Placed in back-lit glass cabinets, an odd collection of objects greets you at the entrance of the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai. A framed cover of Paul Klee’s book Theatre Everywhere is placed next to a photo of school children lining up for a museum visit. There’s a picture of a stone wall etched with the words “The bad artists imitate, the good artists steal”. It’s signed by Pablo Picasso, which is scratched out and resigned by Banksy, a popular street artist. Miniature Van Goghs are next to colourful statuettes of urban couples, with a parody of Edvard Munch’s famous work The Scream, down the same row.
This collection, titled “7000 Museums: A Project for the Republic of India”, is Atul Dodiya’s tribute to art, artists and museums. “Museums have changed my life; as an art student, I would spend hours wandering the halls of city museums,” says Dodiya. “But over the years, I’ve become aware that our society is dominated by subjects such as politics and cricket, so that arts and culture struggle for attention. I wanted to create a collection that gets people talking about museums again.”
Dodiya initiates this conversation through photographs, poems, paintings and sculptures. Take for instance, his photos of unsuspecting visitors at museums across the world, people who stand awestruck before a famous work, or as they catch a breather on a wooden bench next to a fan. “I love watching people at museums: why they spend so much time on ancient art or sculpture, how they shake their head and walk away baffled at a contemporary work,” he says.
Put together in association with Chemould Prescott Road for over a year, “7000 Museums…” is part of Bhau Daji Lad’s curatorial series titled “Engaging Traditions”. Dodiya’s show is a take on the museum’s extensive collection of paintings, ceramics and clay sculptures capturing the city’s history, its communities and their trades.
Some of his photographs capture vendors, hawkers and tiny shops located around Mumbai’s museums. Adding a playful touch are Atul Kolatkar’s poems on Bombay, displayed alongside the exhibits. For instance, the poet’s Meera is centred on the mood outside Jehangir Art Gallery after an art show opening, while Breakfast at Kala Ghoda talks about south Bombay’s food culture.
For Dodiya, museums are keepers of history. In the exhibition are his canvas works on India’s freedom struggle. “In the ’30s and ’40s, while the Mahatma was fighting in the west, a literary giant, Rabindranath Tagore, picked up a paint brush at the age of 69. I felt a connection between these two great minds,” he says. So Tagore’s early drawings are superimposed with images of Gandhi’s peace protests held in Mumbai.
Then there are Dodiya’s water colours that reimagine mock museums, such as a Guggenheim in Gorakhpur where a sadhu stretches on a leopard skin. “I got to thinking what if Indian cities too had a Museum of Modern Art, or a Metropolitan Museum,” he says, “Small and active galleries on contemporary art, is the need of the hour.”
The story appeared in print with the headline Museum, Museum on the Wall