was still young with boundless energy. A large part of his time was taken up by his creativity and concern for humanitarian projects. He was trying to bring together people from diverse background and expose them to art. His paintings exhibit two completely opposite realities of life. While the heart-wrenching black and white canvases speak volumes about strife and suffering, the intriguing use of bright and vibrant colours over local crafts convey joy and mystique.

“I was born in East Bengal and I saw the political violence erupt as the Pakistani flag was hoisted and the country was divided. My family opted to return to India, and we felt like we were landless refugees. That pain remained for a long time. As an art student, I’d go to crowded places such as railway stations to see where the refugees from East Bengal lived – in the most pathetic conditions, being exploited heartlessly for political ends. This is where I learned my visual language,” said the artist in an interview to this writer in 2011 at his 75th birth anniversary celebration in Delhi.

His strong belief that art must have a social conscience is what drew him to teaching, a profession to which he devoted himself completely for about 37 years. “After I finished studying in Calcutta in 1960, I joined the College of Art in Delhi, where I remained a teacher until the day I retired in 1996,” he said proudly.

His 2011 exhibitions across the world, including Delhi and Kolkata were based on the the theme- the meaning of love. “People find great pleasure in doing creativity work together, especially when art isn’t their profession,” he said. “That is ‘Anando’- a break from the rules you live by every day- and that was my message through this project. We live in a hi-tech age when we’re busy running around trying to buy comfort, and in the process, we’re losing relationships and missing certain emotions in our life,” he added.

Choudhury’s passion for teaching was evident in his often unconventional methods of motivating students. For instance, he said, he never admonished them to work hard, because he knew they’d never listen. He just painted from morning to evening in his studio attached to the classroom to inspire them by action. “Indirectly, I was telling them that they should work harder than me since they’re younger!” he laughed. And during vacations he would take them to some of the most impoverished villages of the country to show them ‘the real India’. “Unless you see the reality, what are you going to say through your art, what are you going to communicate to the masses?”he would often wonder.

His exhibitions in 2011 across the world, including Delhi and Kolkata, were based on the the theme - the meaning of love. “People find great pleasure in doing creativity’ work together, especially when art isn’t their profession,” he said. “That is Anando- a break from the rules you live by every day- and that was my message through this project. We live in a hi-tech age when we’re busy running around trying to buy comfort, and in the process, we’re losing relationships and missing certain emotions in our life,” he added.

The project on ‘Love’ was so fascinating that it attracted the masses, he added, “One lady painted a cake, which her husband loved to eat. A little child painted an angel in the sky. Everyone reacts differently to the world.” ‘Anando’, happiness and love- these are words one wouldn’t have expected to hear in his artistic lexicon 50 years ago. But, as he explained, it was the next natural step in his journey through life: “When we’re young, we protest, we fight. But ultimately we all need peace,” thus mused the iconic legendary artist.

He was a great artist, a visionary, a friend, philosopher and guide an inspirational teacher, all rolled into one. He mostly lived his life as a seer who worked towards healing people’s spirit across the world. This noble artist and art teacher will always be missed.

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