The Mash-up Artist

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Atul Dodiya’s work is replete with influences and references. But it also raises critical questions about how we see art
Atul Dodiya’s factory-sized studio in Ghatkopar, a fast developing eastern suburb in Mumbai, is as elegant and meticulously organised as his paintings. Its sheer spaciousness, splendid furnishings and the presence of studio assistants and helpers suggests the new affluence that typifies contemporary Indian art. Perched on a large bookshelf are framed images of Dodiya’s heroes—Marcel Duchamp, Picasso and Satyajit Ray—to both inspire and remind him of his artistic ancestors.

A Dodiya painting is an invitation to a game of ‘spot the references’. The art world’s answer to Quentin Tarantino, he digs into the history of paintings, cinema and commercial culture to create his own version of hybrid art. His other abiding influence is Mahatma Gandhi.

Dodiya’s new show, curated by Ranjit Hoskote and open at Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) till the end of December, is called Experiments with Truth. Gandhi serves as Dodiya’s spiritual guide and dominant motif. Dodiya paints him often—with both reverence and irreverence. But while his works give us a world where humour travels without ticket, the artist himself is surprisingly serious and reserved. Edited excerpts:

Q What’s a good day of work like?

A I am quite disciplined. I work from 10.30 am till about 7.30-8 pm. Since I work on two-three projects simultaneously, I get to switch between mediums. Suppose the oil paint is drying, then during that period I may attempt drawing, watercolour or washes.

Q Do you sketch before proceeding to oil?

A No, I don’t have that method. I used to sketch earlier and still do, but because I have such diverse imagery—references from pop culture, sometimes photographs, advertising or an existing artwork by someone else—there is no need to sketch. A photograph is enough. I may at times pin a colour Xerox or reproduction on my canvas to see how it looks. Sometimes, I project the image I intend to paint [via] a projector to get an idea. I know a lot of artists who carry sketchbooks while travelling and do sketching in public. I don’t do that. Instead, I take photographs. Abroad, I prefer doing small works on paper, with just a few tubes of watercolour and brushes. If it’s a big painting or installation, I prefer working here in my studio. It’s more comfortable.

Q Does a painting have any relationship with where it is painted?

A I think so. Your surroundings influence you in a way you don’t even realise. For some painters, the location may not matter. MF Husain painted everywhere and he painted very well. He was painting Indian themes even abroad. In my case, I was born and brought up in Ghatkopar and have lived here all my life—except when I have been abroad on residency programmes. Every morning when I leave home—a 15 minute drive from here—I pass through Pant Nagar and Nityanand Nagar, areas I am acquainted with. Pant Nagar has a line of small middle-class colonies. On the other hand, Nityanand Nagar is where you see old shops and people hanging around the streets. You see metal shutters of shops being shut and opened. I have incorporated these shutters into my work.

We used to stay in a chawl at Cama Lane near Ghatkopar station; some 15 families, about eight Gujarati and seven Maharashtrian, living together in a tenement setting. These neighbours were like our relatives. The Gujaratis were from Kathiawar in Saurashtra. We spoke Kathiawari Gujarati the way someone from Rajkot or Porbandar would speak. Because of us, the Marathi families picked up our language, and because of them, we started speaking fluent Marathi. I speak the kind of Marathi a Brahmin from Pune speaks. We used to go to classical music programmes by Kumar Gandharva, Bhimsen Joshi, Kishori Amonkar and Prabha Atre. Our discussions were incomplete without [mentions of] Marathi poets and writers like Vinda Karandikar and Arati Prabhu. Much later, I came across the writings of Arun Kolatkar, Dilip Chitre and Raghu Dandvate. So when you go to your studio and shut yourself up, all these influences rush back.

Then the other thing is a sense of comfort that I have here—to know that you belong here. Things are settled. But at the same time, despite all these familiar faces and places and all these people you meet on the street, there is another world which is only mine. It’s an unknown world where I explore and find things. When I face my canvas, this entire world shuts out [everything else]. Nobody is allowed into this private world.

