A heroine of the peripheral


In old-fashioned watercolour and charcoal, Anju Dodiya examines the timeworn theme of artistic anxiety and renders it fresh and poignant, says Sunaina Kumar

Photo: Appurva Shah

AS SHE stands before the drawings rendered in pencil and charcoal, Anju Dodiya is aware that by evening her work may come undone, hours and hours of labour be reduced to nothing. We are at the Chemould Prescott Road Gallery in Mumbai on the opening day of her show. The afternoon lull is just perfect to appreciate the meditative nature of her work. The collection brings together two of her favourite media, bright watercolours balanced by stark etchings on paper. In front of each drawing, self-portraits of the artist, she has set up a mountain of erasers, an invitation to the viewers to erase her identity. ‘Room For Erasures’ is Dodiya’s first solo show in four years in her home city.

Self against the world Utamaro’s Promise (top) and Touching Bird II
Self against the world Utamaro’s Promise (top) and Touching Bird II

In the evening, most visitors drift towards the altar set up for erasure and tentatively rub out a line or two. One young man working assiduously rubs out the face from the first drawing, and goes on rubbing. The show takes on the quality of performance art as the audience reacts variously. An art student in the group of onlookers has tears in her eyes as she witnesses the eradication. Atul Dodiya, Anju’s husband, finally cries out to the young man to stop. Only Anju looks on stoically as her room for erasures comes to life.

This is not shock art, it’s a plea from the artist to help set her free, to find new direction. The time and place are appropriate for the symbolic act. Her first solo show of self-portraits was staged in the same gallery 20 years ago. Ever since, Anju Dodiya has been “watching herself watch herself”, as has been said of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.

As a student at JJ College of Arts in Mumbai, every night she would look into the mirror and draw herself. That nocturnal diary would become the defining motif of her work she did not know then. But she felt an inexplicable need to draw faces. In the figures she creates, she puts clues to her identity, the shape of the eyebrow, the tilt of the nose, the arch of the lips, and then cloaks herself, taking on multiple identities. In a 1996 watercolour titled ‘Leda’, she becomes Alice in Wonderland, sitting on a chair with a swan head, a pre-adolescent on the brink of sexuality. These alter egos are her “fictional self-portraits”.

The works are finally much more than just portraits. They are ruminations on the creative process, the fear and anxiety of being an artist. The figure in her paintings is often shown with a pencil, a paint brush, a sheet of blank paper. In ‘Room For Erasures’, a watercolour depicts a female sprawled on the ground and devoured by faceless beasts. The figure is the artist who undergoes the agony of creation. “People think my work is about a girl in a room, but it is the artist in a room, it’s an allegory of the creative process, there is colour and light, and also a kind of tension, constant in the work and in my head,” she says.

Art collector Harsh Goenka, who has been collecting her work, says, “The narrative of the battle between the artist and the creative process is very interesting for me. In the past five years, I feel she has grown tremendously.” From her new collection, where the works are priced up to 25 lakh, he bought a watercolour titled ‘Utamaro’s Promise’, which depicts a dragon-like figure and an artist with a paintbrush. Like all her works, it is beautiful to look at. There is absolute mastery of a difficult medium like watercolour, there is also a pervasive brooding quality, a poignancy that gives pause, and evokes something unnameable inside of you.

Artist Shilpa Gupta, who was exposed to her works as a student in JJ College 15 years ago, became a life-long fan. Says Gupta, “I feel full, heavy, emotionally charged when I see her works. There is an instant response. I am proud as a young artist that she is part of our art scene. She has stuck to her genre and beliefs, and her body of work is of consistently high quality.”

Anju, 48, and Atul Dodiya, 53, began their careers in the mid ’80s as students at JJ College. They came from opposite worlds, she from a wealthy Sindhi family who travelled in a Mercedes and lived in Malabar Hill, and he from a middle-class family in Ghatkopar, but were drawn to each other through their passion for poetry, literature and cinema. These were the times of the pre-commercial art world, the boom was some time away and to be an art couple then had none of the glamour associated with art now. Their ascetic leaning has been shaped by their teachers and friends like Tyeb Mehta and Akbar Padamsee.

In the early years of marriage, the money they made went towards buying books on art, and travelling abroad to visit museums and galleries. Despite the global art careers they have shaped for themselves, they are as academically inclined and retain a touching modesty. They are never seen at parties and their greatest passion even now is burying their noses in books. “It sounds very banal. But, at one time we couldn’t afford the books we wanted. Now that we can is something to be celebrated,” says Anju. Their 19-year-old daughter Biraaj, who is studying fine art in the US will inherit those books and catalogues of images and the knowledge and ways of seeing from her parents. Her father says that her choice to be an artist is one she could not escape.

“On the dining table, our conversation often goes like this… ‘Would the raw amber work or burnt sienna look better?’” says Atul. Their passion feeds off each other. Anju feels he pushes her to be more ambitious, think bigger, and Atul says she has helped him shape his ideology, learn to articulate and convey in words why he does the work he does. “We are brutally critical of each other’s works,” says Anju. Their way of working is drastically apart. She locks herself in her studio, works on one project at a time, and does not show her work until it’s completed. Her themes and inspirations have remained the same and deepened with time. Atul keeps an open studio in Ghatkopar, where they live, their friends and neighbours walk in and participate in the process. He takes on multiple projects at a time and keeps changing shape as an artist, open to new influences.

EVEN THOUGH Anju is compared most often with Frida Kahlo, her art is closer to Francis Bacon the Irish painter whose self-portraits reflected his darkest emotions, than Kahlo’s exhibitionism. “There is always the fear of facing blank white and I’m surprised by the terror I experience when I make pictures. The self-doubt is a constant, a huge block in the studio. But now I tell myself, this is what you work with, this is the material of your life.” With a sense of irony, she refers to Susan Sontag’s essay, ‘Artist as Exemplary Sufferer’. She’s aware that there is “real suffering” in the world, so her suffering as an artist is a pantomime of suffering. The family joke goes that outside her glass studio, a board should say, ‘Panic Room’.

Over the years, she has recurringly dealt with her struggle with vitiligo, that left marks on her skin which have now almost faded away. In ‘Room For Erasures’, a suite of photographs becomes the chronological history of her face, and how it has changed over the years. “The work developed as I was looking at old pictures. I realised time has passed, a journey taken, I can calm down, and look at it from a distance.”

Anju remains a slave to the old-fashioned form of painting, which is a greater strength than limitation as it sets her apart

In these times when contemporary artists are constantly employing new media, Anju Dodiya is a misfit. She remains a slave to the old-fashioned form of painting, which is a greater strength than limitation as it sets her apart. Gallerist Shireen Gandhy says, “What could have been a weakness is not because every work is so masterful.” She has struggled to resist the tag of feminism attached to contemporary female artists like Nalini Malani, Sheba Chhachhi and Rekha Rodwittiya. Gandhy points out that Dodiya’s work appears to be personal and inward, but it addresses larger issues, though in an obtuse way.

A 2007 collection by her, ‘All Night I Shall Gallop’, was inspired by the poetry of Sylvia Plath. And it is to Plath one can turn to sum up her artistic endeavour, “I shall be the heroine of the peripheral”.

Room For Erasure is on display at Chemould Prescott Road Gallery till 24 October

Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka. 


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