Atul Dodiya, one of Indias most celebrated and sought-after contemporary artists, lives in Mumbai (Bombay), and the themes and styles he pursues in his work are as vibrant and varied as the city he calls home.
While he first became known in the early 1990s for hyperrealist paintings depicting middle-class Indian life, he has since then explored many diverse paths, including vitrine-like installations and critically acclaimed paintings executed on the surface of the metal roller shutters used to protect storefronts.
His work is infused with a strong sense of both the history of Western art and the myths, folklore and popular culture of India. Often, these two worlds collide in his work in amusing and instructive ways: a figure from the Hindu epic Ramayana, for example, tugs on a line from a Mondrian painting as if it were a tree (Sabari Shaking Mondrian); in another work, Gandhia frequent subject in his workappears next to Joseph Beuysin an especially perceptive comment on the similarities between Gandhis protest techniques and Conceptual art.
His latest exhibition, The Wet Sleeves of My Paper Robe (Sabari in Her Youth: After Nandalal Bose), is inspired by the Ramayana. In the 31 works on view, Dodiya focuses on Sabari, a minor character from a low-caste tribe who spends a lifetime waiting for one encounter with the works hero, Lord Ram.
Dodiya created these very-mixed-media works on paper during a residency at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute. During his six-week stay there, he collaborated with American papermaker Richard Hungerford and Japanese printmaker Eitaro Ogawa, learning to make and manipulate the paper pulp that dominates the works.
The exhibition, on view through Oct. 28, inaugurates Bodhi Arts first New York space. The gallery, which shows contemporary Indian art, has branches in Mumbai, New Delhi and Singapore.
The exhibition title, The Wet Sleeves of My Paper Robe (Sabari in Her Youth: After Nandalal Bose) references one of Indias best-known artists. What influence has Bose (1883-1966) had on your development as an artist?
The range in which Bose painted images was quite phenomenal; there was no single style he followed. As a young artist in art school in the 1980s, I noticed that all the artists who were painting then in India all had a strong styleas if you had to have a single style and then follow that all your life. This is something I strongly deny. You cant [be limited to one style], particularly living in city like Bombay, where so much is happening simultaneously. So many diverse situations, emotions and feelings coexist in Bombay. So I started juxtaposing styles, and in that context, I feel that I give homage to Bose.
Sabari, the mythic figure at the heart of this new work, plays a minor role in the Hindu epic Ramayana, but youve made her the star of your new works. Why?
Of course, the Ramayanas stories are about the Lord Ram, his family and his whole journey. But while the story is about him, there are many small characters within this huge epic. Sabari is a very minor characterbut a very strong one. One of the best episodes of the Ramayana tells about Sabaris waiting, until she is a very old woman, to greet Lord Ram one time before she dies. And thats the image with which everyone is familiar in India: Sabari as an old lady with white hair and bent from the back.
So when I saw in 1998 a series by Bose of three paintings that he did of Sabarione in her old age, one in middle age and one in her youthI was quite fascinated. That was the trigger for this series. When Sabari was in her youth, Ram wasnt even born yet, so I began thinking, What was she doing then? As a contemporary artist working today, one is quite naturally drawn to a character who is minor, someone who has not been given enough importance or proper due. I thought that Sabari was extremely sensitive, extremely vulnerable, a person with lots of feeling for fellow human beings.
Lets talk about this decision to show Sabari as a young and sensual woman. I imagine there was some risk in treating this beloved, but completely asexualized figure, in such an iconoclastic way.
Anything having to do with mythology or religious scriptures, people become too sensitive about these issues. They feel that one should not touch these subjects that are sacred and theyre fine the way they areits especially [unwelcome] if [the artwork] confronts the female body.
In terms of how I was treating Sabari: Yes, obviously she is young and naked, but at the same time, you see that all the postures and gestures are not in any way titillating or provoking. She is often shown holding a grinding mill; this is basically a person who has had lots of pain and struggle in life. So I think in the context in which I put herlike for example, the bones showing through her fleshthe sensual feeling gets diverted into the reality of life: the death, decay and the agony, all those things.
