In its embrace of its history, what the Bhau Daji Lad museum has achieved is to draw links between its colonial collection and post-colonial revisitations. Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, as the museum’s Director has set up a template which extends the potential for the theoretical engagement with post-colonial study. This takes shape through multivalent responses in the form of a series of solo shows. The museum collection itself is something of a multi bagger aesthetic hotchpotch of what 19th and early 20th century representations of the nation could be. There are the people of India through dioramas and small painted figurines, Gods and Goddesses in material as wide ranging as cast copper, carved sandwood, and clay, marble statuary and silver and bidri ware. To this kind of melange Mehta and a series of very well known artists have set up exhibitions as a response to the museum. By its very nature, this process is dialogic. And while the response may vary from nostalgia, to subversion and critique, what the process enables is a reconsideration of the museum as an active place for contemporary engagement.
In its most recent edition is Atul Dodiya’s 7000 Museums: A Project for the Republic of India. Despite its overtly nationalistic tones, the title belies the layers, nuances and the condition of doubt that the works bear. Dodiya’s preferred modes of exhibition making, through the vitrine or cabinet seem particularly well suited to the Bhau Daji Lad space. What he achieves in the present exhibition is through the strengths and limitations of iteration. Dodiya seems particularly well suited to using the museum as backdrop: populated densely as it is with a rich chunk of the history of Mumbai, his essential subject.
The exhibition uses the notion of the cusp of time, the period before independence where both the artist’s imagination and the museum’s artefacts find a thread of shared synergy. The vitrine as used by the artist blends as a form and startles with its content in the placid space of the Bhau Daji Lad decorative objects. The objects Dodiya puts out on view mimics his painterly style of collage that draws on citation, mimicry and subversive reference. The viewer then oscillates between the familiarity of recognition and the startled realisation of a subverted act - a sly rejoinder, a mocking glance, an irreverent quotation. The very act of iteration, of copying, is at the heart of academic learning as Dodiya would have learnt it at the J J School of Art, Mumbai, and which he executes so masterfully in works like Piero Pierced, to speak back from the margins to the centres of world art. In the context of Bhau Daji lad collection, he plays upon the repetitive nature of the image and how its material and execution accord it value. There is here an unrelenting view on class value, and iteration serves to mime the reproduction of the market place with its faux Gods and printed Bollywood heroes. In the vitrines that he inserts, Dodiya is alternately scathing, witty and arch, but also dense in his citation of art and museum history, played out through the world of objects. Dodiya makes a conceptual collaboration with text, in this case the poetry of Arun Kolatkar, celebrated Marathi poet. The poems relate to the city of Mumbai, its passing pleasures, swift change and decay. Dodiya treats this collaboration with great formal respect. The poems inscribed on the verso of the cabinets appear as if on the turning of the page, complete in their demand for our attention.
In two other sets of work, Dodiya addresses issues that spring from the site as well as his own explorations of what constitutes cultural value. 7000 Museums is an intriguing exercise: a series of watercolours that locate the world class museum in B or C grade Indian towns, identified by a tropist figure. Seen together in the same frame, both the figure and the museum - as the bearer of ethnicity - render each other an anomaly. Sudamapuri and the Bilbao, or MoMA and Rajkot posited together beg the question on the utility of museums when an entire way of life is slipping away. Dodiya has spoken of the work as an exemplar of hope for the common man, but the images suggest a huge lag in cultural location between the museum and its subjects. The museum paintings which seem like an oversimplification at first have an insistent quality that drives home the fact that Indian has over 2000 museums that categorise as war museums, archaeology, science, anthropology and so on. Yet these stand at a huge distance from the global museum, an admission perhaps of cultural difference and with it, failure. This series has a quality of predictability and surprise - but it breaks with Dodiya’s preferred treatment of space as an algorithm determined field which allows for forms to appear outside of context and location. In the third set of paintings Dodiya reverts to his metier - India at the cusp of freedom, with Gandhi as heroic artistic centrepiece. Arrest at the Wadala Salt Depot or Onboard the SS Rajputana in a heightened monochrome are among Dodiya’s best paintings on the dramatic prelude to Independence. I am interested in the process in which he engages the archival photograph and the degree of play that he allows himself. The still frame acquires the urgency of the cinematic and the poignancy of a changing present politics. Dodiya’s invocation of Gandhi complicates what Gandhi himself called the “darshan dilemma”, of the ubiquity of his image. In his refusal to let Gandhi rest in the space of the memorial, the monument or the paean to great men, Dodiya returns insistently to the idea of the ethical state and personal freedom. In this way Gandhi becomes the signifier or even the archetype of his own image, mutating and immanent, a ready reckoner of our own troubled times.
The exhibition falls into three parts, which address museums and museumization, and the vexed area of memorialization. These are not Dodiya’s most spectacular works: they are short on the spectacle and theatre of his shutters and the eviscerating effect of the series of Tearscape. Together, they are a compelling interrogation of value, a compression of the agonistics of present and past. They also appear as warning of a period in history in danger of losing its moorings, one whose everyday vitality will slip away from the palpable into the airless confines of the museum vitrine.