Gayatri Sinha: How did this exhibition come about?
Atul Dodiya: At some time in 2002 I had painted three large water colours which were shown in Bombay called My Italian Girlfriends. These were images from the pre-Renaissance masters, I did two works which depicted in profile, pictures of women which I love very much. One image was from Arezzo, the fresco cycle - Legend of the True Cross. And one sees, when I look at these frescoes, as with our own Ellora-Ajanta frescoes, we see that some patches have come off and also due to bad restoration, it’s only plaster patches that you see.
Somehow from the very beginning I would be interested in the painted image as well as the one fixed with flat plaster in white. Now that kind of a thing also had to something with my childhood. As a young boy I used to observe this, living in a chawl and an open neighbourhood. When people removed, say a nail, it left a mark….
GS: What is the name of the chawl?
AD: Dharsi Khera Wadi known as DK Wadi. My chawl was like a Gandhi ashram, a Sabarmati ashram kind of structure. People there hammered a wooden piece into the wall; decorative and carved, like the legs of a bed, and they would hang probably a cap or a hat or a pagdi or clothes, and then a time came when they removed it, and a concrete chunk would come off and they filled it with plaster. In Gujarati they have a word for that - ‘gabra’, I don’t know what it is called in English when the plaster peels off. Sometimes when you see new apartments you see the concealed wiring which they do by breaking the wall and much later they finish it with grey cement but the lines on the surface look quite abstract.
GS: You see it in Bombay also when you enter the city, they are like veins on the building. And it’s peculiar to the city….
AD: That is because of moisture, we have such a humid temperature. Even now the old buildings are full of cracks and they are repaired with water proofing and other material so you see those abstract lines. And they remind you of abstract painting. When I did those three watercolours called My Eternal Friend, I painted on the face of women but there were also painted with a heavily loaded acrylic and marble dust and painted with crimson colour. So they look like wounds. I did a similar thing in my exhibition called Cracks in Mondrian where I painted those states or the city in a pink patch.
There is also another element. When Anju was pregnant and after my daughter was born in 1993, there was a sudden aggravation of her vitiligo….
GS: Was it there earlier ?
AD: Yes it started when she was very young around 10, she had one patch here or there and it remained as it is but when she got pregnant, it started coming up in a big way. Then the time came in five to seven years when they were huge but somehow it never bothered us. But when we see the old photographs, Anju would mention that they were like moving clouds on her body or a kind of mapping. So she has also done a lot of work with maps on her face or Changing Skin as one of her works is called.
So that has a lot to do with us as well as lower middle class family homes with patches and plasters.
GS: How do you read that? You read it as a sign of decay or a passage of time?
AD: No I read it as a passing of time, nothing is restored and it remains forever. Things are fleeting and they change and within that whatever as a human being we gather, we gather. If you go to Ajanta - the frescoes are far away, we tried to identify the well known apsara or gana figures but they are surrounded by those abstract patches which are damaged. The damage exists simultaneously in our life, within that we get a glimpse that gives us joy.
GS: In so much of your panting we have seen you quoting other works but now you are quoting the site, you are the quoting the architecture, you are quoting the passage of time…
AD: Exactly…you said it Gayatri. One of the things I was aware of was that I am exhibiting for the first time in this gallery premises, which is quite domestic. Earlier exhibitions- the Shutters and Saptapadi they were exhibited in Okhla. So I knew that the space is different and that there are rooms. The idea came that what if I do this since I had done Italian Girlfriends earlier. I was very good at portraiture at the art school and I won awards at JJ School of Art - the Ratan Wadke Portrait Prize in the third, fourth and fifth years.
GS: What was the kind of work you were doing at that time? Do you remember?
AD: In college days, assignments were given so there was portraiture, there was figure studies, and at JJ there was abstract painting as if an abstract painting is a creative work but portraiture is academic work. But we were learning a British academic way of portraiture. My biggest regret is that our students, at least at the JJ School of Art we studied Rembrandt, Cezanne, Matisse but we never saw the original works, it was always through slides that the history teacher would show or go to the library and see the books. Those days, the books were not new where the reproduction quality was not that great as we have now. I would just imagine that Impressionists like Monet, Manet, Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh and how they painted. One could feel the thick impasto application of paint. I was also looking at the Fayum portraits; the Egyptian-Roman portraits which were done 2000 years back, after the person was dead. The body was mummified and on the top of a plank of wood they would paint the image of the person. Anju said that one day you should do my portrait in Fayum style. Only Anju could imagine and ask this kind of thing.
Meanwhile on trips abroad, I was looking at the Renaissance period, the Impressionists, then other 20th century early Masters whose work I liked. I would see those portraits and there was a tremendous craving to paint with thick oil and achieve a certain kind of an emotional quality through paint. I have done a lot of diverse things - cabinets and shutters and other kind of works so I thought I would do this.
