A crimson curtain caught in a whirlwind alludes to a lurking threat. A woman, with a page of the book open before her, clenched between her teeth, is insulated, for the moment, by a chair that takes four arrows in its back. The viewer’s eye is led to her crouching under the chair by the houndstooth geometry of the annular mattress she is painted on, only to realise that her bundled up body is consumed by it.
This dichotomy of fear and ferocity lingers through the works of Mumbai-based artist Anju Dodiya, in her solo, “The Air is a Mill of Hooks” (Vadehra Art Gallery), exhibited at Bikaner House. With its title borrowed from Sylvia Plath’s poem Mystic, the compendium of works, as they weave crisp narratives of dissonance, may well be read as a collection of poems. “It’s sad that in popular culture, Plath has become the figure for the tragic heroine. It’s a little vulgar, even. I admire her for being a fantastic craftsman of pain. She understood the grammar of pain and presented it through a refined carpentry of words,” says Dodiya.
Much like Plath, Dodiya too has structured her anxieties, imbuing them with her aesthetic, to form paintings that she renders on awkwardly shaped mattresses, a combination of fabrics and unbleached cotton. The mattress, however, does not debut as her canvas in this exhibition. “The first time I used a mattress was for a subject matter that was given to me for a work commissioned by the Grand Hyatt in Mumbai. It was a depiction of Shiva and Parvati’s marriage that I decided to paint on a double bed. So, there was an image of Shiva on one and Parvati on the other,” she says. It was this experience that led to her predilection for the mattress. “Fabric is very responsive. It doesn’t have the smoothness of paper. The resistance that fabric gives you and the associations it lends itself to excite me. The material also suggests images,” she adds. The work was also created keeping the contours of Bikaner House in mind — “the architecture, the niches and the light called for shaped mattresses.”
Steeped in the figurative idiom, her work vocalises a “reflected anguish” through a curious play of charcoal, watercolour and acrylic. “The exhibition is a catalogue of fears. They could be small fears that one experiences as a homemaker, or large ones, or even abstract fears… this is reflected anguish. It’s born of empathy for situations that people around me might be in and one feels that one could be in similar situations. I don’t suffer on a day-to-day basis. I basically want to say that I am afraid and if you’re not then you’re a fool,” says the JJ School of Art alumnus.
The self, which has been the locus of her artistic explorations, is the protagonist of the theatre Dodiya produces in her work. Impaled by a pencil in one, she seems to be using the paintbrush as a weapon of protection in another. The narratives of anxiety she builds hover between the mundanity of the everyday and extraordinary valour.
While domesticity is referenced through toasters, plants, and books, danger lurks through images of arrows, blood and skeletons. “I am painting violence more than ever before. It connects to what’s happening in the world. It’s as if the danger outside has penetrated into the artist’s studio. This is my experience of being disturbed. I’m just passing this restlessness, as if it was once mine, to my viewers. It’s like a relay of emotions,” she explains.
Even as the artist makes herself vulnerable by putting her fictionalised self into positions of perceived threat, comfort is depicted in her images of domestic interiors as well as in her choice of canvas. “When I make something on a mattress it isn’t about the couch, it’s about the concerns that the imagery raises but I am speaking from the couch. I am not in denial. I am looking at the situation from a place of comfort. This is also self-mocking. I can speak of all the dangers of the world but it’s coming from a space of safety,” says Dodiya.
The book, a recurring motif in the displayed works, is in one painting being devoured by the artist, in another they are stacked one on top of the other and in yet another the figure grieves as one is set ablaze, alluding to both the impending death of the physical book and the threats posed by censorship. “There’s great safety in a book. The onset of the digital book was at the back of my mind but it’s also about disrespect towards knowledge, which I think is a measure of civilisation. As if, all of civilisation is in that book and she is holding on to it; holding on to all that we consider precious,” she adds.
Though influenced by impulses as wide-ranging as American artists Robert Rauschenberg and Philip Guston, French impressionist cinema, ukiyo-e prints and Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, Dodiya’s work is also informed by architecture. In her series of charcoal drawings, she depicts a man and woman holding up a mobile phone to take a selfie before a diagonal structure that is much like the famed art-deco staircases reminiscent of homes
in Mumbai. These charcoal drawings, she says, “reflect the spontaneity of text messages”. But Dodiya isn’t one to reveal the complete narrative, trusting her viewers to imagine one as she gestures to her inner dialogues. “I don’t want to hand over a story to the viewer. I don’t know the story myself.” The exhibition is on till February 17.