Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, India
Atul Dodiya is a painter’s painter. Always has been. Never one to shy away from naming his peers, in Meditation (with open eyes) (2011) – an assemblage of painting and objects in a sequence of wall-mounted cabinets – Dodiya strings together reproductions of iconic art works including the Mona Lisa and The Birth of Venus with a painting from his own 2007 series ‘Saptapadi: Scenes from Marriage (Regardless)’. Never one to shy away from humour and irony either, Dodiya would have no doubt chuckled when he inserted his impish take on marriage (the ‘Saptapadi’ suite highlights marriage and courtship in India) into this roll call of canonical works.
Along with a dozen large paintings, Meditation (with open eyes) is the lone assemblage in the Mumbai-based artist’s exhibition ‘Bako Exists. Imagine’. This sprawling, autobiographical work contains found objects, iconic but visibly morphed portraits of various authorial voices, and paintings and self-referential sculptural works wherein figures and motifs from earlier paintings have transformed into sculptures. It trots out a loose genealogy of artists, poets, filmmakers and thinkers who’ve impacted Dodiya’s painterly practice.
Needless to say, the recursive creative impulses – text, a deep interest in the grammar of painting, self-reflexivity and hyper-referentiality – gathered together in the cabinets are amplified in the paintings. For these text-based paintings, Dodiya extracted 20 episodes from the more than 100 episodes that make up Labhshanker Thaker’s novel Bako Chhe. Kalpo (Bako Exists. Imagine, 2004). Subsequently, playwright and theatre director Naushil Mehta and poet Arundhathi Subramaniam translated the selected sections from Gujarati into English. (Dodiya’s engagement with text goes back three decades. Over the years he has replenished his rich practice with English, Gujarati, Hindi and Urdu language texts.) Eventually Dodiya chose 12 of the 20 episodes and rendered them though they were written in chalk on a blackboard. The canvas took on the monochromatic quality of a blackboard and the artist activated paint to simulate the look of chalk.
In the current show, the text comprises a dialogue between the boy protagonist Bako and Bapu, a.k.a. Mahatma Gandhi. Although Dodiya has been painting Gandhi since he was a young boy, as an artist he has been almost unequivocally invested in posing and resolving aesthetic dilemmas. As a result, Gandhi the towering political figure posed a conundrum for the artist, who otherwise avoids any overt political agenda in his art. However, a chance encounter with Gandhi’s view on being ‘an artist of non-violence’ resulted in sudden resolution and a key exhibition of watercolours simply titled ‘An Artist of Non-Violence’ in Mumbai in 1999.
Be that as it may, this new body of work does not appear to be a direct address to Gandhi. Although Gandhi is the interlocutor, the Gandhi of these paintings is less a political catalyst and more a benevolent grandfatherly figure. The underpinnings of the exhibition get reflected in a painting in Meditation (with open eyes) that contains a quote from Philip Guston: ‘It’s a long, long preparation for a few moments of innocence.’
The text in Dodiya’s works scuttles across the pictorial plane and is not always justified; in fact, it can often be found pushing into and even climbing down margins. Much like students who doodle around the text in their schoolbooks, the artist started doodling and filling in the blanks around the text. While some figures and objects recall earlier works, some are whimsically illustrative, while still others are obliquely whimsical. Layered in marble dust, figures in paintings such as Sucking on a mango and No studies, no keeping count (both 2011) are almost sculptural and in bas-relief. In contrast, the plant motifs in the paintings lurk in the shadows and appear to be all but absorbed by the canvas.
As painterly practices continue to get sandbagged and the art world fetishizes everything that is trendy and off-the-wall, Dodiya steadfastly continues to evolve and maintain ‘a long, long preparation’ towards those decisive moments of painterly melancholy and exuberance.
Added by sanjeevkhandekar,
Very well written piece, Apt n clever.
I loved the works too.