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Atul Dodiya is one of India’s most celebrated artists who, while very much rooted in his hometown of Bombay and Indian tradition, insightfully references and makes accessible international art historical and political imagery in his complex painting and installation practice. Dodiya received his training in Bombay at the Sir JJ School of Art and received acclaim early on in his career from his ability to paint photorealistic scenes of everyday life in a quickly changing India. He continued his studies in Paris at the École des Beaux Arts, where his work took a dramatic shift and he began to blend East and West with a fresh perspective. Soon after his return from Paris, Dodiya was devastated by the terrorist attacks in India, some of the most destructive blasts in India’s history, and the trauma from events such as the 1993 Bombay Bomings continues to manifest in his work two decades later such as in his iconic shutter paintings, which were inspired by views of the city’s previously bustling small businesses locked down in fear of religious persecution and violence. The earliest shutter works were commissioned by the TATE Modern for the Century City exhibition curated by Geeta Kapur. Among the most powerful shutter works were from the ‘Missing Series,’ where a melancholic and monochromatic child stares out from the closed shutter, but colorful and cacophonous and charged political imagery from the world of an adult consume the canvas when the shutter is open, a new take on the idea of a “missing individual” whose innocence and ideology has been lost to propaganda.
Beyond his technical prowess, Dodiya’s genius is found his unique assemblage of ideas. An early self-portrait from 1994, ‘The Bombay Buccaneer,’ Dodiya uses oil, acrylic, and wood on canvas to portray himself as a Bollywood godlike hero in a spoof of the poster for the 1993 thriller ‘Baazigar’ (a film that was considered shocking because it departed from traditional Bollywood formulas). Dodiya’s shining, larger than life presence, however, reflects the larger presence of painters Bhupen Khakar and David Hockney, and the rest of the canvas includes signs of these artists’ works such as a swimmer in a pool and a car being repaired. Dodiya consistently pays homage to artists who have inspired his practice, and refreshingly reinvents their legacy in his work. Beuys, Brancusi, Mondrian, and Picasso all make center stage appearances in Dodiya’s work and interact with Gandhi, Gujarati poets, and Indian street scenes, fueled by Dodiya’s imagination. In an iconic watercolour work from 1998, ‘Bapu at Rene Block Gallery, New York- 1974,’ Dodiya paints a scene where Gandhi enters the Rene Block Gallery to experience Joseph Beuys’ action ‘I like America and America likes me,’ creating an interaction between an artist (Beuys), and a self-proclaimed “artist of non violence” (Gandhi). While this meeting would be physically impossible since Gandhi was assassinated 26 years before this event, Dodiya draws connections between the two “artists,” such as their environmental concerns and their belief in the power of the individual to enact change. Gandhi, or “Bapu” as he was lovingly called, plays a prominent role in many of Dodiya’s works. A 1999 series entitled ‘An Artist of Non-Violence,’ Dodiya attempted to tell the story of Gandhi through a lost biography, painting the most mundane details of the life of the legend, such as receipts and pages from his diary.
Dodiya is deeply inspired by literature and poetry, especially in his mother tongue of Gujarati. In the ‘Antler Anthology’ from 2004, one of the artist’s most celebrated and personal series, which was also exhibited at Documenta 12, the artist pairs Gujarati poems in Gujarati script on twelve large scale works on paper, sharing poems which brought him pleasure and peace over the years. Not all of the images literally correspond to the poems, but in the fourth panel, Dodiya pairs imagery of his wife Anju Dodiya with a poem called ‘Love Song’ by Harish Minashru, which in translation reads “A dewy riddle/glistened/in the corner of your eye.”
While the poetry in the 2004 ‘Antler Anthology’ series is all in Gujarati Script, Dodiya shared English translated poetry with viewers in his heartwarming 2011 exhibition ‘Bako Exists. Imagine.” In this exhibition, Dodiya adapted the major Gujarati contemporary poet Labhshanker Thaker’s story about a young boy named Bako who meets Gandhi (Bapu) in his sleep and begins a fantastical friendship and adventure with the old man. This tale is told over twelve meticulously painted blackboard canvases, mounted as if they were placed in a classroom. In the early 1990s, Dodiya began mixing oil, acrylic, and marble dust to create impasto effects on his canvases, and nearly two decades later in this exhibition, the artist was able to paint chalk dust text using marble dust that was so realistic that the viewer was almost scared to sneeze in fear of disturbing the “chalk.” Dodiya constantly builds upon his past works to surprise viewers with new possibilities as his work evolves.
Ideas and connections between them constantly flow through Dodiya’s mind, and the artist also created cabinets in his 2011 solo exhibition at Chemould Prescott Road which gave viewers an insight into his complex practice. Dodiya used the motif of the cabinet in a powerful 2004 work, ‘Broken Branches’ where Dodiya created colonial style vitrines that served as “emblems of vigil against indifference and amnesia,” encasing signs of pain and suffering such as crutches and prosthetic legs to highlight the high human cost of political history. In the 2011 cabinets, motifs from earlier works and art historical texts and images filled glass vitrines, and created a sense of excitement about what the artist would produce next. In the 2012 Kochi Muziris Biennale, the artist played upon this idea of exploring a creative laboratory by producing a series of photographs of figures who play a part in the development of the Indian art scene. In this ambitious installation, titled ‘Celebration in the Laboratory,’ the artists places himself inside the evolving development of cultural infrastructure in India, which spans from galleries to auction houses to museums to the Biennale itself.
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