Atul Dodiya speaks to CC’s Amrita Chakravarty and Gayatri Sinha on the occasion of his latest solo, Stammer in the Shade, at VAG Delhi.
Critical Collective: Could you tell us something of the background of your latest show Stammer in the Shade? It seems to resist any neat summation.
Atul Dodiya: I didn’t start with a specific concept or idea about this show. My previous show was about Alfred Hitchcock’s film Blackmail (1929), a seven minute-long sequence in which an artist gets killed. The Artist invites a girl to his studio and tries to molest her and she kills him. I painted about 36 selected stills from the sequence. I’m a Hitchcock fan, I’ve watched this film many times, but this sequence fascinated me in particular. I thought, what if the moving image from cinema gets frozen in a still? Not as a photograph, which we see often in books and magazines, but as a painted image. So there was a certain clarity as regards that show.
With Stammer in the Shade, I started with small paintings, the majority of which are landscapes. At the very beginning, I decided not to have any specific idea about the show. I’ve been painting landscapes on and off now for about three or four years, and one thing I noticed was that as a genre, it provides the artist tremendous freedom to explore form and colour. If you only think about the sky and how it changes from morning to night, or the way light falls on the earth so that the same tree or the same hill appears different at different times - this very nature of nature gives me the freedom to explore and render my own specially conceived forms. It is also important how I treat surfaces, and the oil paint has such a long tradition. I myself have been working in this medium for so long, but as compared to figurative works, the landscape affords more freedom.
So in the current exhibition, on the one hand I am talking about expanse - the undulating landscape, freedom - and on the other hand with the shutters, there is a jerky, uneven quality of the surface which defies linearity. The shutter is a heavy, solid object; there is a rigidity to the structure. It’s a security door. It is not like a window which opens out to the world. Here, the door opens into a shop or a room, an interior space. I have of course worked with shutters before, but those, being on a larger scale, had a social and political dimension. But the ‘baby’ shutters in this show done in a miniature format, are to me purely aesthetic objects. These are sculptural pieces, unlike the large shutters which I cannot handle or model in the same way. And paired with these shutters, which would otherwise be dwarfed by the large expanse of wall around them, are photographs I have taken in museums in Europe and America over a long period. In these photographs, there are often images of the museum guards, or the audience along with the
artworks. Here, what was particularly interesting to me was the way that the frames of the works, which often tended to be bold, broad, gilded, and ornate, cast shadows that were quite abstract. And I felt that what I have been trying to do, it’s just a kind of stammering. Mine is not a statement, my work is an attempt to utter in the wake of art from the pre-Renaissance to the great artists of our time. I have admired and been inspired by modern art for so long, from the Impressionists to Cubist masters like Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Picabia, Duchamp... I have learnt so much from these great artists, so I decided to acknowledge this influence and inspiration, as a sort of homage. So I framed the photographs I had taken of their works retaining the shadows and placed them on top of the shutters. I am reminded of a wonderful quote by Ellen de Kooning, wife of William de Kooning, who when asked whether she painted in her famous husband’s shadow, replied: ‘No, I paint in his light.’ I wanted these references to be oblique - not a whole Cezanne, Van Gogh or Picasso - but more abstract. The image on the shutter surface is not related to the framed photograph atop the shutter. And in the same way, the shutters are not directly related to the small paintings,
But at the end, I am still not sure how to articulate what the exhibition speaks of, or conveys. Maybe these are shrines to my masters. Outside my home, I have placed a poster of Picasso in the same way that my neighbours have placed images of Ganpati. Picasso is my Ganpati! I start all new endeavours with him, ask for his blessing! (laughs) So that’s how I started really, keeping myself aloof from a ‘concept’. I find the rhythms of an exhibition - one work will go here, two works on that wall - too repetitive. Just as I am looking for an element of surprise during the process of making, the same quality of the unpredictable should be there in the show as well. I wanted to retain a certain obscurity to keep people engaged.
CC: It’s also as if you are repurposing motifs in your own oeuvre. While your work has always abounded in art historical and pop cultural references, here it is as if you are citing your own tendency to cite! You are citing citation as it were. And also, as you yourself mentioned the references seem to have become more oblique, even cryptic. Where earlier they were visible and recognisable, and you could identify motifs borrowed from other artists, say in Bindu (After Raza), here the artists you namecheck as influences seem to actually recede from the frame. In many of the photographs, all we can see is a signature, or a stray element from a famous painting that is otherwise kept out of view. So now, it is almost as if you are now in the light, and your famous forebears are in the shadow!