The original title was just French, German, Italian, Santiniketan and Ghatkopar…it just came to me but when I started painting, Anju’s face was superimposed on the original file, controlling how much Anju should be recognisable or not.
GS: So you used a photo montage?
AD: Yes a montage and then I painted from there. I also thought about the scale- 18 x 24 inches.
GS: Do you use the same process for the Italian, German portraits also?
AD: No. They were very different. Originally they were from Francis Picabia’s figures. I thought Picabia would take very well the laminates and very kitschy and popular associations. His figures would work because of his diverse styles which he painted throughout his career as an artist but somehow it didn’t work and I realised that these figures shouldbesmall so I made almost 9 small canvases. Since I was using epoxy putty, I used it here also. The epoxy putty is called locally karpech in Bombay. When there is a dent on the car body they apply a white putty. It’s like a paste, they put hardener and then it dries quickly, which I have used in my work. I thought of using them in my laminates but how I was not sure.
I initially thought of the Pollaiuolo brothers, whose faces are so beautiful and very fine and detailed jewellery, drapery and embroidery on the clothes, that I thought that one would tend to copy and represent that, which I didn’t want to. And I immediately realised that other Italians which were earlier - during the period of Giotto or Piero della Francesca during the Arezzo mural which I knew and had seen - the figures from there which are very sublime and they don’t have much expression, they are very calm.
GS: And you wanted to focus just on the head?
AD: Female heads essentially. And then I realised that it would not be interesting to have just details of the images if I use them. The figures are from the Arezzo mural but there is a bird and also a building or a landscape with a river which are from the painting at the National Gallery in London.
I took the images and scanned them from the book and I had ordinary printouts, no superior quality. I tore them, and then referred to the pieces.
GS: That is also a part of it - the torn edge. Like collage…
AD: Exactly and then I created a collage on a normal board. I thought it looks interesting and then I placed the pictures on laminates. I took a printout of the laminates and cut it and placed it and I thought this would be interesting and then the laminate was carved. The contour was drawn and it was carved and then filled with epoxy putty and then on top of it I knew which particular piece is advancing and which is going back. Accordingly there was a relief and that’s how I painted and I was quite thrilled. Then it was painted with oil and after painting I would immediately put them on the floor and apply turpentine when semi-dry, because of the epoxy putty the oil would dry quickly compared to normal canvas.
GS: It won’t crack?
AD: No it won’t because it has not been thickly painted and secondly I have applied turpentine, put a cloth on top of it and then I pressed with another cloth and removed it so a lot of paint came off from various places. The effect was almost as if it were an old antique. So I was quite thrilled with that and then I gave another new twist to the whole image by using crimson patches- which could be wound blood or even rose petals.
GS: It’s also a very Italian colour. You associate it with a certain kind of upper class figures, royalty, figures of justice.
AD: So that was the method of working and then when I came to German, Durer’s figures came to my mind. Sometimes I have used the AD signature, the emblem like signature of Durer as my initials so I thought of using some drawings of Durer. I knew that the Fayum portraits were going to be small oil portraits, the oils with Picabia figures were with a modernist approach. And then there are drawings from 16th century from Durer which I thought might work well. It was risky because he is so well known I mean to try and mimic even Picabia and Piero della Francesca, could be a risky thing. The work may fall flat and look bizarre and ugly.
How much I retain or how much I do away with would be my own intervention. In that sense the abstraction which floats on the face of Durer’s figures, which had independent drawings of these kinds of abstract forms.
GS: The rhizome like form is a very interesting work. It’s like a network and it suggests different points of entry and exit.
AD: Like a maze or puzzle . Yes you’re right. That way I realised that the whole face need not be equally drawn, the way he must have drawn it. You can leave some part, allow some area to be left illuminated or bright.
GS: Earlier you used the word ‘mimicry’ so if we consider Durer and you are attracted to a particular set of drawings and then you decide that this will serve like a template, from there the question of how much you will intervene and how much you will allow it to be still recognisable as a Durer work….
AD: That is very important. It should be there. Since I mentioned German girlfriend I wanted a very specific face with a very specific expression and then make it more dense or light with sudden intervention like black clouds or tears or a plaster patch.
The Santiniketan series which is on a normal rough arche paper, the French paper which I use normally for my watercolour there I use another arche paper. In the German ones the paper has gained six-seven layers of these washes and a matte, almost wall-like tone or a texture.
And then I discovered that there is a moulding paste - a medium which is water-based, one could mix it with acrylic paint to create an impasto effect.
GS: So why did you want to put a patch on paper? Because it will not be restored like a wall?
