Atul Dodiya. Lamentation. Oil, acrylic with marble dust on canvas. 70” x 96”. 1997.
AS: Gandhi was a conceptual artist – the idea of ahimsa, the practice of satyagraha, the experience of the ashram – and a performance artist as well – wearing dhoti, working on the charkha, the Dandi March, the ‘pinch of salt’, among other actions. Apart from being a master communicator he also believed in fearlessly inspiring people to launch into difficult acts of self-interrogation.
AD: He provoked me to search for convincing answers to issues that were both practice-based and socio-emotional. How do I render him? Should I paint him in oil? What should I take from old photographs? I sought answers.
Here was a man who believed in simplicity, lightness, transparency. Here was a minimalist who had pared down his life to basic needs. The watercolour as a mode therefore suggested itself. I remember working on a series in 1998 and visiting the Kirti Mandir, his birth place in Porbandar, a number of times. My sister used to live in Porbandar then. The idea for Broken Branches (2002), my first cabinet work, also evolved there.
The vitrine and the cabinet are part of most middle-class houses. Gulammohammed Sheikh and Jyotindra Jain had curated a show New Indian Art: Home, Street, Bazaar, Shrine, Museum in 2002 for Manchester Art Gallery and it provided me an occasion to think about our history and politics, memories and obsessions. What should I put inside the vitrines? I asked myself as I looked at the showcases. In a post-Godhra world, I could only think of bones, prosthetic limbs, among other tainted memorabilia.
AS: Your watercolours capture the texture of a time that is lost, that belongs to a collective national memory. Many of the people you depict don’t continue as mere characters stranded in the grand narrative of the past. History itself starts getting humanized as it is fleshed out in a series of vignettes.
AD: I have hoped to capture moments of change that have affected the lives of Indians. I am present in them as well. Here are Sardar and Maulana sitting and talking – you can see the concern for a new India in their expressions; here is Gandhi, this thin, dark man with a bony structure, meeting people, recording his life in a diary and editorials, travelling to meet other leaders. There is Gandhi in sepia and in grainy photographs but there is also Gandhi in the watercolours and on the painted shutters I make. His responses to contemporary events changes our way of looking at the present.
I remember reading about Gandhi Viruddh Gandhi, a play based on Dinkar Joshi’s book that questions his status as a father by throwing light on the troubled relationship with his son Harilal. Gandhi had many complex shades to his personality. I responded to this disturbing experience by delving into another book – Labhshanker Thaker’s Bako Chhe. Kalpo (Bako Exists. Imagine) where there is an imagined conversation between little Bako and Gandhi on a range of subjects. A series of ‘blackboard’ paintings came out in 2011 as a result of this exploration – clear-cut answers and straightforward discussion met a world of fantasy and Gandhi came across as a figure you could relate to at many levels.
Atul Dodiya. Erase it. Oil, acrylic, watercolour, oil bar and marble dust on canvas. 60” x 90”. 2011.
AS: We recognize the need to question processes of deification that transform leaders into gods. However, the fears of de-pedestalising Gandhi have grown over the years. How do you relate to this challenge as an image-maker?
AD: Look at Nehru’s images. He comes across as benevolent but formal. Someone like Jinnah comes across as formal and stern. Look at Gandhi. He is informal, avuncular, very approachable. I want to explore the capacity he has of making a connection with anyone and everyone.
I am fascinated with the first two decades of the last century. Gandhi came back to India in 1915 after a long stay in South Africa, met Gopal Krishna Gokhale, took over as the leader of the Congress and transformed the struggle for independence. What was happening at that time in the world of art? Matisse and Picasso, Picabia and Duchamp revolutionized our ways of looking at form and making art. How do I relate these worlds to each other? How do they sit side by side? I am interested in both the histories – the freedom struggle of the nation and the struggle for creative freedom. This is what I want to investigate.
Digital cameras have made it really easy to take as many photographs as we want. Any museum I visit I try to capture the works on display. What moves me however are the little ironies involved in the act of making images. I am painting Gandhi, for example, by looking at his photograph while I am capturing an artist, say Picasso, by photographing his painting. Reversing the role of the medium – painted photographs and photographed paintings – gives you clues to understand the changing capacities of images.
AS: Your practice seems to be moving towards an overwhelming possibility – that of making a film. You have drawn tellingly from Indian and international cinema as much as you have culled from art history. What’s more, your latest show is premised on capturing seven minutes of a scene from Hitchcock’s Blackmail. And The Fragrance of a Paper Rose had a series of painted stills from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.
AD: A film is dependent on so many people who need to be managed carefully; painting is all about the artist. He is not at the mercy of other technicians; he only needs to organize himself. About making a film – who knows what will happen tomorrow?
One thing I have been doing regularly over the last six to seven years is that I have been writing on a variety of subjects in Gujarati. As you know, poetry has been a terrific source of inspiration over the years – from Rilke to Kolatkar. When I failed twice in my 11th standard SSC exams, my father got me a First Class train pass from Ghatkopar to VT and back. This changed my life completely. The Jehangir Art Gallery for its art and Doordarshan for its films (Marathi and other regional cinema along with the best of European cinema on Saturdays and Hindi films on Sundays) became great windows to the world outside. I remember going to the first screening organized by a newly formed film society Screen Unit in Mulund where I saw Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, Tyeb Mehta’s Koodal and Mani Kaul’s The Nomad Puppeteer. In Dadar, there was Chhabildas – I would never miss any of the Awishkar plays. Films, theatre and literature helped me become a better artist.
Atul Dodiya. Chancellor Gandhi. Watercolour on paper. 45” x 70”. 1998. Photograph by Prakash Rao.
Of late, I have become very attentive to the act of watching a film. You are interrupted again and again when you watch at home. It’s interesting, however, to keep track of these ‘breaks’. Suppose I am watching The Godfather on a screen and am around 15 minutes and 17 seconds into the film when the cook walks in. I pause the film. I resume watching it in a few minutes and as I spend five minutes with the narrative, Sudhir calls. I pause the film again. At some point, I may make a work with these paused images juxtaposed against text relaying the reason behind the pauses.
Atul Dodiya. Blackmail – 19. Oil on canvas. 18” x 24”. 2017 – 18.
All these ruptures in my act of looking are also part of the experience of viewing. The world with its people, voices and incidents, is entering the film in different ways. I am fascinated by this drama, by this dynamic landscape. I hope to capture this experience in my work. Blackmail involves an artist – I am curious about his impulses and choices and about the seven minutes in his studio that eventually get him killed. My attempt has not only been to explore through art a response to cinema by looking at the changing measures of time and space but also to re-create and transport the atmosphere of the original.
Atul Dodiya. Photograph by Abhay Sardesai.