In 2020, we celebrate 100th birth anniversary of Damyanti Chowla – an important artist, who has been largely missing from Indian art-history books. After graduating from Punjab University in 1938, she joined the Lahore School of Fine Arts. Here she was mentored by it’s founder B.C Sanyal – also considered to be the doyen of Indian modernism. Years later, she went on to study at the Slade of School of Art in London.
A multi-faceted artist, she exhibited across India and Europe : Woodstock Gallery (London), Gallery Haus Am Lutzowplatz (Berlin), Kunsthaus Fishinger (Stuttgart), Embassy of India (Washington DC) – to name a few.
One would think that after undertaking reputed projects / murals for the Government (Indian Post and Telegraph, Accountant General Central Revenue Building in Delhi, All India Handicrafts Board amidst many others), her place would be cemented in Indian Art History; in reality, it is difficult to find Art-History books with more than a 2-3 line mention about her.
India’s first private gallery Dhoomimal Gallery published an album of her paintings in 1953 with a Foreword by the eminent art-scholar M.S Randhawa. The album has been our source for the video.
While critical appreciation of her work has appeared in several publications of her time – including the famous Illustrated Weekly of India, there is also a reference to her works in Modern Indian Painting by Ram Chandra Rao.
The Heritage Lab accessed the MS Randhawa archives at the Government Museum and Art Gallery Chandigarh and found letters exchanged with Damyanti Chowla in addition to her CV. In addition to being an artist, she also served as an Art Critic for Times of India and Hindustan Times during 1961-63.
The art of Damyanti Chowla
Looking at her art, the first thing that strikes you is her use of colours. The earthy tones have a calming effect on the viewer – lending a clutter-free vibe to the artwork. In her initial years she mostly painted landscapes; in her works, you can spot the influence of Sanyal. She doesn’t focus on details and this is what gives her paintings an edge. It allows the viewer into her world, but with a freedom to imagine it for themselves.
The other thing that strikes you is her emphasis on women (that she might have been surrounded by). She wasn’t documenting the sad, lonely faces of women like B.Prabha or Amrita Shergil – Damyanti Chowla’s work gives women visibility and the viewers an opportunity to engage with womens’ daily lives.
In her later works too, the emphasis is on conveying her intent; her works after 1960 are considered to be some of her best ones. Here’s one from the NGMA New Delhi collection. A painting titled “Paris” from the year 1971 when she worked in the city.
Damyanti Chowla was one of the few women artists of her time – her contemporary being Pilloo Pochkhanawala – a sculptor of great repute. Her art emerged at a time when Amrita Shergil’s passing had left the art-world shocked and grieving. Many compared Damyanti’s work to Shergil; it may have served as an inspiration – Shergil and Chowla were neighbours in Lahore – but Damyanti’s art, as acknowledged by Randhawa, Sanyal and academics from Slade was unique in every possible way.
Damyanti Chowla’s works are part of many museum collections [NGMA, the Government Museum & Art Gallery Chandigarh, West Berlin Museum of Modern Art, etc.] – yet, despite her significant contribution to Indian art, her legacy remains shrouded in obscurity.