Creator of a Floating World

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Many viewers who visited Experiments With Truth: Atul Dodiya, Works 1981-2013, the survey exhibition of the 1959-born artist’s works that I curated recently for the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, were surprised by the capaciousness of the imagination that greeted them there. Atul Dodiya’s work ranges from exuberant, polychrome riffs on the popular cinema poster to pensive, near-monochromatic meditations based on the poetry of Federico García Lorca, Arun Kolatkar, AK Ramanujan and Kamal Vora. If many of his paintings encode his dialogues with such artistic exemplars as Raja Ravi Varma, Gerhard Richter and Tyeb Mehta, he has also, in recent years, developed a series of archive-like cabinets laden with toys, photographs, painted fragments, sculptures, prosthetic limbs and other objects referring to various aspects of his artistic research.

Dodiya’s art is driven by the encyclopaedist’s desire to embrace the totality of the world. In his paintings, sculpture installations and roller shutter-based works, he absorbs the forms of high culture from the museum and the academy, captures the echoes of popular culture from the street and the bazaar, and enshrines the images of a wide array of artists whom he has gathered together to form a genealogy or gharana for himself. The witnessing, recording and reflective ‘I’ in Dodiya’s art is not a single personality, but a plurality of selves. The origins of Dodiya’s plural self and encyclopaedic drive — as well as the expansiveness with which he incorporates a range of cultural references and formal techniques — may well lie in the complex processes of informal education that have shaped his worldview.

I would argue that Dodiya is effectively an autodidact, despite having been educated formally as a visual artist at the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art, Bombay, known fondly as ‘JJ’ in the city’s art circles. He has taught himself, and has been the beneficiary of the informal, largely performative and highly effective knowledge that may be acquired in dedicated reading circles, conversation groups, film clubs and salons, which constitute the real academies for artists and writers in societies such as India. The oral transmission and circulation of knowledge in these situations constitutes a form of the guru-shishya parampara.

When Dodiya was a student in the late 1970s, and to a considerable extent even today, nearly four decades later — the JJ pedagogy displayed a technicist bias. The emphasis was on the formal mastery of such traditional media as oil and watercolour painting, and charcoal and graphite drawing. The life class was a major focus of activity, as though the institution were still in the late 19th century; and a puzzling distinction was made by the faculty, and indeed by the academic curriculum, between ‘realistic’ and ‘creative’ artistic expression.

India’s art schools were founded to serve a colonial-era bureaucratic mandate to produce trained draughtsmen and painters to staff the Empire’s various survey missions, intended to study and codify the subcontinent’s flora, fauna, populations, occupations, architecture and topography. The collision of this early mandate with a later and more romantic idiom of pedagogy premised on the notion of the artist as a genius devoted to the sublime and the picturesque — an idiom that took the genres of fantasy and landscape for its compass points—is responsible for the peculiar ‘realistic’ versus ‘creative’ dichotomy at an art school such as JJ.

During Dodiya’s student years, the primacy of oil painting over all other media was nearly unquestioned; the young artist was meant to seek, as a good modernist, his own specific style; and it was understood that his practice would be informed by a medium-specific approach. Moreover, abstractionism was the reigning dogma at JJ in those years: the influential pedagogue Shankar Palshikar, a votary of Paul Klee and a reader of Greenberg, had melded their doctrines with a Yogic mysticism to propose an artistic commitment to dissolve the object-oriented image in a non-representational pictorial space. As a result, the official JJ programme has not been able to train painting in the art of self-defence while dealing with the formal and conceptual challenges thrown up by cinema, conceptualism, new media, and the ubiquitous forms of digital technology. It is not surprising that Dodiya should have become an autodidact, nourishing his sensibility from diverse sources even as he met the technicist expectations of his teachers.

Dodiya was drawn towards world cinema in his late teens. In 1975-76, he joined the newly founded film society, Screen Unit; from 1979 to 1981, while he was a student at JJ, he was a member of the Alliance Française film club. At these venues, he discovered, and saw in their amplitude, the films of Antonioni, Bergman, Bresson, Bunuel, Ghatak, Godard, Truffaut, Ray, Resnais and Mrinal Sen; he also saw a great deal of Hungarian, Polish and Soviet cinema. With some of his friends, who used to draw, paint in watercolours and listen to Hindustani music, Dodiya would attend concerts by magisterial vocalists like Bhimsen Joshi, Kumar Gandharva, Prabha Atre and Kishori Amonkar.

