Once you decided to pester someone, you don’t give up till you’ve had your way. Even though you knew I was visiting Mumbai for just a couple of days, you phoned me three times to tell me I must go see Atul’s paintings. It is tedious to travel through the crowds from Khetwadi to Ghatkopar. I do applaud him as a painter. I also know it is hard to find painters of his calibre in India. But just because you saw one of his paintings you pushed me off to Ghatkopar!
Though after I saw the paintings, I was glad to have come all the way. The paintings were really good. That’s why I am writing to you. Or I’d have just told you over the phone that it wasn’t much fun.
TREE-LOVER FOR J.J
You know Binode Behari Mukherjee’s Tree-lover. Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art has this water-colour of a man standing under a tree. In his canvas, Atul has painted a wooden door with a linear representation of this painting on it and rendered it as if it were stencilled. He offers and incredible depiction of wood grains and the iron latch in the centre, the taut wire and the Mondrian painting. The other Mondrian painting is at the top right of the canvas. The entire painting is very good. Though I’ll write later in this letter about Atul’s virtuosity. But what’s Mondrian doing here? Were the two artists contemporaries? Binode Babu was interested in the human figure while Mondrian was moving from figurative art to the abstract. The painting is in dark colours. Only the Mondrian paintings are rendered in their original colours. In fact, both of these appear to be stuck like postage stamps on the canvas. Does Atul present before us a rejection of the great abstractionist with a tribute to Binode Babu? Why make only a drawing of the Binode Babu painting?
The title of the painting is Tree-lover for J.J. We have to assume that ‘J.J’ stands for J.J School; of Art. Had he written ‘JJ’ in Gujarati, we would have understood something like ‘My greetings to the tree-lovers.’
The childhood snapshot to the left. To the right, the format of a notebook label. The painting is divided into four equal parts and each part describes a step to construct a paper tree. One shows the uncut paper, one shows the snipped paper, the last describes the paper transformed into a tree. A boy runs at the bottom left corner of the painting, which appears as though we were looking at it through a sheet of glass. This is suggested by the streak of white that runs across its ash grey surface.
His own childhood, a fascination for the crafts, and his self-portrait as an early snapshot- all these elements drag us down the years to our own boyhood days. Does Atul see all this through a shimmering glass?
I remember an incident. When I was in the 3rd Standard, a cousin who shared the desk with me was absent one day. That evening, he came home and asked me, “What homework do we have to submit tomorrow?’ I said, ‘The math teacher has asked everyone to bring their best toys to class tomorrow?’ The next day, my cousin was the first to open his school-bag, go to the math teacher and arrange a whole bunch of toys on his desk. The math teacher was a tyrant. For a minute he didn’t know what was going on. But my cousin continued to arrange the toys with abandon. The teacher finally asked him for his homework. My cousin showed him the display of toys and glanced at me. He was the victim of my prank. The toys came down with a crash and he got lashes of the cane. Enough about this painting now. Atul refreshed my memory of toys and crafts.
DOUANIER, MY FATHER’S MOUSTACHE & OTHER STORIES
There is a portrait of Douanier Rousseau in the centre of the painting. He is painted with a resplendent moustache. The fiery eye of Picasso in one area and Atul’s father’s profile in another. Starting with his father’s moustache, we see a wide range of moustaches. If we look closely at the moustaches they resemble flying birds, crows and falling leaves. At the head of the painting, a man stands holding his twenty-foot moustache as if he were spinning yarn out of cotton. Under his arms, strands of the moustache cover the painting. Behind Rousseau, Atul has painted a moustached manly fellow resembling Ranjit Hoskote. It could be Che Guevara.
If we try to look for interpretation of this painting, what similarity could there be between the moustaches of Atul’s father, the Guinness Book of World Records man and Douanier Rousseau? Is he mocking us by making Douanier Rousseau and the Che Guevara look like his father and Ranjit Hoskote? What’s the embroidered peacock doing in the painting? Are these men vain about their moustaches the way a peacock is proud of his beauty?
On the right, is that the back of a man, his long arm dissolving in the air? Does this man stand on a pedestal to preach the Way of long moustaches? Or does the painter challenge all feminists’ struggles for equal rights by posing as a macho man with a message of manly moustaches? The Rousseau statement in parenthesis seems to be about Picasso. That is why he has rendered the Picasso eye. Thank heavens Amit, that Picasso did not have a moustache.
SNAIL ON THE SHOULDER (IN MEMORY OF PRABHAKAR BARWE)
This painting reminds me of Andrew Wyeth. The door, the stopper, the drying towel, the canvas stretchers lying behind the bed- the way these are painted is to be greatly appreciated.
