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Atul Dodiya: A painter who loves to talk

An exciting solo, a new group exhibition and a film on his practice reveal Atul Dodiya as a master storyteller

Atul Dodiya at his new exhibition in Delhi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Atul Dodiya at his new exhibition in Delhi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

A brilliant conversationalist, an assembler of memories, an artist unfettered by rules—a lot of things have been said about Atul Dodiya. But the one thing that is spoken of the most is his skill as a storyteller. Gallerist Arun Vadehra, who would often bump into Dodiya at Tyeb Mehta or Akbar Padamsee’s homes in Mumbai in the 1990s, has always been impressed by this talent. “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," he wrote, as a foreword, in the 2014 monograph, Atul Dodiya, edited by Ranjit Hoskote.

Intertwining his own ideas with “borrowed" references from the works of masters such as Francis Picabia or Bhupen Khakhar, Dodiya’s narratives are laced with humour and wit. In his latest show, Girlfriends: French, German, Italian, Egyptian, Santiniketan, Ghatkopar… at the Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi, Dodiya once again creates a unique visual language by revisiting portraits of women by master painters through history.

The six series draw on Picabia’s portraits from the Dada period to the mid-1950s, Albrecht Dürer’s early 16th century drawings, representation of women from Piero della Francesca’s Arezzo frescoes of The Legend Of The True Cross, Rabindranath Tagore’s 1930s watercolour paintings, Fayum mummy portraits from Egypt, and found drawings by an unknown artist from Ghatkopar in Mumbai, where Dodiya’s studio is located. “There is an affinity that I feel for these works," he says. “I thought it would be interesting, in fact quite hilarious, to call (the women portrayed in these images) girlfriends," he laughs.

“He has broken away from his usual narrative style and created works that revisit these portraits by great masters, but in his unique style and using different modes of transformation," says Parul Vadehra, director of the Vadehra Art Gallery. The show also brings Dodiya back to the form of portraiture.

Dodiya’s work has taken different directions over the years—from oil paintings to paintings on laminates and metal-roller shutters to large watercolours, and from cabinet installations and to text-based works. This stems from his resistance to becoming comfortable with a particular style or treatment. “There are ample moments when one could be satisfied and keep churning out the same kind of stuff. You can get recognition by the accepted style. But as soon as I feel comfortable with something, I get very uncomfortable," he says.

No conversation with Dodiya is complete without the names of Rembrandt and Picasso cropping up. In Atul (2016), a film by Kamal Swaroop that was shown at the India Art Fair (2-5 February) in Delhi, he says, “When I see works by artists like Picasso, it feels that they were made for me."

It brings him joy when his painting has a bit of Picasso or Dürer in it. “It’s like a river. Can you say that this water is from the present time and the one in the hills is ancient? It’s all one," says Dodiya. “I may not respond to a lot of contemporary art but I may feel that Piero della Francesca is my contemporary. It’s all a way of seeing."

A work from the ‘Ghatkopar Girlfriend’ series.

Shireen Gandhy of Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, which has been showing Dodiya’s work for 27 years, recalls a time, long ago, when she wasn’t familiar with Picabia’s work. “Atul would tell me stories, not just about his work but about the artist himself. I always say that he has been my art history teacher," she says.

An encounter with the personal and the intimate also runs through his works. For instance, in the Egyptian Girlfriend series, he has transposed the face of his wife Anju—a contemporary artist herself—creating a conversation between female subjects across time. “Once, Anju told me that if you ever paint me, do it in the Fayum style," he recalls. He also drew inspiration from her oeuvre, which is about the image of the self. “To her, it’s not self-portraiture, but a fiction of the self," he says.

The many facets of Dodiya’s practice can’t be confined to a single exhibition. Stretched Terrains, an ongoing exhibition at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi, places Dodiya with artists like Mithu Sen and Navjot Altaf at an interesting period in history—between the 1970s and 1990s—which saw phenomenal changes in Indian society, culture, politics and economy. “Artists like Atul were being influenced by the practices of the past but were also breaking free from it, thereby creating a new language," says Roobina Karode, curator of the exhibition.

A piece from the ‘Egyptian Girlfriend’ series with his wife Anju’s face.

Dodiya reminisces about the years from 1980-82, when he was studying at the Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai. He considers himself lucky that artists like Prabhakar Barve, Tyeb Mehta, Gieve Patel, Sudhir Patwardhan and Akbar Padamsee always kept their doors open for him. “What I miss today is the quiet pace that allowed artists like S.H. Raza to find themselves," he says.

It is to snatch some quietude that he is heading to Nantes in France for three months, starting April. “The Nantes Institute for Advanced Study has an S.H. Raza chair, which has been awarded to me. This period will give me time to think. I have been writing small pieces in Gujarati. I will be continuing that as well as making some small-scale works," he says. He is also keen to create abstract work. “I am a painter who loves to talk," he laughs. “There’s always a narrative. That’s why I am a figurative painter. If I take away the figuration, what will remain? If the narrative remains, then what kind will it be? I will use this time to answer these questions," he says.

Girlfriends... will be shown till 4 March, 11am-7pm (Sundays closed), at the Vadehra Art Gallery, D-53, Defence Colony, Delhi.

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