In the Beginning Is Me

Rohit Chawla
Rosalyn D’Mello is an art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover
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Anju Dodiya creates multiple narratives of the self

ANJU DODIYA cited apprehension as the premise for politely declining my attempt at a studio visit last October. ‘I am working towards my show in Delhi in February,’ she wrote in an email. ‘I tend to shut myself up when deadlines approach and anxiety soars!’ She did express hope, though, that we could get together some other time. I took her up on her word mid-December, and was lucky to find her more amenable to my possibly invasive presence. She had work to show me. We decided to meet the day after Christmas. I went by with homemade sweets and felt oddly thrilled by the close proximity of her Ghatkopar East-based studio to my home in Kurla. I loved the idea that in this very middle-class Gujarati locale lived two superstar artists, Anju and her husband Atul, their studios one atop the other. When I arrived, she apologised once again for having turned down my last request. “Things are running slow for me. I’m a little nervous, so I’m just avoiding all interaction,” she’d said.

She was obviously prepared. She’d laid out all the work she had been making over the last few months against the walls of her studio. “Atul calls this the panic room,” she says as she serves me tea and lays out the Christmas treats. “It’s totally real,” she continues. “I’ve been at it now for 25 to 30 years, and it’s frightening every time. One has ideas, but there’s always a doubt.” I recount to her a recent conversation I’d had with the artist Manisha Parekh, about the anxiety of not creating. “If you’re a creative person, you wake up with self-doubt every morning,” I say, not as a compensatory gesture but as something I, too, experience as a writer. “I know people who don’t have that,” she retorts. “But it’s also about degrees. Mine starts always as paralysing, and then I have to keep to myself,” she adds, offering a rationale for her self-imposed solitude. “Do you find the creative process delightful?” I ask, positive she will answer in the affirmative. “I always find the delight in retrospect. When I’m going through it, there’s too much self-questioning, every decision is weighted. Once everything is over and when I look back I hope it happens again, but while I’m in motion, no, it’s very painful.”

Unsurprisingly, the agony and ecstasy of the creative process is the subject of her 17th solo exhibition which, at the time of our meeting, she was still resolving, but, on February 8th, she unveiled at the Bikaner House in Delhi. “The title for the show is The Air is a Mill of Hooks,” she tells me. “It’s a line from Plath. I enjoy reading her, but I hate the idea that I love her work.” I concur with her ambiguity regarding Plath’s work, and we talk about the institutionalised patriarchal dismissal of her writing. “I hate the fact that throughout my adolescence, you were always meant to feel that if you liked Plath, you were stuck in a dark room. There was something very uncool about liking Plath.” What was also still considered uncool, Dodiya feels, was to be anxious. “I mean, it’s so silly, how can you not be anxious?”

It intrigues me that Dodiya derived her title from the first line of Plath’s poem, Mystic ; not only that, but that her paintings, mostly made on unbleached cotton stretched across shaped foam, feature her familiar motif: paper, which sometimes appears as a canvas under attack, or as the pages of a book being read by a female protagonist, or as something not quite edible nonetheless being desperately swallowed. It reminds me of the relation between paper and mysticism as echoed by the poet Anne Carson in an interview with The Paris Review, where she recounts her memory of receiving a book called The Lives of the Saints as a young girl. As she flicked through the pages, her instinctive response was to tear them off, crumple, or fragment the paper and eat all of it. “I still remember how luscious those pages were,” Carson says in the interview. “I don’t know if it was some kind of specially printed book or I just hadn’t seen many books with a lot of colour in them, but each saint had a crown or garland on the head and some kind of complicated cloak thing, all different colours, and they looked like jujubes. I just wanted to stuff them in my mouth.” Later, she is asked about her own observation about attention being a form of prayer, and how, from paying attention to who one is, one can then step beyond the border of oneself and move from there to the creation of a work of art. Carson links this to her appreciation of the artist John Cage, and his own attempts to move to a place of complete stillness and attention within himself. She quotes him saying ‘I want to get every Me out of the way in order to start doing whatever the work will be.’ Carson thinks of it as an ongoing struggle: to get every Me out of the way. Would she like to eliminate the Me? Her interviewer asks. “Yes. I would,” she answers.

More intriguing, I find it then, that even though Dodiya’s paintings fit quite resolutely within the genre of self-portraiture, she considers them to be fictional, a version of her many ‘Me’s’.

I take a lot from Japanese paintings; the Samurais, the gestures, the bodies. It could start with something and move to something else. The sketchbook is constantly being updated

“How do you perceive your own practice?” I ask her. “My work is not autobiographical, although it starts with the self. The building block is the imagination. Even a personal experience goes around and comes back in a different form,” she replies. “They are restructured reality. It’s play. I’m playing and I’m trying to mould something that comes partly from reality, and partly from my imagination. I want to throw off the gender part also.” What does that mean? “I’m a woman artist, but these brackets don’t work, they are created where they shouldn’t be. It’s a big personal world. These brackets narrow it down. It’s akin to the domestication of things,” she proffers as an explanation, alerting one to how, historically speaking, many mediums and materials in art came to have specific gender connotations. Like embroidery. “I know my stitches,” she tells me. “It comes out of passion, knowledge and love, not from the fact of being a woman. I was observant when my mom used to stitch. I like the feel of a needle, it’s not because I was training to be a housewife.” Or watercolours. “I’ve been to parties where women ask me what I do. I say that I work with watercolours and create a fictional self-image. And watercolours is treated with a, ‘Oh, even I do watercolours!’ It’s a bloody hard medium, and it’s just taken for granted like it’s some sidey activity happening while her husband’s a star!”

