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Seeing artist Atul Dodiya in a new light

In stark departure from his large-scale works, the Mumbai-based artist created a series of 366 small, intimate watercolours during the pandemic

Atul Dodiya, Untitled, 2020-2021, watercolour on paper, Courtesy: the artist
Atul Dodiya, Untitled, 2020-2021, watercolour on paper, Courtesy: the artist

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There is something rather poetic and poignant about artist Atul Dodiya’s new set of works. In one, a figure, seated in a boat, can be seen casting a net into the river. Instead of fish, though, the figure seems to have caught its own reflection. In another work, a faceless being is dipping a brush in the waters. It feels as if the trees along the banks have just emerged from its tips—the watercolours seem fresh and fluid. Dodiya likes to describe these untitled works, on view currently at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Saket, Delhi, as “mindscapes”, with the trees, creepers, waves, clouds and solitary mystic figures emerging from the depths of his subconscious.

Painted during the pandemic—with the first in the series of 366 created on 22 March 2020—these are a stark departure from the Mumbai-based artist’s oeuvre. Dodiya is known for large-scale works, be it oil paintings or the iconic roller-shutter ones made after the riots that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. He usually brings together references to Hindi films, music, literature, pop culture and history to create works layered with meaning and complex questions. But the works in this show, Atul Dodiya: Walking With The Waves, are small-scale and intimate. And instead of oils, he has opted for watercolours.

Each of the 134 paintings on display makes you feel you are experiencing the same emotions he may have at the time—be it of exhaustion, a longing for the outdoors, or reflection. The feelings seem to have spilled on to paper and gone on to forge a connection with the viewer.

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You wonder if he recalls the moments that informed each of the works. “When working on canvases, you can put them against walls and easels, spread them out and view them together,” he says. “But these are watercolours on paper and they can’t stand on their own. So, to see the framed works together before the show was special to me. I remember the specific days on which each work was made.”

Atul Dodiya, Untitled, 2020-2021, watercolour on paper, Courtesy: the artist
Atul Dodiya, Untitled, 2020-2021, watercolour on paper, Courtesy: the artist

For Dodiya, what remains satisfying is the ability to express emotions through his paintings. However, the isolation of the past two years did have a huge impact on how he perceived the world. During the first nationwide lockdown, in particular, the neighbourhood suddenly went quiet, with no traffic or noise. “One could hear the chirping of the birds; nature was as it was intended to be,” he says. “One felt a contrast of sorts, on one side was human pain and on the other side was nature’s indifference to that suffering.”

It made him recall a comment made by film-maker Satyajit Ray when he was criticised for his depiction of the man-made famine in Bengal in Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder)— he had shown greenery, butterflies and birds alongside skeletal human figures. “In the interview, he had mentioned how he wanted to show nature’s indifference to human suffering,” says Dodiya. “And that is what I observed during the pandemic as well.”

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He let his subconscious guide him. He found himself surprised by the way the solitary figure in the wilderness and the forest emerged in the watercolours. “I am a figurative painter, so it is only natural that the human figure is present in my works. But where did this single mystic figure come from? Where did these forms from nature emerge from? The spaces in these paintings are not specific to my travels,” reflects Dodiya. Deep within, perhaps, thoughts, emotions and memories were waiting to spill on to paper.

Watercolours hold a special charm for Dodiya. Unlike oils, where the colours become stiff after they are applied, watercolours don’t obey a painter’s will. In some sense, then, the formation of hills, mountains, trees, oceans and mounds was suggested by the medium itself. “I was like a log in the river, floating with the medium. I was doing this for myself, without the intention of exhibiting or without any assessment. I let the works come to me naturally, and hence perhaps there is a purity there,” notes the artist.

While Dodiya experienced great joy—a liberation of sorts—in being able to create these watercolours, the works themselves are not effusive. Rather, they are sober, with an underlying melancholy. The suffering that Dodiya observed and heard of, around the world, has impacted the tone of the paintings. “This was the only way I could understand myself, my work and this time that we were placed in,” he adds.

Atul Dodiya: Walking With The Waves can be viewed at the KNMA, Saket, till 30 June.

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