Known to engage with the sociopolitical environment and art history in his works, artist Atul Dodiya turns to the western masters once again in the exhibition titled ‘Stammer in the Shade’. On at Vadehra art Gallery in Delhi, it features an ensemble of paintings, cut-outs and photographs that come together to form a ‘shrine’. Dodiya, 61, talks about his inspirations and the need to experiment. Excerpts:
Could you talk about your longstanding association with the masters.
The first oil painting I did, when I was in 10th standard, was a self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh. I had it seen in a book. I have always felt that one’s own art is important but so much great art has happened in the past, from pre-Renaissance to modern times, not just in Europe but also Asia, and it is important to learn from that. When I was at Sir JJ School of Art, I was told by some of my friends that one of my main problems was that I was seeing too much of other people’s work. They said, if you do that then there is an influence on your work and that’s not a good thing. But I feel if I don’t see, how will I know what have others done. Akbar Padamsee told me that art comes from art, art doesn’t come from life.
When you look at other people’s works, you are inspired. One learns not just the craft of art from these people but also the way of living. They were fearless and courageous, always challenging themselves. As artists, we are free but freedom is not given, you have to snatch it. We are also bound by so many things — including market, curators, competition, galleries — that isn’t wrong but if due to that you stop growing, then there is a danger. So I try to do things differently. Sometimes when it is too different, I wonder if it the right thing, or am I someone who is totally confused.
Was it after going to France (in 1991-92) that you got more interested in the works of the masters?
Not really. When I was a student at JJ School, I often went to the library to see the works of the western masters. At the same time, I was also looking at the Indian masters, cinema art, calendar art, oleographs and so on. I remember my father gave me Rs 100 to buy shoes when I was going with my college on an excursion, to North India, but I used it to buy books on art instead. Later, when I went to Paris and saw the original works of the western masters, I almost lost faith in myself. I felt that I called myself a figurative painter but within the genre such profound work had happened. What was I doing?
The shutters in the exhibition are much smaller than the previous ones.
When I first did shutters in 2000, it was a comment on sociopolitical issues and the riots. It denoted a veil, with something behind the curtain — the view differed, depending on whether the curtain was half open, or shut. Initially, we would show three reproductions of the shutters — closed, half open and full open. When I saw the half open view, I thought what if the same is painted on canvas. That’s when I did ‘Malevich Matters’. In the current exhibition, I have made the shutters smaller. I use them as sculptural pieces, but they hang on the wall. Even my cabinets go on the wall; essentially my vision is a painter’s vision. Here, I have made painting more difficult. I am painting on a corroded surface. There is immense possibility of creating new types of painting and that is what I have been doing all these years. If I see something and am happy with it, I get tired and bored. It is important to have an element of surprise.
You call the set of works ‘shrines’. Each shutter has a painting and a photograph of an element from the works of the masters (including Picasso, Van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Gustave Courbet). How did you conceptualise this?
The works of these masters are usually in broad ornate frames in the museums. Since the last couple of years, I have been photographing these frames with the bottom part of the painting. I have used the photographs on top of the shutters on which I paint. I feel that I am resting there, in the shade. The shadow of these heavy frames was my main subject. I have learned so much from these great artists and their art that whatever I attempt and do is just stammering. I’m not hesitant that this is someone else’s art. They are not outsiders, they are like my family. As a young child, you hold the hands of the elders and walk. That is what I have been doing with the masters. I told someone, Picasso did all this work for whom? It was for me. Everything belongs to me. If I say the moon is mine, no one can snatch it from me.
Could you tell us a bit about the landscapes in the exhibition.
Landscapes allow tremendous artistic freedom to explore form and colour — look at the sky, how light changes from morning to night, or the way light falls on the earth so that the same tree appears different at different times. Some of the landscapes remind me of Rabindranath Tagore, Benode Behari Mukherjee, or early 20th century masters like Carlo Carra and Piet Mondrian. I feel that as an artist I am allowed to go into the past and bring their works to the present. In some of the works, I have also taken a few lines from Gujarati poet Labhshankar Thaker.
Several of your works are sociopolitical, and comment on the current times. Would you be making works on what is happening at present?
As an artist, I also engage with the society. I have been working a lot on Gandhi, with regard to the violence and killings. The shutter series started after the Gujarat riots. It is encouraging to see women sitting out in the winters in Shaheen Bagh in Delhi or the students coming out on the streets to protest. They are there because there is something that they are not convinced about, and it is important for the government to try to convince them if they think they are right. What is wrong in a dialogue? Just to brush it off is not democracy.
The exhibition at Vadehra Art Gallery,
D-53 Defence Colony, is on till February 29
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