By Bonnie Gangelhoff
Stepping inside Raj Chaudhuri’s Denver studio, a visitor is greeted with splashes of brilliant color and movement. Leaning against the walls are paintings capturing slices of daily life in Chaudhuri’s native India. There are men in red turbans, women in saffron shawls, camel traders, fishmongers, rickshaw drivers, and holy men. Last year Chaudhuri (rhymes with Audrey) spent five weeks in India, mainly in Rajasthan, an agricultural state in the northern part of the country that is also known for its textiles and semi-precious stones. By the time he returned home to Colorado, he had snapped nearly 6,000 photographs for reference material. The paintings in his studio represent versions of those images that have been interpreted on canvas.
They are bold, expressionistic paintings that depict the energy, chaos, and vibrancy of ordinary moments in this fast-developing country of more than one billion people. “I paint people going about their normal day—the shapes and colors of life,” says Chaudhuri. For anyone who has been to India, there is an array of familiar scenes, from women adorned in saris and gold jewelry to a man getting a shave and a haircut on the street. Chaudhuri also depicts events only seen in remote towns, like an annual festival with organized camel races so traders can show off their camels to potential buyers.
On this particular day, Chaudhuri’s easel holds a still life of miniature brass shoes and other objets d’art from India. He is currently preparing for a solo show at Abend Gallery in Denver, and his goal is to finish 30 paintings. To the left of his easel is a week-by-week flow chart outlining what he has to accomplish to be ready for the show.
“My wife, Christy, is a physician, and she made up the charts,” Chaudhuri says. Later, Christy pops into the studio and says with a good-natured laugh, “Yes, I made the charts, but he doesn’t pay any attention to them.”
When Chaudhuri was growing up in India, far from the American West of myth and lore, he loved to draw cowboys. American movies with John Wayne or Zorro as characters fascinated him as a youngster. Now, when he reflects back on his early interests, he realizes it had a lot to do with adventure. He was equally enthralled with his grandfather’s adventurous exploits. “My grandfather was in charge of the Indian Forest Service,” says Chaudhuri, “and I grew up hearing stories about how he killed rogue elephants and man-eating tigers.”
Chaudhuri’s father worked in sales for a large, multi-national company, and the family moved around India frequently for his job. Eventually, because schools were not uniformly sound academically, Chaudhuri’s parents sent him to an exclusive boarding school in Rajasthan when he was 11 years old. After graduation he entered St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai to study economics. He was then accepted into a master’s program, following in his grandfather’s footsteps. His grandfather had received a master’s in economics from Oxford University in England; Chaudhuri, too, headed to Oxford—only he went to the United States to Oxford, MS, where he pursued his degree at the University of Mississippi.
It was during graduate school that he signed up for his first oil painting and figure-drawing classes. After earning his degree, Chaudhuri continued painting and drawing in his spare time. He also accepted lucrative jobs doing graphic design for corporate websites, newsletters, and training manuals. By 1998 he had met and married Christy. They moved from Mississippi to Denver because they wanted to live in a bigger city, one with a major airport so they could travel with ease to India. Soon after their move westward, Chaudhuri joined a software consulting firm. He also started taking painting classes with Mark Daily and Quang Ho at the Art Students League of Denver.
About seven years ago, after completing a series of art classes and workshops, Chaudhuri decided to slowly transition from software consulting to a full-time career in fine art. These days, instead of hopping planes to Dallas to meet with corporate clients, he passes his time in the quiet of his studio, portraying the people and places of India. “I want to show the people in an honest way. I’m not trying to romanticize them, but simply trying to capture them the way they are,” he says. “I want to document my Indian culture. I love the rich texture of life there. Of all the paintings I undertake, the figures and the faces are the most interesting. It’s always a different glimpse of people’s lives, their emotions, and the way the world plays on their skin.”
While in India last year, Chaudhuri made a point of going to remote places like Pushkar in Rajasthan, one of the oldest cities in the country and the site of one of the largest cattle fairs in India. Such places appeal to him for several reasons. “They are going to be gone soon,” he explains. “These Rajasthanis don’t have shoes, but they have cell phones. There’s a big push in India to build a federal highway system like the one built in the United States in the 1950s and ’60s. The minute that happens, the whole culture will shift.”
Chaudhuri says painting scenes from these more isolated places is also an excuse for using lots of brilliant color, which is so evident in the clothing of the Indian people. In SHOPPING AT THE FAIR, based on a scene in Rajasthan, the women wear traditional dress in bright blue, red, and saffron. They aren’t saris, but rather ankle-length skirts and short tops known as a lehengas or ghagra cholis, Chaudhuri says. A complementary colored cloth is used to cover the head.
Many of these scenes give Chaudhuri the opportunity to portray figures in motion and to experiment with abstract shapes and designs that convey movement. “I am a representational painter but I hope viewers see the abstract elements as well,” he says.
As he talks, he places dabs of white paint on a recently started painting that depicts a group of milk sellers. The staccato movements of his brush are steadied by a mahl stick, a lightweight pole about three feet long that artists use to support the working hand. “I try to get a play of different whites, because that moves the eye around the painting,” he says. A few minutes later, as he examines his brushwork, he picks up a paper towel and smudges a figure in the left corner that distracts from the main action.
Chaudhuri uses photographs for reference material, but often makes an initial sketch or small study before starting a painting so he can work out the design and color palette. “What I see in the photo is just the beginning. The painting becomes an exploration of shapes, colors, values, and edges,” he says. “The subject matter is my muse—the romantic part of the puzzle. I want to portray something more than just the exact likeness of the subject. I try to leave space to allow viewers to bring their own sensibilities to the painting.”
The road to a career in fine art has been more circuitous for Chaudhuri than for many of this teachers, mentors, and artist friends. But rewards are coming his way. Earlier this year he was chosen for the Jury’s Top Sixty award at Salon International, an exhibition held annually at Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art in San Antonio, TX. And he looks forward to a successful show this month at Abend Gallery.
“I paint what I am passionate about. It is my way of expressing how I see and feel the world,” Chaudhuri says. “Starting part time and making the transition to a full-time artist has been amazing. Painting every day is the only way to truly make progress on such a long, solitary journey.”
Abend Gallery, Denver, CO; Evergreen Fine Art, Evergreen, CO; www.rajchaudhuri.com.
Solo show, Abend Gallery, October 1-21.
Group show, Abend Gallery, October 29- November 24.
Miniature show, Abend Gallery, December 3-31.
Featured in October 2010