This profile of Atul Dodiya was published in Man's World magazine in July 2003. I wrote another profile of Atul last year, in advance of a show at Chemould Prescott Road gallery. It was published in Time Out, and took the story of his development forward. I've made a few modifications to the draft on my machine, can't recall what, if anything, was changed by the editor before publication.
Atul Dodiya is severely jet lagged when I meet him at his studio in Ghatkopar. He has slept afternoons and woken nights for a week since returning from New York, where his solo show at the Bose Pacia gallery was very well-received, as all of his exhibitions are well received. The first public presentation of his work in 1981, at the annual Monsoon Show hosted in Bombay by the Jehangir Art Gallery, received a rave notice from Dnyaneshwar Nadkarni, art critic of the Times of India: “He devoted a whole column to my paintings, and wrote, ‘I would put him at the top of the ladder’”, Atul recalls. Two of his four canvases at that show found buyers, fetching 2000 rupees each. Ever since, the orange-red bindis that signify the sale of a work have featured prominently at his exhibitions, as have accolades from the press.
Atul’s career moved into a higher gear after a landmark show at Gallery Chemould, Bombay, in 1995. In the eight years since then he has repeatedly demonstrated his mastery over oils, expanded his range to watercolours, and created impressive three-dimensional works as well. While inserting a heavy dose of popular culture and humour into his imagery, he has also sensitively explored personal relationships and, more recently, taken a hard look at the state of the country in politically oriented works. He has established himself, arguably, as the premier artist of his generation. Even those who would contest this assessment would agree that no other contemporary Indian artist under the age of fifty has achieved a similar combination of critical acclaim and commercial success.
Since early 2001, Atul’s career graph has shown a distinct international slant. He didn’t travel abroad until the age of 31 in 1991, when he was offered a French government grant for a year-long stint in Paris. He says, about the delay in experiencing world art at first hand: “I never applied for a scholarship to go abroad after graduation, even though I loved Western art very much. I felt I needed a strong base here. I had noticed that when a few friends returned from residencies in Paris or London, their work showed a lot of confusion. I felt I should know my people, my surroundings, my neighbourhood; I shouldn’t go as a student.” Eight years after the Paris stay, he spent a few weeks in Italy on a fellowship. But his first showing abroad had to wait until 2001, when he was selected to create works for the Tate Modern’s Century City show in London, a giant exhibition that featured a decade from the art of nine global cities, of which one was Bombay (1992-2001). 2001 also had Atul presenting one-man exhibitions in Berlin and Tokyo, and participating in group shows in Yokohoma and Montreal. The following year, his work was showcased at the prestigious Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, and he participated alongside other Indian artists in Vancouver, Vienna and Manchester. In 2003, he was invited to exhibit in Oslo and Chicago, before his solo at Bose Pacia in New York in May.
Now, he sits before me in the flat where he grew up, a modest, single-storey chawl in D.K.Wadi which has served as his studio since he, along with parents and six siblings, moved to a larger flat nearby in 1987. His family was not wealthy, and he studied in a Gujarati medium school. From an early age he demonstrated an exceptional talent for drawing, and by the time he was twelve he had decided to become a painter. He loved film too, a medium whose images were to become part of his repertoire. He remembers the impact made on him as a seventh grader by Satyajit Ray’s ‘Nayak’, when it was telecast on Doordarshan.
Despite a conviction that his future lay in art, Atul was initially pressured to become an architect. But he was terrible at maths, and failed the SSC examination twice, putting paid to any ambitions his family members may have had of nudging him into a technical profession. His father had indulged his love of painting, even buying him a first class train pass valid for travel downtown so that he could view exhibitions. Atul was, after all, a son born after four daughters. When the time came, his father agreed to let him join the J.J.School of Arts.
He found J.J. bereft of inspiring teachers, apart from the abstract painter Prabhakar Kolte. The institution had a tradition of placing technical excellence and painterly values in the forefront unlike, say, the Department of Art at M.S.University, Baroda, which laid emphasis on political and historical issues. J.J. also had a good collection of books on art, though reading them was a problem: “I realised that almost all the books were in English. If I couldn’t speak that language or read it, I’d be missing a lot.” Atul devoured the images in these books and doggedly taught himself the language in which they were written. Throughout his time at art school, however, he wrote examinations in Marathi rather than English.
At J.J. he met his future wife, Anju Bhatia, one of the ‘south Bombay girls’ who crop up frequently in my conversation with him. Girls who spoke convent-school English; who were bold in approaching eminent artists for discussions; who always admired Atul’s ability and helped him improve his English skills; girls who, for the most part, married and stopped painting, though some were talented enough to make an impact.
Anju Bhatia was never going to give up painting. As Anju Dodiya, she has managed to carve out an important niche as an artist, playing a crucial role in the reinvigoration of the medium of watercolour. Anju lived on Malabar Hill (“in the same building as Vinod Khanna”), a locality much further removed from Ghatkopar than the physical distance between the two would indicate. Her father, a qualified chartered accountant, owned a factory in Nashik and a travel agency as well. Atul’s gold medal from J.J. didn’t exactly qualify him as the ideal son-in-law, but he promised to get a job teaching art which would provide a steady income. He never did accept offers that came his way, confident that his painterly vocation would come good in due course. Meanwhile, he made ends meet through a few tuitions, “teaching south Bombay girls”.
Abstract painting was the dominant tradition at J.J., and mysticism the dominant attitude. Atul wasn’t keen on either: “Abstract painters concentrate on aspects of colour, form and texture. But I felt this was also a limitation, making good looking abstract paintings; it needed to be broken somewhere. If you spoke to J.J. graduates about their work they would say, ‘It’s visual art, it has to be experienced, what can you say about it? What can you say about blue? Blue is blue!’ Then many would go into some kind of spiritual explanation. I was interested in literature, Gujarati as well as Marathi. Writers and poets speak about people, about their surroundings; I wanted to do that in painting. We used to listen to P.L.Deshpande and read his humorous writings, but could one have a sense of humour in visuals?”