Q You once painted Aamir Khan watching a cricket match behind a wall, which any cricket fan would recognise as a reference to Rahul Dravid. Do you think people respond differently if it’s Aamir Khan on the canvas?

A Definitely. If you have Aamir Khan, Hrithik Roshan or Sridevi on your canvas, you know that people will recognise them and there will be a different kind of response. Popular cinema can provide playfulness, humour and colour. It’s fun to dabble with well-known personalities. But it’s not restricted to films alone.

Many things influence me. My knowledge and love of art history is also a part of me. So it enters my work. I cannot stop it. In fact, I allow it to happen. Duchamp, a French artist who lived continents away, bothers me here in Ghatkopar every day. What to do? So [I] incorporate him in [my] work and life. Then, Tyeb Mehta bothers me. What to do? So when I am painting an image of Goddess Kali with just her legs showing and the corpse of Lord Shiva underneath, I am suddenly reminded of Tyeb Mehta’s Kali. So I include that. That’s how I develop my concepts.

Q There is much humour and satire in your work...

A Well, things in life, the pain attached to life, life in general can be so depressing. How do you survive? You have comfort, luxury, you have everything but how can life progress? In times like these, you are saved by humour. Anybody with a sense of humour will manage. If I am able to see life in a funny manner then I would think I have lived to some extent. But to translate that humour on canvas is often not that easy. I once wrote an SMS joke on my canvas. You laugh when you read an SMS joke and the very next moment you forget it. A painting shouldn’t be like that. A painting can be funny but it can’t be a silly joke in itself. You can include a joke, but it should also be serious.

Q The titles of your paintings are often ironical. How do you decide on a title?

A Being a figurative painter and having recognisable iconography in my work, a title is a must. In my career, probably only one or two works are untitled. Otherwise, all works are titled. The title sometimes emerges half way through, sometimes in the end. If it’s my father sitting on a sofa, it’s called Father. I did a self-portrait which was called Bombay Buccaneer. The self-portrait was inspired by the Hindi film Baazigar but the title was taken from one of Satyajit Ray’s Feluda stories set in Kemps Corner in Mumbai. In Baroda, I was struck by a garage called Die Hard Auto Batteries. I wondered how it would look if I use it as a title for a painting with a portrait of [the late artist] Bhupen Khakhar. And it came out well. I like doing this, playing with the viewer and the work of art.

A You know Bose Krishnamachari? He sent me a catalogue where he had painted portraits of artists as homage. It had Husain, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee, me, my wife [Anju Dodiya, also an artist]—every important artist. With a marker, I painted Hitler-cut moustaches on somebody and dark glasses and bindis on somebody else. (Laughs) Even Husain, Tyeb and all were not spared. The idea was to do [what] kids do in school: put a moustache on somebody’s photo to make fun of them. Now, I had gone to China with a gallerist who was wearing an Anarkali dress. There, she posed with a camel. This gallerist one day invited me to show these moustache paintings at an exhibition in Delhi. The theme was wit and humour in Indian art. I thought it would be great if I can play on this. So I titled the work Anarkali and the 72 Idiots.

Q We know you admire David Hockney and Bhupen Khakhar for their whimsical wit. Which are the other artists who had a sense of humour?

A Picasso. He turned beautiful women into ugly animals. He painted their hands like paws, their faces like a bull. Duchamp is another artist who’s witty. He put a bicycle wheel on a stool and called it a work of art and installed urinals in a museum as sculpture. He drew a moustache on a Mona Lisa reproduction. At the same time, he was raising a lot of important questions about formal beauty, about the history of art and how we see art. That’s what I am also doing, I think.

Q Coming from a Gujarati medium school, did you at any point feel self-conscious among the snobbish art crowd of which you are now a part? I ask this because you couldn’t speak English when you started out. MF Husain, if I am not wrong, said somewhere that he learnt English to ‘fit in’.