Speaking of the sensitivity around dealing with figures of myth and religion, only a few months ago the Indian artist Maqbool Hussain was burned in effigy and threatened with death when his painting of a nude Mother India was put up for auction. The painting was eventually withdrawn from the auction, and Hussain issued an apology. What was your response to this incident?
It is really unfortunate that, at the age of 91, Hussain had to go into exile. He lives in London at the moment. And it is really sad that there was this reaction made with so little understanding of the work. If you ask anyone, is it good to depict Mother India naked? Obviously theyll say no. But how the image is rendered is whats important. And Hussain has never had a sensual quality to his work. Its just really sad, particularly in the context of Hussain. The response is definitely politically motivatedprobably because hes Muslim.
If we can shift gears a bit and talk about the materials in your current series, which are delightfully varied: Every work contains some combination of pulp paper, gold leaf, carbon toner, synthetic hair, watercolor, charcoal and screenprinting ink. But most intriguing are the presence of these cotton shirts. What were the formalist and thematic concerns that drove the decision to use these as a material?
I had been working on this Sabari series in watercolors in my studio in India. But for the first two weeks of my residency at the Singapore Print Institute, I was not sure I would depict this theme. It started when I was told it was possible to have shirts embedded into the paper. The shirts gradually got transformed metaphorically to depict the Lord Ram, around which the female body of Sabari is located. Theres no body, but the presence of Ram is still there.
And finding a way to include Ram was quite an important concern because over the last 15 years, a lot of drama has happened in India in his name. In 1992, a mosque was demolished by Hindu militants because they said it was Rams birthplace. And tension still continues in India over thistheres been violence and bomb blastsand I wanted to address that theres so much fighting and violence in the name of a man of such compassion.
The shirts that represent Ram were bought on the streets of Bombay as export rejects. They are very cheap, so that the lower class people can buy them. And in this violence, it is the poor man, the absolutely poor people, who get killed and murdered more than anyone else. The shirts and some of the works talk about that violence. And Sabari, by the way, is a woman who has a backbone and will not succumb to this kind of violence.
This Sabari series is just one good example of what appears to me as an advantage you have on many artists. You are well-versed in the history of Western art and have a deep understanding of the language of the contemporary scene, but you can also draw on a remarkably rich cultural history that has been largely untapped by visual artists. Do you also see this omni-cultural background as an advantage?
Definitely. India is such a vast country; it has such vast and diverse cultures coexisting and great sources [from which] to draw inspiration: from mythology to epics to folklore to cinema. I was born and brought up in Bombay, and the citys incredible diversity has been a major influence on me.
And always as a student, I was interested in Western art. We were taught mostly in Western art, so the great paintings of Europe and the United States have influenced me immensely. In my early works, I was really influenced by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. And Ive been equally moved by Picasso and Matisse.
Speaking of diversity, one of the most striking aspects of your career is how varied your stylistic approaches are and how all-embracing you are when it comes to materials. Youve sprinkled marble dust on works, painted on metal roller shutters, used playground equipment in your installations.
There are many mes within me. Theres not a single Atul. So the question I faced early in my career is, should I allow this? Should I let these many selves explode within my artwork? The answer, of course, was yes, and it came when I was doing a portrait of my father, and I asked myself, What if I paint him almost like a billboard?" There was tension with this choice, because you are not painting a film star, you are painting your own father: If I do it this way, what will happen?
But once I said I can do it, and once I did it, the fear went away because there was something very unusual and exciting visually in what I was creating. So since then I told myself, when Im painting in my studio, I just simply do my work without any fear. There is a lot of risk and courage. Although Im very traditional and conventional in my normal routine, I feel that the studio is my kingdom, and in the space in which I am painting, the canvas or the paper, I have the freedom to do what I want.
Jacquelyn Lewis provided additional reporting for this article.