For four years after graduation, he searched for a form that would enable him to address these concerns. The purchase of a camera in 1986 proved a turning point: “I found that the photographs I was taking worked more like a sketch for my painting rather than interesting images in themselves. If you take the way the world looks and change it a little bit, you can create an interesting visual.” He began to make paintings that had affinities to the realistic style of the British painter David Hockney, and were influenced by the humour in the paintings of the Baroda-based Bhupen Khakhar.
Two solo shows followed, in 1989 and 1991, and then the year in Paris, which precipitated a new crisis: “I was totally baffled by the great paintings I saw in Paris, from the early Renaissance to current work. Seeing all that had already been created, there was a time when I thought I would stop painting. When I returned home I was afraid that I’d do something which is just a repetition of some western master. It took me three years, from 1992 to 1994 to get out of this mode of thinking.”
It gradually dawned on him that he shouldn’t try and define what he was going to paint, but rather paint what he felt like, and let that define him. An eclectic series of pictures began emerging: “I could paint something related to my sister’s illness; or a self-portrait influenced by a poster for the film ‘Baazigar’. But there was a common thread running through it. The images were autobiographical, social or involved popular imagery.” Another consistent feature in his work was art historical reference: “I wanted to meet the artists whose work I loved, but I couldn’t, so I thought I’d have an imaginary dialogue with them by including, say, a Picasso reference or Matisse reference in my painting.”
His next jump was to paint a series on Mahatma Gandhi. The first major Gandhi painting was triggered by an invitation to participate in a show commemorating fifty years of Indian independence. After this he considered creating a suite of works on the Mahatma, whose life and thought had been a major influence since his school days. But the idea of a Gandhi series was onerous: “I knew that painting Gandhi, whether you like it or not, has a lot of political connotations. Then I came across a quote from Gandhi where he said, ‘I am an artist of non-violence’, not a philosopher of non-violence. That led me to see that in all his acts, his wearing of khadi, the Dandi march to make salt, the structure of his ashram, he was like a conceptual and performance artist, a little like Joseph Beuys.” Atul also changed his favoured medium for the Gandhi series, a courageous decision vindicated by the results: “I was always doing oils, while I’d watched Anju doing interesting watercolours. I felt the kind of attentiveness you require working with watercolours, the precision and spontaneity, was appropriate to the subject; also the fact that water is pure and transparent. Even your posture while you paint changes, and so does your whole way of looking at art and life.”
He continued working with the medium in a series of large-format watercolours titled ‘Tearscape’. These pictures, subdued in tone, and often bitter in spirit, were dominated by a hideous, skeletal old crone looming over a map of India. The hag of ‘Tearscape’ was a major departure from Atul’s familiar photo-based realistic figuration. The paintings created around this time proved, if proof were necessary, that the artist made no compromises for the market, although he was happy when his works sold. Many of the paintings revolved around defecation, decay and death, hardly the stocks-in-trade of saleable art. And yet even these works found willing buyers, usually serious collectors interested in art as exploration rather than decoration.
At around the same time, he was engaged in creating the first of his ‘shutters’ for the Century City show in London. Inspired by the experience of a curfew in which all shops downed their shutters, Atul crafted a series of two-layer paintings: the first image would be on the corrugated metal of the shutter and the second behind it. The shutter could be rolled up to reveal the painting underneath, or brought down to hide that view. A major source of the shutter paintings, as well as the Gandhi and ‘Tearscape’ series, lay in the sectarian violence which tore Bombay apart following the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, and in the inter-communal tension which has become central to India’s contemporary politics. The mosque demolition and the Bombay riots had been followed by a serial bombing of important Bombay locations, in which three boys from Atul’s neighbourhood died.
Death pervades Atul’s recent creations, notably a sculptural assemblage called ‘Broken Branches’ which consists of nine display cabinets with bones, prosthetic limbs, simple tools and photographs arranged carefully within them. Some of the photographs are of Atul’s father, whom he often painted and sketched since his days at art school. The photographs used in ‘Broken Branches’ were taken during a terminal illness which claimed his father earlier this year.
As Atul speaks of his father, an image crystallises of a charismatic man with an impressive moustache who was always ready with an anecdote, in some ways a throwback, or a link with a vanished past. His expression in these final photographs, which display and sometimes zoom in on his horribly distended belly, combines dignity and helplessness in equal measure. ‘Broken Branches’ also continues to address Atul’s preoccupation with Gandhi and communal violence, managing a remarkably seamless combination of the personal and political.
Looking back on his development, Atul reflects: “Sometimes I feel doubts about my lack of consistency. After painting a serious picture related to Apur Sansar, I went on to a lemon yellow work with Gabbar Singh on it. I wonder how I can have such a range. It’s as if I like everything, and can handle everything… but is it a kind of showing off? When I finish a work, though, I find it is satisfactory, for instance I am very happy with the cabinets.” All this is said with a transparent earnestness which characterises all his speech. As I leave I ask him about the burgeoning ‘school of Atul’: The paintings of Prashant Salvi, who won the Bose Pacia Emerging Artist award a couple of years ago, and Ratnadeep Adivrekar, who bagged the Harmony Emerging Artist award earlier this year, show unmistakable echoes of the Dodiya style. And there are many more like them. “Let them use aspects of my work if they want, I’ll have changed by the time they imitate something,” he says, making a dodging manoeuvre with his hands.