The human figure, done in blacks has a snail on his shoulder. Why? Does life move at such a slow pace? What is the significance of a snail in Barwe’s life?
Or, for instance, the sheep and the goats resting near the bed- what are they doing inside the studio? There is a layer of cracked white tiles which seem to have been cleaned with acid. Why has he painted such images next to the tiles? Is Barwe really there in the painting? If not, then the cot lying in the corner, the peeling walls seen through the decrepit door-- do they tell the tale of Barwe’s last days?
But leaving interpretations aside, I am tempted to say quite simply that this is a marvellous painting. Now let’s talk of friendship with Atul.
1. Atul’s proficiency is unique. There are very few artists in India who have his standard of craftsmanship. When we were making the sets of my play Mojila Manilal, he had painted Savita and Ranchhod’s room. He painted the paniyaru, the maltu, the gas stove, the gas cylinder, etc., with great ease and speed. I was amazed as I watched him.
Similarly, years ago, there was a folk art exhibition organised by Ajit Sheth at Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan. Gulammohammed Sheikh, Jyoti Bhatt and I had brought several exhibits after traveling extensively in the villages of Gujarat. On the day before the exhibition, a twenty-foot jute curtain was hung. Ornaments to decorate a bullock were to be displayed on the curtain. I was equally amazed as I watched Jyoti Bhatt draw a bullock on thetwenty-foot curtain.
I was equally impressed at the wedding of Shireen Gandhy (of Gallery Chemould) when M.F Hussain drew the figure of Zoroaster and a black animal figure on the white backdrop. I have seen this felicity in very few artists.
2. Naturalism and a display of craftsmanship were predominant in Atul’s paintings till 1992. These photo-realistic paintings were widely appreciated. Though he received a lot of praise, he was not satisfied. He asked himself many questions when he saw the works of some painters during his stay in Paris. (These days Shibu, on a scholarship to Amsterdam, is going through a similar ‘test’.) After this, Atul’s paintings entered a new phase. Proficiency and creativity began to fuse together. The first exhibition to display paintings of this phase was in 1994 at Gallery Chemould.
The Bombay Buccaneer, which used the technique of a cinema poster; the nocturnal portrait of the artist-at-work above a network of rat-infested tunnels; Charles Correa’s Pedder Road building rising over a photo-realistic out-of-focus human face etc. These paintings clearly showed a unity of creativity and skill. Now his paintings achieve a new dimension as he connects events, and creates newer references by encompassing disparate objects.
I have written lightly about these paintings.
His paintings manage to weave together everyday objects of contemporary life. They travel all the distance from his family to the paintings of Binode Behari Mukherjee. And Atul’s childhood stories are as amusing as yours, Amit. That’s why I like your paintings.
Amit, I was deeply impressed by his paintings. In this letter, you may be able to sense the envy that lurks in a dark recess of my mind. But you are a real bastard. You’re going to tell me, that you can sense nothing but envy in the entire letter. I accept it. Okay?
But now some questions:
-Atul is capable of painting the cracked wall in the Barwe painting and the lines of broken tiles. But he is incapable of creating an abstract painting like the wall itself.
-He is incapable of painting like Van Gogh--thickly applying colours, burning, melting under a yellow sun.
-He makes careful representations of the human figure in the four corners of his canvas, but he does not fuck around with colours.
-His brush has not produced lustful couples in the throes of pulsating embrace.
-He runs away from the innovations in present-day art. He has refused to work outside the confines of a canvas, while his contemporaries are exploring all kinds of new media.
-Because he transforms his experiences and surroundings into material for his paintings, his canvas remains limited to his family, friends, favourite painters and film directors. He has never painted a ship in a stormy sea, rockets flying in space, a racing car speeding at 300mph, political events, factory labourers, challenges to apartheid and fundamentalism.
-Never has he displayed at a gallery, paintings of virgins going around a peepul tree with sacred threads. Nor has he displayed real ships, nor real peepul trees. Is Atul a weak-kneed painter?
-He has seen many museums and art galleries during his travels abroad. He talks with such enthusiasm about artists like Guston, Beuys, Kunellis, Boltanski and Schnabel. So why does he not produce works like theirs?
These are the reasons why he is considered a backward painter. If he wants a bright future, he should get out of himself and create artworks and art objects with a universal appeal.
I have given proper advice to the artist. And I have described his strengths and limitations. Amit, I feel better now. But you are going to extract layers of meaning from this and mock me before Raksha, ‘Since Bhupen can’t produce good work anymore, he has made a long list of things Atul can’t do. What was the quality of his own paintings when he was Atul’s age?’ Having said all this, I am sure; you will crumple the letter and throw it in the dustbin. I don’t mind if you do that, but don’t send this letter to Atul unless you are prepared to create enmity among friends.
