Atul Dodiya: The thinking artist

Be it his iconic roller shutter works, Broken Branches, made in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolitions, the fantastical Blackmail 20 inspired by noir films, or the recent small-scale watercolours made during the pandemic, artist Atul Dodiya’s works might take on many forms and scales, but they are always poignant and reflective in nature. One of the most prominent contemporary artists today, he came into the spotlight with a 1999-series on Mahatma Gandhi. These works were inspired by the spirit of resilience underlying the frail frame of the Father of the Nation. 

Atul Dodiya
Broken Branches, 2003
Display view
Image Courtesy Chemould Prescott road and the artist.

Dodiya’s engagement with his ideals has endured through the years. He showcased Broken Branches at the India Pavilion, titled Our Time for a Future Caring, presented by the Union Ministry of Culture and the Confederation of Indian Industries, in collaboration with the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, during the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019. It was part of the overall effort to look at the relevance of Gandhian values in the contemporary world. 

The Mumbai-based artist first made this work in 2002 as nine cabinets, following the communal violence in 1992. “I talk about Gandhi in an oblique way. The idea is how constructing or structuring something is difficult, but destroying them is easy,” he mentioned in a media interview. Each cabinet, measuring 4 feet by 6.5 feet by 7 inches, contained found objects, photos of Gandhi and of the fallen Twin Towers, and also “contraction tools and prosthetic limbs, which are elements of hope, resurgence and building new lives”. Before Broken Branches, he had not attempted three-dimensional works, and this led to a new approach in his practice. 

Through the years, the one thing that has stayed constant is his skill as a storyteller. “Atul has the uncanny ability to bring together references from art history, politics, popular culture, literature, films and media, in a single painting — all coalescing to form complex narratives,” gallerist Arun Vadehra wrote in a monograph on the Mumbai-based artist, edited by Ranjit Hoskote. 

From the exhibition, ‘Atul Dodiya: Walking with the Waves’ at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

With his studio based in Ghatkopar, Dodiya is a keen witness to the many scenes that unfurl on the streets outside. These often find a place in his works—an example of this was the Bombay:labyrinth/laboratory show at the Japan Foundation Asia Center in Tokyo. This featured paintings on store shutters, and other works made with mass-produced objects, which reflect “a concern with Indian middle-class aspirations and the impact of globalization on traditions underlying each individual reality, evoking images of closure, disruption and the storm beneath the calm,” as Dodiya stated in an article on the Saffronart website. 

One can find several references to pop culture, cinema and other artistic masterpieces in his work—-which range from the serious to subtly humorous. For instance, in his show, Girlfriends: French, German, Italian, Egyptian, Santiniketan, Ghatkopar…, at the Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, Dodiya revisited portraits of women done through history by master painters such as Albrecht Durer. He thought it was a hilarious touch to call these portraits of women—strangers, known only through past works— “girlfriends”. 

In the 2019-show at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, titled Seven Minutes of Blackmail, Dodiya referred to films by Alfred Hitcock. For this, he created 8 inch by 24 inch works, with the use of black tones and silver gelatin. “Cinema is one medium and painting is another. But I thought, what if film stills are rendered in painting? Also, the art of portraiture is a long standing tradition in oil painting. I felt that this black-and-white film, with its strong narrative, could lead to a beautiful artistic experience,” stated Dodiya during a conversation at that time. In fact, the movies of Satyajit Ray and Guru Dutt have played a huge role in shaping his sensibilities. His conversations are often peppered with quotes and anecdotes about Ray in particular. Film music—especially the songs aired on Radio Ceylon— too has served as a backdrop to his works. One particular Lata Mangeshkar-song, “Hamare baad ab mehfil mein afsane bayan honge”, for instance, played a huge role in the creation of the watercolours, Walking with the Waves, during the pandemic. 

From the exhibition, ‘Atul Dodiya: Walking with the Waves” at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

He finds great joy in breaking boundaries, and not being confined to a particular form or medium. He comfortably alternates between watercolours and text-based works to three-dimensional ones. He starts feeling uneasy when he gets comfortable with something. In a 2017-interview, art writer-curator Girish Shahane commented on this aspect of Dodiya’s practice: “Artists are in a peculiar bind in our age: collectors, critics, and lay viewers demand both continuity and change. They are easily bored of repetition and dismissive of anything perceived as an arbitrary shift. Although Atul does not make the changes he does to satisfy such demands, his work has consistently demonstrated a judicious mix of tried and tested forms and novel approaches.” 

His recent works, shown earlier this year, at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi, are more sober in nature. As opposed to his earlier large-scale works, these are smaller, more intimate. Trees, creepers, rivers—nature in all its glory seems to have manifested itself in these watercolours. And yet there is a sense of melancholy with the solitary figure seen in them—a symbol of the isolation brought about by the pandemic. For him, his practice continues to be a way to understand himself and the world around him.  

1. Artist: Atul Dodiya | Title: The Seekers | Medium: Oil on canvas | Size: 78 x 60 in | Year: 2021–22
2. Artist: Atul Dodiya | Title: The Excavation | Medium: Oil on canvas | Size: 78 x 60 in | Year: 2021–22
3. Artist: Atul Dodiya | Title: The Offering | Medium: Oil on canvas | Size: 78 x 60 in | Year: 2021–22

Courtesy: Vadehra Art Gallery
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