Artist Atul Dodiya’s encounters with truth, Gandhi in art



Madhusree Chatterjee 
New Delhi

Leading contemporary artist Atul Dodiya’s art is often described as the visual interpretation of his poetry that colours his thougtscape as an expressionist — of a contemporary genre in whom one finds the echo of 21st century avant garde masters like Marcel DuChamp and  Andy Warhol. An exhibition covering 30 years of Dodiya’s artistic career, “Experiments for Truth: Atul Dodiya”, curated by Ranjit Hoskote at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) has chronicled the artist’s journey as a student painter from his days as at the J.J. School of Art in Mumbai and the Ecole Des Beaux Arts till this day — from a conventional painter to a master of the new wave who uses popular imagery to connect to the masses in a combination of pop, kitsch and politically loaded art. Curator Ranjit Hoskote has divided the exhibition into distinct time zones to bring to light the artist’s evolution over the decades.

The segments are visually punctuated by Dodiya’s classical inspirations – suites of art works by masters like Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, Benodebihari Mukherjee, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee, Bhupen Khakar, Arpita Singh, Ram Kumar, M.F. Husain and other masters — sourced from NGMA’s permanent collections and archives to context the genealogy of Dodiya’s visuals. The exhibition essentially explores Dodiya’s tryst with the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi’s “peace and non-violence” around the the father of the nation’s auto-biographical account, “The Story of My Experiments with Truth”. 


As a student. Dodiya painted his heroes — the likes of Georges Seurat, Paul Klee, Paul Cezanne and Swami Sadanand— in visage profiles using conventional oil pigments as his medium. The portraits are “meticulous” and captures the emotions behind the faces —mind over flesh. 

The early portraits of the 1980s—- (as the artist in a conversation claimed that he painted portraits of superstar Rajesh Khanna to impress his sister’s friends during his “pre JJ Days”)  — gave away to a more layered language a decade later. By then, Dodiya had met heavyweights like Tyeb Mehta to “appreciate the complexities of concepts and transformations of narratives”, as the artist admitted in an exchange with fans at NGMA in December 2013. 

The canvases of the late 1990s  (like “Dadagiri”) creates a fantasy figure of the self – transcending the confines of the mundane to assert linguistic and physical identity. This is also the period, when Dodiya began to investigate the relevance of Gujarat’s tallest hero Mahatma Gandhi as an icon.

“Gujarati” as a language — the artist suggests— has often been relegated to the linguistic fringe as a hate tongue – especially post  -2002.when a communal carnage rocked the state. The artist’s attempt to stamp his linguistic and regional identity permeates through every phase of his work subsequently partly to redeem the reputation of his mother tongue and partly to overcome the burden of contemporary political history. 


Language creeps into Dodiya’s artistic iconography as poetry. A collection of large format graffiti-style works, “Antler’s Anthology”, combines words and art to look into the threads of existence — that is made of man in his natural surroundings. The imagery is stylised like illustrated poetry. Translated by curator Hoskote — a poet of repute —  from Gujarati and Marathi, the poems are as subliminal as the quaint animals on the canvas, “wilting under life’s multitudes of angst”. 

A translation reads thus…

“Limping… Always Limping 

Who’s that, who always haunts The shore of my words 

Who doesn’t let me rest in my deepest sleep….

What’s this shifting on the green carpet of my dreams, limping, limping…”

“From the very beginning — when I started painting (in Letters From My Father) till date, I have been using texts. In Antler’s Anthology, I have used Gujarati poetry. I often go to poetry for new ideas — the real challenge is the creativity; the magic of words. I like when the two come together,” Dodiya says. Curator Hoskote in his “explanatory note” says “Dodiya, as very few of his viewers know, used to write poetry as a student. As a friend of poets and devoted reader of poetry in several Indian languages or in translations, he has worked with the interplay of texts and image”. The curator says Dodiya has also sought to reclaim language from the “tentacles of rabble rousers and propagandists”. The artist appears to be “profoundly saddened” by the plight of his mother tongue. The Antler’s Anthology tries to assure his viewers that Gujarati was not confined to the “production of hate speech”. 


Gujarat draws Dodiya to connect to Gandhi through his art. “I read about Gandhi first. To me, he was a symbol of peace and non-violence. He was so important – in the times we are living in. There is so much hatred and violence around,” Dodiya says, explaining his “fetish” for Bapu in his art. 

The Gandhi segments stand out for two reasons — documentary evidence of some of India’s most enduring moments in the history of Independence and a suite of creative dialogues he holds with Gandhi in the form of “un-rhymed poetry” questioning the father of the nation about his relevance today. Dodiya uses devices such as lampooning, humour and punning to deconstruct and reinterpret “Gandhism”.The artist’s Gandhidiri”  sates his philosophy of curiosity – binding the temporal, literal and metaphysical to create a new iconoclast, bereft of ego and at times, honour. Bapu often floats around the marble dust inscriptions like an apparition; skeletal and emaciated in a mass of skin and bones.  

The curator points out that Dodiya rejects monopolistic interpretations of myths  while claiming the artist’s right to keep open a variety of cultural transmissions – from past to present. “Dodiya refuses to be  confined in a box neatly labelled as a national identity.” The post-colonial embracing of the “self”, a tilt to the “anti-art” impulses of Duchamp and the stylised iconography of Raja Ravi Varma find resonance in his work. 

Nostalgia is the palpable emotion in Dodiya’s “experiments with Gandhi” — and as well as in his signature installations of Cabinets — a carryover of his affair with the Mahatma.

Wooden cabinets with “pop items, souvenirs, paintings, photographs, found objects and poetry (by the likes of Jasper Johns) recreate “longing for an era lost”. Inspired by the 17th-19th century German Cabinets of Curiosities  – the Wunderkarmmer— art historians say Dodiya chanced upon one such Cabinet in Gandhi’s ancestral home in Porbandar. It  might have been the source of the Cabinet showcases  – compositions of abstract expressions. 

Gandhi continues in the artist’s 2013 suite of work- a series of diptychs, “Painted Photographs/Paintings Photographed” – paintings in recollections from the artist’s “journeys around the global art addresses” and corresponding photographs from the life of Mahatma Gandhi. 

“This new work which brings together two distinct oeuvres of – his engagement with Euro-American art and the meditation on the Mahatma – offers a striking parallel history of the development of the Gandhian movement and the artistic avant garde in Europe and America since the beginning of the 20th century,” Hoskote says. 


The exhibition also records  Dodiya’s reactions to the immediate socio-political churning like 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks and popular consumerist cultures of the city – he inhabits in a series of multi-media mechanical shop-shutter installations. This is  a body of work for which Dodiya shot to fame in the decade of 2000.

The shutters represent the shopfronts in the bazaars of Mumbai- the new evolving populist culture of the country’s financial heart with its multi-billion dollar movie industry. Some of the shutters are operated by mechanical pulleys to lift open – revealing the “life Inside”— movies and the masses.. 

Terror, the fear that stalks Mumbai for the last five years – comes alive on his memory shutters. The artist says the “shutters” allow him to probe the relationship between theatre, life and entertainment that mirror contemporary realities. 

Curator Ranjit Hoskote says the exhibition at one level plays with the chronological narrative of Dodioya’s works and on the othe level, the thematic leaps. “Gandhi forms a continuous link referentially through which Dodiya builds an ancestry in art,” Hoskote says. 


(The exhibition which opened Nov 15 closes Dec 29. It is the one in the series of NGMA’s retrospectives of leading contemporary artists of India)  


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