Just because this letter is written in jest, it does not mean what’s written is not true.
I thank Amit Ambalal for not consigning this letter to the dustbin.
Also, some (essential) observations:
-Tree Lover for J.J- This ‘J.J.’ stands for Jasper Johns. Not the school of art.
-The young man next to Douanier Rousseau’s portrait: This is neither Ranjit Hoskote nor Che Guevara. This Alfred Jarry, the French playwright of Ubu Roi.
-Rousseau’s statement in the painting is, ‘When a king wants to wage war, a mother must go to him and order him not to do it.’ This statement has nothing to do with Picasso.
-I have never liked Andrew Wyeth. I have always loved Edward Hopper.
-And lastly, ‘lustful couples in the throes of pulsating embrace’ belong to a certain monopolised domain. Why ‘fuck around’ with someone else’s monopoly?
Why did you send my letter to Atul? Our correspondence is not for broadcasting to the whole world! You simply love to instigate a squabble between two friends! Do you know what Atul did after that? He seems to have thoroughly disliked my letter so he sent me a letter with all kinds of references to the paintings I had not seen. Slides of the paintings accompanied the letter. The fellow made me see his paintings from his own viewpoint. Now read on.
This painting is an excellent tribute to Rene Magritte’s art of deception. Magritte has shown a man with his reflection in mirror. In reality, when you stand before a mirror, you see your own face. Here, the reflection shows the man’s back. Magritte confuses us by standing reality on its head. And then he gives such a title to the painting--Reproduction Prohibited.
Atul and I had seen this painting together at the Boymans Museum. He photographed our backs with the painting and created this work. Is this not mockery? Should there not be a limit to this? Magritte is already showing two backs. Now Atul forces upon the viewer the added dimension of our backs! You’ll have to see our backs. There is no choice. Now read what the painter Atul Dodiya writes to me about this painting, ‘On my back is a rendition of Picasso’s sculpture of a pregnant woman. Above the gilt frame of Magritte’s painting there is an image of Picasso’s painting First Steps. Bhupenbhai, do you remember that I was in a hurry to return home from Holland? That was because Anju was pregnant. That’s why we had to cut our trip short and return early. I had the idea of this painting while we viewed Reproduction Prohibited together.’
It is finally the viewer who has to see the painting. It consists of the backs of three (four) people and Picasso images!
Painters will never cease to surprise me. How curiously they weave personalevents from their lives and present them before us! In your paintings of sadhus and holy men, you reveal the scandals you had observed among them when they visited your childhood home. Does this painting not depict what you often say? Those paintings containing situations and events from the painter’s life have a ring of truth to them?
Now let us look at the slide of his next painting. Atul has given the title of a Giacometti sculpture to this painting. He has included this sculpture as well as Jain cosmology in the painting. Giacometti had said about his sculpture that he wanted his works to communicate the revelation of the world’s very first sculpture.
Atul writes, “The French playwright Jean Genet writes about Giacometti’s work, “It is difficult to live with your sculpture. If I were to keep it in my bedroom it would become a shrine’. Atul connects the religiosity of this statement with Jain cosmology. Can we assume that Atul may have felt something similar when he stood before this sculpture?
FOUR FRIENDS: SUHAS, RAMU, NIREN AND DODO
This painting is based on a Hindi film story. Four adolescent friends: Suhas, Ramu,Niren and Dodo met under the religious tutelage of Ramakrishna Paramhans and swore never to part with each other. I feel Nirupa Roy must be the mother figure to these friends. She must love Dodo (the old-fashioned fool) a lot, the one who painted this picture. Today the four friends are thrown into the glare of the ‘real’ world and have forgotten their oath taken in the shade of Ramakrishna’s teachings. Of never parting ways. Only Dodo remembers, who, with shades of Nirupa Roy, sighs at the world and paints his picture in an attempt to keep the foursome together. When this painting is exhibited at the CIMA Gallery, Calcutta, perhaps the friends will come from different directions, stand before this painting, and talk of Ramakrishna’s teachings and visit the Ramakrishna Mission.
I think this painting is a saga of fraternal love. By presenting unbreakable bonds of friendship in such a personal manner, Atul wins the hearts of his viewers. This is a poignant plot that goes beyond the canvas and evokes the memories of old oaths of undying friendship.
Here I end the story of the three slides that Atul sent me. Amit, you know that looking at slides is not easy. So don’t send him this letter now, or he’ll send me slides of his watercolours.
You know every well, don’t you, that we rate him very highly as a painter?
My love to Raksha.