Her inner dialogues propel Mumbai-based artist Anju Dodiya’s practice. From her first solo at Chemould Prescott Road in Mumbai in 1991 to the 2009 Venice Biennale, the 50-year-old has drawn influences from early Renaissance masters like Piero della Francesca and Giotto di Bondone to medieval French tapestries, Sylvia Plath’s poetry and Japanese ukiyo-e (woodblock prints and paintings) prints. In her current exhibition “Imagined Immortals” at Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery, the two-time Sotheby’s Prize-nominated artist has turned printed pages of a medical illustration book into her canvas. She talks about the dark pull of the mundane, about her interest in world cinema and her family. Excerpts:
This set of work beautifies medical illustrations. It brings together the living and the dead. Drawings of human anatomy are juxtaposed with everything from photographs of roses to fruit trees. How did you manage it?
As a student, I just did collages. As for medical illustrations, I first developed interest in them while looking for Japanese ukiyo-e prints. I came across a book of medical illustrations by a French doctor and immediately knew I had to paint on it. The first time I applied guache on the printed image, it repelled the ink. I let that be. It was a surprise, fun exercise. It is a playful, light approach to the blood, organs and bones, nothing to do with suffering or pain. It reflects the absurdity of life — accepting death and treating it with humour. I first used them in a group exhibition curated by Geeta Kapur, “Subject of Death” in 2013, before this.
You also make an appearance in this exhibition. In Witness, you hide behind a book, in the canvas Panic Room, you are being pulled by a shadow.
I usually have one painting featuring myself in every exhibition. The canvas has a portrait of Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, and the detail is from a Francisco De Goya painting. It was on a postcard I got from Spain. The woman in there is me being pulled back — it’s the dark pull of the mundane, the anxiety of creativity slipping away. The constant fear of not being able to do enough. Buñuel, with his surreal cinema, is like this ambassador of freedom. His work has that thing about psychological liberation.
As a student at the JJ School of Art in Mumbai, is it true that you maintained a diary where you sketched yourself, looking into the mirror every night? But, there was not much of you in your initial work. It featured a lot of abstract art, scenes of railway stations, etc.
In my initial work, there were some portraits of me, not literally, but as a girl in the studio or as an artist in the house. It wasn’t really about myself. In college, the exercise was more like a diary. I made drawings of myself looking into the mirror. My husband (artist Atul Dodiya) pointed out that it shouldn’t be a side activity. He told me to make it “the” work. So now it is “I” who features in my work much like the classical device in literature. It’s my fictional self that appears and disappears. There are activities happening where that person plays a role.
Your first site-specific installation, The Throne of Frost, came quite late in your career, in 2007 at Lukshmi Villas Palace, Baroda. Why did you not experiment with the medium earlier?
It was a grand space that demanded something like that to be done. My whole approach was that of a painter. There were no walls, I put stands in a rectangular arrangement with the paintings, on the floor space, enclosed by the boxes, where large shards of glass mirrors reflected the viewers, paintings, chandeliers and the ornate ceiling above. It was a device to control that space, to connect with it. I have no hierarchy of medium, it depends on how the idea evolves. It’s a journey that goes back and forth.
You also invited viewers to erase your work in 2012; you gave them erasers to rub off three enormous works (pencil on pre-stained paper) in the exhibition “Room for Erasures” in Mumbai
At that point, I was concerned about the reputation I had as an artist who does self-portraits. After working on so many different things, I found that upsetting. This was a self-enquiry, opening other doors. If I was unable to dispose of the self-image, I wanted to seek help from the viewers. I saw it as a cleaning ritual. I made large, 8×5 ft works, which were available to viewers to touch, erase, do what they wanted with it. Some people were respectful and did not touch the work, others said it was nothing but a big stunt, and some happily and vigorously erased the works. An emotional theatre was built up, it was the performance of the viewer, not me.
You like to work in seclusion. I believe your studio is like a meditation room?
For me, the process of making art is intuitive, calling for great concentration, and I can’t let that moment go. Solitude allows that to happen. I don’t use assistants, it’s an old-fashioned studio, where birds and squirrels come. Also, the medium I use is very intense, so that requires concentration. The weather plays an important role. Monsoon is good for water colours. In dry season, the paper becomes a papad, so I don’t switch on the fan. Atul works according to the season, so he does watercolour through the monsoon, but I just do what I want to. I struggle, but push myself.
Atul and you are fond of movies. Is it true that you have mini film festivals at home?
Yes, both of us were members of film clubs as students and have been watching films together for long. We have a lot of DVDs at home. Often, we watch one film and then decide to watch more films by the same filmmaker for the whole week. Recently, my daughter, Biraaj, was here and we picked Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou. Both Atul and I love French New Wave cinema. I also like the works of Ingmar Bergman. When I was developing my repertoire, Bergman played a very important role. The way he shows the close-up, the emotional crescendo, the sense of humour and dark landscape, I connect with it and understand it. Among Indian filmmakers, we enjoy Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, and more recently, Anurag Kashyap.
Your daughter is studying art at the University of Chicago. Do you think she has access to much more opportunities than what you had as a student?
She has been travelling with us since she was five. She has seen great museums, spent time looking at art. Now the Chicago museum is next to her school. As a student, I just loved Robert Rosheburg, but there was only one book that had his work. Now, of course, there is the internet. The first complete hands-on experience of viewing works by great masters I had was when we were in Paris for a year (1991-92), when Atul was there on scholarship.
the self and the other (clockwise from far left) Anju Dodiya; Panic Room, the water colour and charcoal work inspired by Buñuel; Peach Blossoms; The Road Not Taken; Witness — mixed media work on printed paper that are on display at the ongoing exhibition