The artist also developed a taste for literature and began to visit the Chhabildas School in Dadar, Central Bombay, which served as a platform for the avant-garde Marathi theatre movement. Leading playwrights and directors like Vijay Tendulkar and Satish Alekar rehearsed their productions there; actors like Shriram Lagoo and Amol Palekar used to feature in plays there. The legendary director and dramaturge Satyadev Dubey was a fixture, and the work of the experimental Bengali playwright Badal Sircar, who yoked absurdism to the 1960s-’70s politics of an angry young India, was discussed there. Dodiya’s cultural appetite was insatiable: he absorbed all these impulses with delight.

Even before entering JJ, Dodiya had discovered modernist and postmodernist Gujarati poetry. From the neighbourhood raddiwallah, the scrap merchant, in Ghatkopar, he bought back issues of the Gujarati literary journal Kshitij, edited by Suresh Joshi, a leading modernist writer and critic. It was in the pages of Kshitij, Sanskriti, Uhapoh and other leading journals that he first read the poems of Umashankar Joshi, Sitanshu Yashaschandra, Labhshanker Thaker, Ravji Patel and Gulammohammed Sheikh. The covers of Kshitij regularly featured works by KG Subramanyan, MF Husain, Jeram Patel, Jyoti Bhatt, Sheikh and Bhupen Khakhar, which formed Dodiya’s first introduction to their art. In 1977-78, his first year at JJ, Dodiya began to attend the seminars on literature and aesthetics organised by the Indian National Theatre (INT). For the first time, he met Yashaschandra and Thaker.

Later, with his teacher at JJ, the painter Prabhakar Kolte, he read Suresh Joshi’s poems, as well as the Gujarati translations of Kafka, Neruda, Borges, Camus and Merleau-Ponty that appeared in the journals that Joshi edited, Kshitij and Etad. Dodiya also attuned himself to the factional disputes of this scene: Thaker stood in strong ideological opposition to Suresh Joshi; his group, based in Ahmedabad and called the Zreagh (pronounced ‘Ray’) Group, embraced radical avant-garde literary practices. A number of these Gujarati poets were inspired by Dadaism and Surrealism, Beat poetics and the Fluxus movement; committed to an experimentalism in life and art, they were attracted to the Black Mountain College ethos, the work of John Cage, the poetry of Ginsberg.

Importantly, too, it was the Gujarati critics and poets who introduced Dodiya to the inheritance of Santiniketan — the Tagores, Nandalal Bose, Benodebehari Mukherjee and Ram Kinker Baij. The Bombay art world was dominated at first by the narrative of the Progressive Artists Group, which was later supplanted by the narrative of the Baroda movement. The exposure to Santinketan, through a literary detour, opened Dodiya’s eyes to the historical circumstances of what the art historian R Siva Kumar has called a “contextual modernism” developed in eastern India in the 1930s and ’40s during the turbulent decades of the global Depression, the Gandhian liberation struggle, the Tagorean cultural renaissance and World War II.

During his JJ years, Dodiya met Karamshi Pir, who was to play an influential role in his informal education. An astute littérateur, Pir has, over the years, translated Baudelaire, Gramsci, Duchamp, Heidegger, Althusser, Foucault, Habermas and Octavio Paz, as well as Tagore and Ananda K Coomaraswamy into Gujarati. In a 2009 conversation with Nancy Adajania and the present writer, Dodiya recounted his first meeting with this formidable yet genial aesthete: “I found a Kutchi gentleman who actually had framed drawings and abstract paintings on his walls, not the usual mirrors with glass inlay images of Mahavir Swami that one would expect in such an ethos. And he had books from floor to ceiling. In Ghatkopar! What a great moment that was! Through Karamshi bhai, I also met antiquarian and archaeological researcher Virchand Dharamsey, who would come over to see Karamshi bhai every Sunday. From their friend Chandrakant Seth, a violinist and photographer, I learnt to appreciate classical music. Through Karamshi Pir, I met many other writer friends — Bharat Naik, Kamal Vora, Jayant Parekh and Pranjivan Mehta. When Bharat bhai and his wife Geeta ben founded the journal Gadyaparva in the late 1980s, these friendships and the connection between literature and art really flowered for me.”

Perhaps it is in this richly cosmopolitan environment of 20th-century Gujarati avant-garde poetry, its poets, critics, theorists, readers and supporters that the sources and validations of Dodiya’s sense of a plural ‘I’ may be found. Dodiya often reminds his interlocutors, such exchanges between the visual and the literary arts defined the crucible moments of 20th-century art and sustained a variety of avant-garde movements, including Dadaism and Surrealism. As a model of practice, his art demonstrates the vital necessity, for visual artists, to nurture the connections between their work and the richly varied explorations of poets, essayists and novelists; to migrate among forms of cultural expression and educate oneself in the diverse potentialities of the life of imagination.

Hoskote is a poet, cultural theorist and curator. He has edited the monograph Atul Dodiya (Prestel Verlag + Vadehra Art Gallery, 2014)

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