‘After more than 30 years, I ultimately overcame every hindrance in my way to emerge successful,” says Shukla Chowdhury, an artist by profession and a woman of mettle who went to finish her graduation in fine arts at the age of 48.
Born in Kolkata in 1954, the eldest among four siblings, her childhood was about arts and academics. Her mother, a skilled artist herself, ensured that arts and other activities beyond the realm of academics were taken seriously. At the age of two she was put in a dancing school. “My mother’s influence drove me towards the world of fine arts,” she says.
Growing up in Bengal, Shukla was learning music at Gitabitan (School of Rabindra Dance and Music) and it was here that her fondness for Tagore grew.
An obvious choice of study, when the time came, was Shantiniketan. “Everything went with the flow, without any obstacles, and I found myself at the institution. There would be no other place for me – I was devoted to studying there. To be able to learn fine arts under the guidance of master artists and to grow as an artist amidst the great Bengal masters was a dream for me.”
Her years at Shantiniketan (1974–1977) were liberating. “Oh … the experience was as beautiful as I can describe it to be. The freedom to explore and interpret the world in my own way was liberating. I felt like a bird soaring high in the sky!” She learnt and absorbed everything around her. Reminiscing about one of the most beautiful chapters in her life she says, “There were new discoveries in the art world I got to see first-hand; the experiences are memorable and they shaped me into the creative soul I am today.”
She not only got the chance to work with some master artists and sculptors, but also the individual and artistic freedom she got at Shantiniketan helped her be more confident, build inter-personal skills, and learn new things. The emphasis on communion with nature was high and “this naturalism engulfed me and everything I did, and continue to do today,” says Shukla.
A new chapter
She wanted to study and later teach fine arts but marriage was to change things for her in 1977. While her parents were supportive of her choice and accepted the match, they were keen on her getting married at the earliest. Shukla gave in, got married and suddenly found herself in the midst of responsibilities. With no relatives to help out she was the sole care taker of her daughter. Added to this, her husband’s transfer to Bhopal meant a full-stop to her studies. “My family came first and above all; it was my first priority”.
“All the time I gave to my family was given whole heartedly. When I gave them priority, I gave them the best I could for 25–30 years”.
Once her children were grown and their dependence on her reduced, she thought of getting back to studies. “Also, there were misunderstandings and rough times with my husband. This prompted me to study with the aim to stand on my own feet. I wanted to create my own identity in a world I held so close to my heart. Art was my life and I wanted to get back to it with full honours.”
Back to college at the age of 48
This was easier said than done. At the age of 48 going back to college for a bachelor’s degree not only drew eyebrows but also laughs. She had to attend lectures, do practical assignments, attend the occasional programmes at college and participate in them too.
“For most people – students, staff, and professors alike – I was the ‘Time-pass Aunty’, the lady who came to college for fun and to while away free time. Most of them never realised that I was a full-time homemaker, mother of three children, who took up the four-year degree course to fulfil her missed chance at a basic education. Nobody knew my background, and they didn’t understand why I was doing what I was – I didn’t expect them to know or empathise. However, I did expect them to treat me with respect and like any other student eager to study and graduate with good grades. I wanted to educate myself and become a graduate so that I could step into the professional art world and begin exhibiting as a ‘qualified’ artist.”
Despite the challenges she was happy to be studying fine arts.
“My return to education made me feel like the Phoenix, a bird that burns into ashes in its quest for the sun, and then rises from its own ashes to resume its journey back towards the sun. That’s why the Phoenix is an ongoing motif across all my work and exhibitions; my first exhibition was titled The Flight of the Phoenix. I am the Phoenix.”
“There are quite a few challenges I faced. Language was the biggest; it made me feel inferior because I can’t speak fluent English.”
A few years at an English medium school, followed by a Bengali school did help her to develop English
language skills. Her husband’s job took her to cities like Bhopal, Hyderabad where Hindi worked but Shukla was not well-versed in Hindi. She managed to teach herself the latter by carefully listening to people around her.She took up English speaking classes, but due to lack of time could not complete it. “It was very difficult and sometimes heart-breaking to manage with my young children all by myself, because my husband used to be away at work for long hours and he used to travel a lot as well,” she shares.
Even during her second attempt at graduation, she found language to be a challenge. As the course was primarily in Marathi, she would photocopy the notes and books in Marathi and ask her husband’s colleague to help her with translating the notes to Hindi.
“Then all of us – my daughters, my husband, his colleague and me, and even my maid! – used to sit together and write whatever we understood in bullet points and brief paragraphs in English. This was a time-consuming and difficult process.”
At the age of 51 she graduated from Pune University in 2005 and topped the university.
“Today, I still don’t speak fluent English, and although my Hindi is fluent, it isn’t entirely perfect. But I am happy I’ve been able to communicate with a large number of people without letting language become a barrier. As an artist, I communicate with the world through my work. I am still a little conscious about my English, but when I speak, people listen, and that is all that matters,” she says with a smile.
At present, she is an artist who has conducted more than 12 solo exhibitions across major cities in India. “I am inspired by the post-impressionism period, but I choose to express myself through abstract expression.” Her subjects are from everyday life. “I interpret the world around me in my style and articulate it using bright colours and bold strokes,” she adds.
Her paintings have found buyers in India and abroad. Some of the artist whose work she admires include post impressionists such as Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Indian artists such as Rabindranath Tagore, Ram Kumar, Laxman Shreshtha, Nandalal Bose amongst others.
The road ahead
Positive thoughts and activities keep her active all the time.
“Never let your mind rest, because when the mind is at rest, it is easy for negative thoughts and ideas to find space in your head. Always focus completely on whatever you are doing. There should be total devotion in everything you do,” she emphasises.
It has been a long journey for Shukla and still there are many challenges for her. She says, “Today’s women
have a lot more advantage and are more independent.” According to her most women are not lacking in willpower and desire to do something but awareness and family support. “Often family support is limited to verbal support but women do not get help and real support when needed, and that needs to change.”Talking about what keeps her motivated she says, “Despite the friction with my in-laws, I struggled to ensure I did what I had in mind. It was a battle of my willpower and courage, and I had to respect it. As I always knew what I wanted, I went after it dedicatedly until I achieved it. “
An artist’s eyes are her assets, and even though Shukla has lost partial vision in both her eyes, she has promised herself to continue with her work, and “this year, in November,” she says, “ I will be hosting my work at the India Art Festival. If I can reach out to the world with my creativity, I will be satisfied that I lived life queen size!”