CC: It is also interesting to see how even recurring motifs in your own work are transforming through time, as you spoke earlier about the change in the scale of the shutters in the present show. That scale is instrumental to the register of the work - the large, downed shutters for example invoked the spectre of labour strikes and bandhs, but these miniature shutters are doing something else altogether.
AD: Actually scale is a very interesting aspect, we don’t often talk about it. Which is not to say it is as simplistic as if you have a big canvas only then will you make a big statement. The work itself, its subject matter actually determines the scale. In this show, where there are small landscape paintings, I had to adjust the size of the shutter because a larger scale is tied to a different kind of expression. And as for the miniature format, it’s real but it’s not real. It’s a replica and it’s not. On its own it is meaningless. The large shutter belongs to the real world, it has a function. But as soon as the scale is tampered with, it becomes something else and what this is or might be, interests me.
CC: I think as you said earlier, theyareaestheticobjects.This play with scale and its relation to different modalities of expression is very interesting. As you mentioned with reference to your previous show Seven Minutes of Blackmail, you have frozen the film but not to create photographs which are in some sense, not independent but constantly referring back to the original film text. Here, the paintings restage the film but in a non-filmic medium. You are making instead cinematic paintings.
AD: I have made I think different kinds of cinematic images. Earlier, I worked with the ready-made image. I took film stills or advertising images, calendars and posters I have in my collection, or as in the Bindu (After Raza) painting, where the images of the actress were taken from the internet. There, the relationship was more objective - I simply wanted a likeness of Bindu. But the experience of watching a movie is really about time and movement. How does one translate this sense of time passing through the movement of frames to a flat painting? So like in Blackmail, I actually work with photographs that I have taken of the moving image, which are then of course, often blurry because they are taken in the middle of the screen action. They are not screen-grabs or staged stills. And out of the several photographs I have taken, like at an editor’s table, I choose the ones that I feel best convey the emotion generated in a particular scene or moment in the film. I do not want to simply recreate the film in terms of a simple pictorial narrative. If that were the case, then what is my intervention? What am I trying to say? Instead, I am trying to recreate the experience, the emotion generated by the film.
CC: It is interesting how your engagement with cinema has transformed. Cinematic references in your work have largely been discussed in terms of kitsch or a postmodern mixing of high art with low forms. But this seems to be something different. It’s a kind of thinking through of the different effects and affects that images have.
AD: The texture of old photographs, of silver gelatin prints, it’s not sepia or brown but almost golden. And then of course, it’s a different era, people are different, even faces are different! And to try to achieve in oil painting, the beauty of those tones, is something I enjoy. What I often do, after painting the image in black and white, I apply several layers of thin black paint to try to arrive at the desired tonality.
CC: Your passage from painting to assemblage and installation and back to painting has been interesting. It has in many ways defied the linear narrative of Indian art since the 90s, assumed to move decisively beyond painting into the installation form. Your work with roller shutters and other industrial metals and forms was considered to mark a concession towards the installation form. But you reverse this turn away from painting in your simulation of roller shutters in Malevich Matters & Other Shutters, and now in the present show, with the proliferation of landscapes. From what you’ve just said, it would seem you are quite sensitive to the materiality and particular quality of different mediums. Do you also feel however that it is possible to rise above the specificity of individual media?
AD: I think it depends on each artist. Some feel compelled to pursue expression in the same medium for all their lives. For myself, I need change in terms of subject matter, material and medium. But you are also part of the bigger world. In my own career, when I started in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there was no internet, you could rarely travel abroad and so you had to learn about the world, what was going on in Japan, China, Europe, America, Latin America through a few books and magazines. And of course we were drawn to the great masters. After the internet came and one started to travel more, new worlds and new ways of making art were opened up. At the same time, society was changing, political scenarios were getting merged in a very unusual way. There was the rise of intolerance, violence, terrorism not only in India but all over the world. I think the shutters came from all this, the rise of the underworld, tension between (religious) communities, sudden curfews being announced. People all around me were saying that painting was dead, that there are new arts - performance, video, installation, photography. But people were still painting! I thought it was actually more challenging to paint at that time. Oil painting has such a long history, and so much has been explored in this medium. So the shutter I thought would be interesting to explore, especially because it is a difficult surface to paint on, being corrugated. It can be opened and closed, so it is also interactive. At the same time, through that action, the painting gets chipped and scratched implicating the viewer in the destruction of the art work. I had returned to Bombay after a year-long scholarship in Paris, my head was full of new ideas and excited to make new work, but then in December 1992 came Babri, and in the following March, there were the serial blasts in Bombay. That really shook the city and its people. But even at that time I was interested in Matisse and Picasso. It was only in 1997 when the country was celebrating 50 years of Independence that I first thought of Gandhi. And then there was the major inaugural exhibition at the Tate Modern, Century City, 2001, in which ‘Bombay/Mumbai’ was represented by the decade of the nineties, for which I first made the roller shutters.