AT BIKANER HOUSE I discover how Dodiya creates two parallel narratives of self. On the one hand there is the fictional world framed on the walls, her paintings on foam whose lead protagonist is her painted avatar; on the other, there is her 2015 series, titled Song of the Singular Beast, 11 unique sets of framed archival digital prints on hahnemühle bamboo paper, with painted fabric mounts, which she had been apprehensive about showing until now. Several of these 11 diptychs, all displayed on slanted, long tables across the exhibition, feature self-portrait photographs of Dodiya herself, sometimes with a work of art. Both these parallel narratives are invested in the self gazing at the self. At the same time, there is a theatrical depiction of the interior complexity of one’s private imagination that is riddled by demons of one’s own making, by impulses that aren’t entirely rational, and by the drive towards a better awareness of one’s personal mythology. The show is not directly an ode to frustration as much as an obsession with ‘questions without answer’, the second line of Plath’s Mystic, and the visual equivalents of the mill of hooks. “I think it’s my favourite theme, the idea of private struggle. As a painter, I’m interested in the emotional theatre,” Dodiya says.

I ask her how she feels she has articulated the urgency of making art. She says, “It’s a visual art, so it’s about form, about line, about colour. The paleness of it, the sharpness, the blur. It’s not just my subject matter. It’s the grit of the image. I guess all that works together. It’s like a novel, in a sense; there is a narrative that’s not spelt out. I’d like to retain the mystery. At the same time, I have to be careful to retain the balance, otherwise, with these drawings, it would have been too much. Like how it’s in a film, an actress can neither overact nor underact.”

The restraint Dodiya speaks of is primarily technical, a self-imposed medium-driven effect, the result of her experimentation with fabric stretched upon foam, which begun back in 2005-2006, when she was commissioned by Rajeev Sethi to create a site-specific work for the Grand Hyatt, Mumbai, on the marriage of Shiva and Parvati. “Paper seemed like a bad idea, and I was interested in exploring embroidery and fabric. What if I stretched the fabric on a bed or a mattress? It was a marriage, so it seemed appropriate and not a stunt. I kept saying it was like a pregnant painting,” she says. “I chose very textured fabrics and to rub paint on it was very wonderful and very sensual. The themes that I work with—anxiety, insomnia, the inner mind—it has a lot to do with being alone, lying down, the bed. So, from then on, I did many mattresses.” These, eventually, became objects when her subject no longer had anything to do with sleeping. “It froze. Like you’re working with something and suddenly it was yours. It’s like faux furniture. It’s playing with high art, geometry, modernism. But, I am going to attack it with my own approach.” She compares the difference between working on foam and working on paper to that of a full-fledged concert and a morning raga. The parallel narratives—of the serious and playful—at the exhibition bear evidence to this duality.

How does she build her visual vocabulary? I ask her. She responds by speaking of a vast image bank. “It could be a film still, advertisements, a fashion magazine, anything. I’m always looking. I make a sketch in my sketchbook. I take a lot from Japanese paintings, the Samurais, the gestures, the bodies. It could start with something and move to something else. The sketchbook is constantly being updated. There are lots of random pictures. I also collect stuff, paste things, make Xeroxes. I also collect fabrics for my works.” Does she ever use dreams as a source of imagery? I am compelled to ask. “I have a strange pattern. When I’m working well, I don’t dream. If there’s a long period without work, then I dream. Or if my daughter is nearby, then I dream.” When she spoke to a counsellor friend about this bizarre condition, she was told her paintings are her dreams. “They are my creative outlets. So it’s very rare that I dream or wake up remembering a dream.” She also has a strange relationship with art. “It’s very painful. But if I stop, I feel angry and upset. I feel ill and my body tells me that I need to get back to work.”

Does it help to have an artist husband, I wonder, considering they used to share the same studio space earlier? She does seek his opinion, she says, once she finishes her larger works. “We also fight about things. Sometimes he’ll scream when I ask him to change something in his work. It’s only healthy. We’re brutally frank with each other, out of practice and habit. We can’t be polite about these things, you know. Also, there’s a big difference in our temperament. He’s more confident and clear. I’m clear and stubborn, but not confident. I often sink down, feeling unsure.”

Dodiya’s work delights in this uncertainty of being. It is not afraid of announcing her vulnerability, nor is it sceptical of owning her insecurities. The paintings on foam play with familiar shapes, associating them with our memories of specific objects, be it a sail, an ironing board, a circle or a cross, and the subject matter—the poetics of anguish—is instantly relatable. Perhaps it is this transparency that renders her work astute, besides her technical brilliance. Each painting is centered on a woman audaciously making a spectacle of herself— comically, tragically, but always intellectually.