AD: Exactly. Yes but I was thinking of Tagore. Ink must have been something so close to Tagore as he wrote - he was a writer, poet and so much he wrote throughout his life and ink stains - so that is there. Also whenever he painted he was given any kind of material or any kind of paper. Since he was not a trained painter he would use mixed media and material with pencil or crayon or ink or watercolour.
I was thinking about the aspect of ink and ink spots. Sometimes they are deep maroon as ink becomes almost violet.
GS: I wonder what you think about death and life when you quote from a historic work. Everyone does not remember Durer everyday… I know you have said that you wake every morning thinking of Picabia . But everybody doesn’t think like that. When you pull a work out from the recess of memory, from an archive, and you are a big archivist, you have collected and maintained scrapbooks ---so you pull something out of memory or the archives and in the act,you are conferring life. But you are also conferring death. As in the cases of the portraits of people who are living and the Fayum portraits. What is the cycle that is happening there?
AD: One of the things is memory and past. This moment will be gone, it will become past so I think generally we say we should remain in the present. In our Hindu philosophy also there is a lot written about it. I think the past is gone and it’s nostalgia and why do we need to go back, we should think in terms of today.
When I think of the larger picture, often the metaphor of river has been given. Water is present universally so I feel that water here or there is the same water, so time is something like that. This is a more spiritual/philosophical area that we are talking about but I feel that the past bounces back and brings back its presence to the present. It could be things from childhood or what happenedyesterday,so recall is something that is acknowledged.
GS: I am just thinking of your paintings of the 1990s - 1997-1998, where maybe it was fifty years of Independence and you went right back. You have subsequently used the figure of Gandhi, again and again…in that trajectory where does a body of work like this fit. It is quite a big break.
AD: It is true.
GS: And the kind of political energy that the work has displayed. The collaboration with Kolhatkar’s poetry or the decay of the city or the ethics of national life. These are subjects which have preoccupied you and you have returned to them in different ways. Do you see this set of paintings as more personal?
AD: It is personal but I love the narrative aspect of the image. If the portrait is just a face, then what kind of a narrative does it give us? The emotional quality of the face is conveyed -haunting or a penetrating straight look to the viewer’s eye but I think that narrative is a different type of narrative. When we see someone we get some sort of a feeling, it could be the structure of the face, cheekbone or certain type of expression might work. That is not a narrative like the freedom movement or when I’m depicting the Dandi march, that is a different kind of theme or otherwise the shutters or reference to other masters. But here it is holding us.
GS: Also she is gazing back at you.
AD: Yes, exactly.
GS: Especially in the portraits of Anju your wife, she is looking back and there is a lot of tenderness. But apart from tenderness there is also extreme vulnerability, contemplation and, perhaps she is asking a few questions as well.
AD: Maybe. But I was aware that I didn’t want to have any specific expressions whether it is a smile or anger or agitation. I thought that it would be interesting that many iconic figures were done, nearly 2000 years back and then painting Anju in that form becomes very subjective.
GS: But it’s also your then desire to paint an iconic figure isn’t it?
AD: That could be.
GS: Because you are putting them on the same plane…Tagore, Anju, Piero della Francesca, Atul Dodiya, so in this way both Atul and Anju become a part of a canon.
AD: Maybe, that’s possible. Maybe somewhere it was hidden and I wanted to do it.
I was essentially interested in a very conventional, traditional way of portraiture. So many great portraits are there and you see them and the treatment in oil painting…thick, thin, impasto. And of course, ultimately when that is happening, a certain expression, emotion is getting generated. So when you see it from a distance and then you go very close…
GS: Yes, that is very remarkable in this series of work that the closer you come the more it reveals a different side. It reveals a certain rawness and vulnerability even in ugliness of the unfinished and how time has tampered with it.
When you began painting, it was seen as pretty much the death of painting…and the definition of the avant garde…how do you see the condition of painting now?
AD: I didn’t mention to anyone but it was very much there in my head that in present times and also in our art scene there is so much material and different media, subjects are different and all that. In that context I felt that I would go back to a very humble size, humble subject and a humble treatment while doing oil painting.
GS: Like a poverty of material..
I thought that going back suddenly into the past in terms of subject matter also in terms of material, technique of portraiture and painting figures. In fact it would bounce back, like a boomerang and would create a kind of freshness.
GS: But is it also a form of protest against the excess and the wealth of art.
AD: Yes, absolutely it is. Somewhere it was there in my head that I want to do that. It’s important to have a fresher point of view. I was fully aware that I’m painting, today in 2016 and the things that are happening around, the sculptures, installations, video art and photography are dominating. I noticed that a viewer probably is used to that now but at the opening while looking at these paintings, the viewers were emotionally moved. The word love came immediately in my head when I saw that. There was happiness and joy in people seeing the work.