CC: That exhibition is very interesting because it located the archive of the city in the street and in the popular.
AD: Exactly. I put what is very private, my sister, brother and I as children on the front of the shutter. And when the shutters are opened, and the rolling door hits the metallic hood with a heavy, industrial sound, what one finds inside is a very colourful world. So what is personal is outside, these sepia-toned portraits of ourselves as children, and the world of the street is inside - Bollywood, mythology, Ambedkar, Gandhi, Hrithik Roshan and singer Mohammed Rafi.
CC: Even in your use of these icons, it seems that they are invested with some personal meaning. These are not anchorless images, but tied to memory.
AD: Memory is very important to me. As an artist, I think about it consciously. Memory plays a major role in our perception. For example, I see sunflowers and I think of Van Gogh. Memory is the past that never goes away, and keeps jumping into our present, even creates havoc. If you see some of the works in the current show, they look like they were made in the 1920s, when (Giorgio) Morandi was active, or Carlo Carrà, or Edward Hopper, or André Derain. Memory is a vehicle that can take me back in time. For an artist, time is like a river continuously flowing. You cannot demarcate whereitbegins andwhere itends. I know one is constantly asked to live in the present, to forget the past and the future. But the artist must deal with this larger continuum of time. Through art, we can bring back lost time.
CC: What you’re saying is actually in tune with a lot of contemporary thinking on the digital and the explosion of archives which has actually made the past endlessly available. So the past is really now something which doesn’t go away, and your present expands to include it. Is there any conscious engagement on your part with these ideas, and this experience of time in the contemporary? Or does it spring from different preoccupations?
AD: No I don’t think I do. But even a simple thing like when I watch the daily news, and because the channels nowadays are dependent on corporate advertising, along with a very serious news story there will appear at the bottom of the screen a ticker with messages from sponsors, company logos or unrelated news flashes. It is never possible to focus on just one thing, and that is what the digital does. I sometimes watch artists’ interviews or Hindi film songs from the ‘50s and ‘60s on YouTube, and as soon as I’ve typed in my search term, a host of related searches will appear alongside. So looking for an interview with Jasper Johns will also throw up interviews with Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, et al. And because of my weakness, I get distracted! (laughs) So even before I finish the interview I had originally intended to watch, I am waiting to jump to the next. There is such a multiplicity, that you become fragmented. It’s a tsunami of experience and information and we are swept away helpless. I think I am responding to this surfeit by doing something completely different. So if earlier my work had been crowded with images - of Gabbar in Sholay and Amrish Puri and Om Puri in Ardha Satya, Gandhi and Kasturba modeled after a Tyeb Mehta image in Saptapadi: Scenes from Marriage (regardless), - now I feel like doing landscapes… It’s not about escape, but I think turning away from a certain type of thinking… (laughs)
CC: All your earlier paintings have this hyper textual quality - a network of things that you like, personal memories, art historical references. Your earlier practice can be read retrospectively as almost a period style of the digital contemporary. But now that such digital drift has become the way of life, you want to escape from it!
I think you have already mentioned this but some of the specific references in this show that you were drawing on, like you mentioned Carlo Carrà…
AD: While I like Carlo Carrà I am also a great admirer of Rabindranath Tagore’s paintings, he did some wonderful landscapes. For me, I begin with a very simple landscape - sky, land, and the sea in between - but then became fascinated by the constantly evolving nature of nature! If you see the landscape paintings, there are abstract forms, hexagonal, cubical, square, or rectangular pieces embedded in the composition. It made me think of a kaleidoscope. A slight move, and the pattern changes entirely. Even the way the sun casts different shadows at different times in the day, it reminds me of the cubist paintings with various angles.
The artist looks from several points of view, it is not a simple seeing but a layered vision. The forms that emerge through this kind of looking are something to behold. I did a painting in 1997 for a show in Bombay on self-portraits. I had taken an image of Lord Vishnu from a south-Indian calendar. In it, a lotus stalk is rising from Vishnu’s navel, on which Brahma, the Creator of the Universe resides. I thought of Brahma’s four heads, looking in all the directions and I felt that brahma’s vision must be very cubist! (laughs) So in the painting, I replaced Brahma’s head with my own painted in Picasso’s style, as if the portrait had been done by Picasso himself! It was a good way of looking at art, mythology... one’s own way of thinking... all these things together.
CC: You are talking of mixing Brahma with Picasso, which is another signature of your practice, to effortlessly mix hyper-local references with nods to the western canon and Euro-American art history. How do you manage to resist the compulsion of the contemporary Indian artist to be legible to a foreign audience? Is that ever a concern?
