Gifted artist, incomparable hostess
Neepa Chowdhury, a longtime Claremont resident, died on October 22, 2015 in Calcutta, India. She was 82.
Neepa was born in what is now Bangladesh in 1933, the fourth of 13 children. As the second oldest girl, she learned early on how to cook daily meals for her family and to concoct lavish feasts for guests during Hindu festivals. Amid the 1947 Muslim-Hindu violence following the partition of India, her parents made the dangerous trip to settle in Calcutta where her father began a career in the Indian Civil Service.
One of the first of Neepa’s many gifts to manifest itself was her talent as an artist. She was equally at home creating boldly arresting paintings and uniquely tactile ceramic pieces. She earned her degree from the Government College of Art and Craft in Calcutta and received multiple awards for her art. Her work was shown in prestigious exhibits in Calcutta, Manila and later Claremont.
Neepa married journalist Amitabha Chowdhury in 1959. Following the birth of their son Neel in 1968, the family moved to the Philippines for 14 years where the couple’s second child Shome was born in 1971. While Mr. Chowdhury established the Press Foundation of Asia (PFA) in Manila and Asian Finance magazine in Hong Kong as well as serving as a columnist for many Asian newspapers, Mrs. Chowdhury was honing her phenomenal skills as an entertainer. She also became a discerning collector of the striking artifacts that many Claremonters remember in their home.
In 1978, the family had to leave the Philippines because of the political turmoil surrounding the Marcos regime. They bought a home in Claremont and the boys entered Sycamore School. Mrs. Chowdhury enrolled in the Pitzer College art department where she was mentored by and friend to both Carl and Susan Hertel. After graduation from Pitzer, she continued on to Claremont Graduate University and received her Master of Fine Arts in 1985.
Susan Seymour, Pitzer’s former dean of faculty, recalls that Mrs. Chowdhury returned many times to Pitzer, professionally as head cook and manager for the Grove House and as a volunteer cook for the annual International Place dinner at McConnell Center.
“Neepa was an indispensable volunteer for all of the local organizations and causes she believed in,” said Charlene Martin, longtime director of International Place at the Claremont Colleges. “She hosted international students, cooked for hundreds of people, went on camping trips in her sari and sandals and was an enduring, charismatic presence at innumerable events for the Community Friends of International Students and for the League of Women Voters fundraisers.”
According to former Claremont Mayor Diann Ring—who had the chance to see Mrs. Chowdhury in action through her involvement with International Place and the League of Women Voters—Neepa’s skill and efficiency were a sight to behold.
“She was unflappable when asked to help with any cooking task,” Ms. Ring marveled. “I have seen her rotate 250 chicken thighs, 40 or so at a time, on an outdoor grill in 90-degree weather and in bare feet.”
Mrs. Chowdhury also showcased her unrivaled hospitality in the vibrant homes she and her husband Amitabha made in Claremont, first on 12th Street and later at the corner of Harrison and Mountain avenues.
“Both places were always filled with eclectic art, a heterogeneous group of interesting people and heavenly Indian cuisine,” Russ Martin recalled. “People from all over the world, and from all strata of the community, were made to feel uniquely welcome in Neepa’s home. This ability to connect with people of all ages, all lifestyles and all ethnicities was perhaps her most profound talent and unique gift. All who knew her received the boon of her hospitality, friendship and food.”
Mrs. Chowdhury enjoyed many close, deep and long-term personal friendships throughout Claremont and the wider world. She cared wholeheartedly for her friends and their families, enjoying their children and enriching all of their lives.
Neepa is survived by her husband Amitabha in Calcutta; son Neel, his wife Pooja and their daughter Ishika in Singapore; son Shome, his wife Jigna, their son Devan and their daughter Sonkia in Irvine; and by eight brothers and sisters and their families.
An upcoming memorial for Neepa will be held at Pitzer College. Her son Shone said there was never any question as to where to hold the event, considering his mother lived, laughed and loved in Claremont for 33 years.
“Even though she moved back to India in 2011, her heart continued to be in Claremont,” he said. “Claremont was love at first sight. It is fitting she will be celebrated and remembered in the place she loved so much and nurtured with such devotion.”
The celebration of life is set for Sunday, December 20 from 2 to 4 p.m. in the Founders’ Room of the McConnell Center at Pitzer College. All are welcome.