Sarbari Roy Chowdhury: An Obituary

Sarbari Roy Chowdhury was born on 21 January, 1933 in Ulupur in the former East Bengal, now part of Bangladesh, and studied sculpture at the Government College of Arts and Crafts in Kolkata. Success came early to Roy Chowdhury, who was honoured with a Government Award at the All India Sculpture Exhibition, New Delhi, in 1953, and went on to bag the Gold Medal at his alma mater in Kolkata in 1956.

Chowdhury won the Government of India Cultural Scholarship twice: once in 1957 and then again in 1959. It was during this period that he moved to the Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda, where he met Sankho Chaudhuri, the head of the sculpture department, who had a profound influence on his work. Moving back to Kolkata in 1960, Sarbari Roy Chowdhury served as the head of the sculpture department at Indian Art College for the next two years.

Acknowledged as one of India’s most famous sculptors, Roy Chowdhury’s work was inspired not only by the likes of Sankho Chaudhuri and Prodosh Dasgupta, but also by western greats like Alberto Giacometti, Henry Moore and Auguste Rodin. In 1962, Roy Chowdhury was awarded a scholarship by the Italian Government to study sculpture at the Academia de Belle Arti in Florence. It was in this center of artistic production that he met both Giacometti and Moore, whose influence on his body of work is evident. Roy Chowdhury’s work was shown at the Paris Biennale in 1965, and in the same year, at a solo exhibition in New York.

In his works from this period, Roy Chowdhury explored the female figure, creating semi-abstract sculptures that represented a unique mix of the academic realism of the East and the more innovative cubism and abstraction of the West. The artist was creating form out of the human figure, alluding only slightly to its physical shape, focusing rather on the suggestion of the body, the semblance of a being. In his sculpture, he visualized the human figure as an intimate object, free of narration and external reality, meant o manifest only the artist’s sensibility, echoing the early modernist tradition of using the figure as an autonomous, non-narrative embodiment of expressive and symbolic content.

Soon, Roy Chowdhury’s figures started morphing into those of musicians. As he admitted, music was always one of his most significant inspirations, “I feel that the abstraction of music can be expressed only through another abstract art form…Music moves me, and its reaction in my subconscious drives my creative activity…On a very personal level, I seek a visual form of music – visual music or the ‘sculpturliness’ of music. I have tried to achieve that in my work…My creation is [also] inspired by the subtle beauty of the human body. I seek forms in it that contain rhythmical lines similar to what I find in classical music. Through all my years of work I have tried to create visual music through my sculpture” (“Music in Sculpture”, Sarbari, Center of International Modern Art exhibition catalogue, 1997, not paginated).

The 1980s were Roy Chowdhury’s most prolific years, with shows at important Indian art galleries including Sakshi in Mumbai and Chennai, Dhoomimal in Delhi, Cymroza in Mumbai, and the Birla Academy of Art and Culture in Kolkata. His association with the Centre of International Modern Art (CIMA) in Kolkata also led to numerous solo and group shows in the 1990s and the 2000s.

When Sarbari Roy Chowdhury passed away in February 2012, India lost one of its greatest modern sculptors. His pioneering work in the field was recognized on several occasions: he was awarded the 'Gagan-Abani Puraskar' by Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan, Kolkata, in 2004, and the ‘Abanindra Puraskar’ by the Government of West Bengal in 2005.

Sarbari Roy Chowdhury’s latest and most notable solo exhibition was a retrospective titled 'Sensibility Objectified – The Sculptures of Sarbari Roy Chowdhury', held in association with Lalit Kala Akademi at Akar Prakar, Kolkata, in 2009. A book that shares its title with this exhibition, written by R. Siva Kumar, was launched at the opening of the show. This year, Roy Chowdhury’s work will be included in a posthumous exhibition marking the 80th anniversary of his birth at Rabindra Bhavan, Lalit Kala Akademi, in New Delhi.

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