Anju Dodiya’s body of work for the last 27 years revolves around the self. Figurative in nature, she draws inspiration from various sources including Indian and Persian miniature paintings, Japanese Ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) prints that depicted the urban life in Japan between 17th and 18th century, early Renaissance masters like Giotto, Bellini and Piero della Francesca, medieval French tapestries, Greek mythology, biological diagrams from vintage medical books, images from old newspapers, advertisements, Instagram as well as contemporary cinema. Dodiya’s work when seen from a narrow perspective appears to represent self-portraits but over the years her work has evolved into allegorical mind maps, forming a personal mythology of sorts, where the protagonist is faced with multiple dilemmas. The character is no longer just an artist or a woman but an individual who is dealing with the daily conundrum of searching for clarity and meaning. Her weapons/tools might be a paintbrush or a pencil but her conflicts are like anyone else’s. Nancy Adajania states on Anju Dodiya’s practice in 2006, “Defiant and assertive, she has never represented the woman as a plaything, but equally, she has refused to portray the woman as a mother goddess charged with archetypal energy. Avoiding both the constricting male gaze and the feminist-activist position, she has given herself the freedom to talk about the creative anxieties of being an artist in quest and a woman in love.” [1] A decade later, with The Air is a Mill of Hooks, she has portrayed the inner righteous of a fighter on a journey towards victory, projected like a heroic figure of a mythological epic or legend.

At the start of the exhibition the viewer was struck by four large framed watercolour and charcoal works where Dodiya’s fictional self is seen battling an artist’s creative anxieties in violent dream like scenarios being performed theatrically. Anju Dodiya in an interview once said that she is making an ‘inventory of fear’, as a narrative of an idealistic person not just of one who is courageous but delving into notions of sincerity and honesty, the kind who is continuously passionate about an idea and is able to take it to fruition. In Dance of the Pink Pavillions (2016) the artist is seen pierced in the stomach with a pencil, floating mid air amidst what seems like a mental labyrinth with a tree standing tall in the foreground. In another work, Pink Cloud she is extinguishing a large skeletal figure using her brush as a wand, a metaphor of killing the demons of her mind. The colour red emphasising passion in the artist’s life is a prominent feature of all four works as well as a symbolic element in the exhibition, standing out within the otherwise muted colour palette.

The second space in the exhibition seems to be one of introspection, the protagonist is portrayed with an inward, slightly detached glance. The five feet tall paintings, watercolour and charcoal on unbleached cotton mattresses hang on the high walls of the wide room. Dodiya had first worked on the mattress as painted surfaces in the early 2000s and returns to the form, in different formats. Also present in two wooden vitrines is a series of photograph-based works Song of the Singular Beast I - V and VI - XI (2015) a set of unique framed archival digital prints inserted within watercolour stained fabric mounts. Viewed in pairs, sepia toned and black and white photographs of Dodiya herself are juxtaposed by photographs of her work reflecting elements in conversation with each other. The narrative is revealed through the repetition of symbols, expressions, forms and shadows captured in the photographs as well as the mounts with geometrical marks. In another work titled, Visitation (2017) she shows the protagonist staring at her shadowed reflection in the mirror, iterating the dualities of life. In the midst of the anguish, few instances of solace are witnessed through the show where Dodiya depicts a couple in a loving embrace or sharing a moment of togetherness. Bedroom with Two Squares (2017), Green Dive (2017) and Mirror (2017) are works rendering the couple, suggestive of intimacy and tenderness.

In the last room one observes a brooding gloom. Black or textural shaped (circle, oblong, blood drop, cross) mattresses are painted over with acrylic; the artist in a few works is shown lamenting over the loss of knowledge, the destruction of the archive. Evident through history, the act of burning books and the destruction of libraries is symbolic of shifting intellectual patterns, defiance, thought control or erasure of ideas and beliefs. Witnessed throughout the world; in China (213 BCE), burning of texts and live burial of 460 Confucian scholars (210 BCE) was ordered by Quin Shi Huang, the first emperor of Quin Dynasty led to loss of philosophical treaties and schools of thought, centuries later followed by Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the Nazi bonfires (1933) where fascist university students burned over 25,000 books as a cultural cleanse and the eradication of the “intellectual garbage of the past” [2], library fires in Alexandria (Egypt), Nalanda University (1193) and the Jaffna Public Library in Sri Lanka (1981) are only a few examples of coercion of power. Books are a recurrent motif throughout the works; one of them is a work titled, The Reader (2017) a circular padded mattress depicting a chair pierced with arrows, partially revealing the pattern of the houndstooth fabric it has been painted over, shielding a woman with fearful eyes hiding beneath, clutching onto books. Blockages are present in different forms suggested in her work Spellbound (2018) a brick wall is guarding the protagonist’s exposed ribcage and her throat has been covered with a band and pierced by an arrow, shutting her voice. In Sunrise (2017) the forehead of the woman has been bound, restricting thought. The burning of books and biting on to pages perhaps signals the shift from books to the digital or censorship and the restrictions on free expression. Another work titled Wind Chime (2017) stands out because of its crimson background, contrary to its title represents an array of pointed hooks hanging mid-air entangling the individual. These works are more intense than the others in the show mostly depicting mourning, blood, angst and pain.

Anju Dodiya has traced a map of symbols across The Air is a Mill of Hooks. Through the depiction of the everyday, the self and its creative anxieties she is possibly asking wider questions at a subliminal level. The sense of resistance weaves the works together either in a direct depiction or mirrored through the rendering of watercolour on textured fabrics. Embodied in the show is a need to brave circumstances as an effort to safeguard freedom of thought andexpression. The obstacles are projected as individualised and personal but perhaps gesture towards a subconscious reflection of the times.

The Air is a Mill of Hooks presented by Vadehra Art Gallery was on at Bikaner House, New Delhi (8 - 17 February 2018).


[1] Nancy Adajania, The Varying Temperature of Love: Recent Paintings by Anju Dodiya, essay from the catalogue published by Bose Pacia New York 2006.

[2] Quoted from historical film footage. Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels spoke on May 10, 1933 at the Opernplatz (Opera Square) in Berlin, Germany, telling the students, "You do well at this late hour to entrust to the flames the intellectual garbage of the past." (Courtesy U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

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