AD: One should not think of the audience in such a way but I suppose you also can’t help it today, when there is such a lot of interest in Indian art among foreign audiences. I do wonder about the ways that different audiences would view Indian art. But at the same time, I think all the quotations and references in my art, whether to the popular culture and arts of India, or the citations of western masters, it is all made within the context of my Indian identity and the Indian audience. I made a painting of Gangavatarana based on Raja Ravi Varma’s painting, where I superimposed Marcel Duchamp’s Nude descending a Staircase over the figure of Ganga. When my mother saw the painting, she could understand the meaning behind it, she is well-versed in the myth of Ganga and she knows the Varma oleograph. But she does not know Marcel Duchamp. In a way, she is my first audience, and I often show my work to my family and my neighbours. But when this work was shown in a presentation in the west, they immediately understood Marcel Duchamp but they didn’t understand the image of Shiva with the bull and the ascetics, they didn't know the myth of Ganga. So, I like to play with this juxtaposition.
I would actually like to address myself to the larger mass of people beyond the confines of the art gallery. I was born and brought up in a chawl in Bombay and my neighbours saw me painting as a young boy and their interests also changed with time as did mine from portraits of film stars or simple landscapes to the more complex works done later. They never said that they don’t understand my work. They would have many questions, like how did I do it? What does it mean? And I would explain. So basically, my art comes from a desire to paint for my people.
But ultimately, the painting has a power like Niagara - all the ideas, concepts, philosophy, curators, museums, gallery, market, auction house, everything melts away. And when you can step away from all this, you come back to yourself as an artist. I paint for those moments only, where I can forget myself.
CC: All the talk of audiences actually brings us to the question of an art public. You were part of the Artists Unite initiative last year, and especially given the turbulent times we are living through, increasingly, contemporary artists seem to want to merge their practice with some form of activism as well.
AD: While I think all these collectives and initiatives are certainly laudable, I think one also has to ask, what isone’srelationship with a single human being, rather than the whole nation.
I am here for a solo show and I also went to the Art Fair, saw a couple of exhibitions of my fellow artist friends, and I also went to Shaheen Bagh one night. These are three completely different spaces and I think everything is valid, everything is jaayaz. I am not an activist and I am not a politician, I don’t go to morchhas; my work is to paint. As the American artist Stuart Davis, once said, “to paint, is in itself a Social act.” In Shaheen Bagh, there were young kids and I was just thinking that for them, what will be the memory of these winter nights? Sitting here with such anxiety and fear, with adults making passionate speeches, feeling uncertain about the political environment. I think this will remain. I remember my own childhood, when I was ten or twelve years old, what was happening in the neighbourhood, what the government was doing. And this inevitably percolates from the psyche into my art, this is where Gandhi comes from. I was not interested in him before. But I felt that I was forced to engage with him because of what is happening in the world.
CC: I think we can end with Gandhi then. Your 2002 installation Broken Branches, made in the aftermath of Godhra, was shown at the Venice Biennale 2019, and seems to have lost none of its relevance. Gandhi for you has foregrounded the question of your Gujarati identity vis-à-vis your life in cosmopolitan Bombay, as well as the relation of Gujarati figures - Gandhi and Modi - to national history. You have spoken earlier about how 2002 was especially disturbing for you as a Gujarati. Your anxieties then about the culpability of the state government have now become writ large across national life as those regional forces have come to roost at the centre. Your work on Gandhi is also a project of historical excavation, retrieving the man who has now become reified into an icon, a face on rupee notes.
AD: At a very early age, when I was sixteen, I read his autobiography, My Experiments with Truth in the original Gujarati. My sister lived in Porbandar and her husband was posted there. We would visit Kirti Mandir, Gandhi's birth place. The school I went to was also Gandhian. At home, we were told not to waste food or throw away clothes, unless they were totally torn. During the riots of 1992, 1993 and 2002, I felt the urgency of making people remember Gandhi. But after eighteen years, we are still facing the same issues. It is a very disturbing situation.
Today, the violence and conflict we are seeing is so politically motivated. I don’t think any Hindu or a Muslim is against one another. The problem is of survival. In Bombay, I live in the north-eastern suburb of Ghatkopar. On the way from my house to my studio, every day I see a very old lady selling boiled eggs on a jute mat. I often wonder how many eggs is she able to sell in a day. What is the price? And also that she has to work at this age. This is India for me. There are different levels of happiness, and I don’t think wealth affects the intensity of joy. But I do think we need to examine our notions of what constitutes happiness and achievement in life.