A Actually, I wasn’t surrounded by English speakers at all while growing up. When I went to art school I realised all the books in the library were in English. I was only able to read the titles and [look at the] pictures. Not knowing English, something was definitely lacking. At the same time I noticed that when one went to exhibitions or galleries people generally spoke English. Then again you feel conscious, a little shy, even inferior. In fact, I was quite knowledgeable about many things, but because of not knowing English, I appeared deprived. So I started talking in English with my friends to improve my speech.

Q I am reminded of this particular work of yours, done in the 1980s, in which two very learned gentlemen—are they art critics?—are discussing a sculpture on display while the sculpture itself is thoroughly amused to be the subject of their conversation. What is going on, you think?

A Whatever they are discussing, I allow [it]. You can read anything into the painting, see anything you like. It’s your problem—or your joy (smiles). If I happen to be at the gallery and somebody asks about the concept or theme, I usually explain.

Q Would you agree that most people find art writing both incomprehensible and intimidating?

A That purely depends on who is writing, who the reader is and what kind of art it is. My art is not that simple. It needs explaining in a certain way and context. Hence, it requires a certain kind of writing. When Gulzar writes for Bollywood, he makes it simple but when he writes for himself, as a poet, it must be pure poetry. He knows Bollywood is for mass consumption. Art writing cannot be like that. It’s very different. It’s an expert’s opinion. That’s why art critics are important. They interpret art. As I said, it’s not easy. If you have to describe a [Mark] Rothko painting, what will you write? Imagine a painting with just the colour red on it. When you see it, you have a certain experience. How do you translate that experience into a language? Academicians have a different approach. I may not always be interested in what they are saying. If you are going to go into semiotics, the signs of language and all that, then even I don’t have the comprehension ability for that. So I ignore it.

Q I think the general public is scared to approach art. People see a museum as something sacred, something that is not for them. It reminds them of a church or library—basically, a place of no fun.

A Well, that’s your opinion.

Q Actually, that’s John Berger’s opinion, not mine. Anyway, how can art get off its high horse? Should more exhibitions be held in studios, like Anish Kapoor’s 2010 show at Mumbai’s Mehboob studio? Is a change in scene the answer? Can public art be used to engage more people?

A I don’t agree with that. I feel art appreciation should start from school. Contemporary art should be included in the school syllabus. School children should be taken to galleries on trips. Everybody doesn’t necessarily have to become a painter or a collector, but looking at visuals gives us joy and knowledge. When I go to museums abroad I notice that kids enjoy that experience the most, with the help of a guide who explains complex paintings, whether it’s Mona Lisa, Picasso or [Jackson] Pollock. There, education is such that it becomes a part of their life to go to museums. Here, we don’t have many museums. So there is no museum culture.

As far as understanding art is concerned, when I show my paintings to people who work in my studio or [my] neighbours, they give me wonderful reactions. Some of them are not even educated but they are not afraid to approach art. When my mother sees a painting, she may not know who Duchamp is or the other Western art references, but she understands the Indian mythology and appreciates it in her own way. I know some very rich people who are educated, who know about Picasso and who acquire paintings and yet, are apologetic about not understanding art.

Q Could you talk a little about your paintings on Gandhi?

A When India was celebrating its 50th Independence [day] in 1997, that was the first time I attempted a series of paintings on Gandhi. I had painted him earlier but I just felt: these are the times when we most need him to guide us. His philosophy of non-violence and love for humanity is exactly what we need today. It is strange that Gandhi is everywhere, on the currency, on stamps, in government offices, every second street is MG Road, and yet, he is not there, in some sense. He has become just a picture hanging [in] government offices. Nobody is following his ideology. That’s why I paint him.

Q As a liberal Gujarati and Gandhian, does the rise of Narendra Modi disturb you?

A I am not happy about right-wing politics in this country. What happened in Gujarat in 2002 was definitely politically motivated and shameful. That hurts a lot. The fact that so many people were killed hurts a lot. You can never pit development of infrastructure against humanity and human life.