"Let your life lightly dance on the edges of Time like dew on the tip of a leaf." ~ Rabindranath Tagore

Faces of India
Atul Dodiya

Romola Butalia meets artist Atul Dodiya as much for the pleasure of viewing and talking about his recent work, as for the quality of his interaction with human beings and his humility.

The first time I met Atul Dodiya in the sweltering heat of a Bombay afternoon in June, his studio in Ghatkopar was virtually over-run by our television crew for a story on artists exhibiting at the Jehangir Art Gallery on the theme "Bombay".

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He was dressed in paint splattered pyjamas and a shirt, and excused himself to dress neatly in trousers and shirt. Throughout the long afternoon he patiently answered questions and remained unruffled by the presence of strangers stomping through his studio. Meeting him again was as much for the pleasure of viewing and talking about his recent work, as it was for the quality of his interaction with human beings and his humility.

Dodiya lived in a chawl in Ghatkopar since birth. At the age of 11, he knew he wanted to be a painter. Having failed twice in his SSC exams, and having finally scraped through school, it was a relief to immerse himself in his one passion - art. Accustomed in his early years to painting in an open verandah, which has since been covered, he needs neither space nor privacy to pursue his work. In the midst of noise and casual conversation, he can remain intent in his own private space. A few years ago along with his extended family he shifted to a nearby flat. His first home now converted to a studio, the larger of two rooms holds his easel with bright lights directed towards his canvas. Beside it, on a table are his brushes and painting material, neatly stacked. In a corner of the room is a bed that serves as a divan with pillows for cushions. A bookshelf, study table and chair complete the picture of a spartan and scrupulously tidy studio.


Here, Dodiya works from 9 a.m. till 9 p.m. with a brief break for lunch at home. In the late afternoon, his wife Anju joins him at the studio. She remains in the inner smaller room, where she paints undisturbed. He enjoys her company and can easily discuss his work, but never disturbs her while she paints, as she prefers not to discuss an incomplete work. Dodiya readily acknowledges that being married to a painter is a relief, because Anju understands without explanations the joys and frustrations of his work. They had met when Anju was a student at J.J. School of Art, where Dodiya taught, having been awarded a fellowship after his graduation in '82, when he stood first.

There was a time when he painted literally. He looked at objects as potential pictorial possibilities. He painted objects, people, rooms, exactly as they were, having first placed them against a studied background in chosen lighting conditions. He took photographs which he then translated onto canvas, in the style of Hyper-realism. Dodiya says, "I was fascinated by the concept of limiting the three dimensional to two dimensions."

Seeing an object he wants to paint, he sometimes spends years mulling over the context in which to place it. He begins a painting only after considerable deliberation. He spends days planning his work, sketching on paper. He pencils his canvas, taking upto a week to work on it, before finally working, almost exclusively with oils and acrylic. There are no frenzied brush strokes, no unrestrained emotions, only a disciplined conscious control. He chooses the style according to the subject he wants to depict, and over time, has developed his own unmistakable, distinctive style.


His early years were spent against a relatively static background, with little emotional upheaval. This necessarily leant a certain flat-ness to his paintings, restricted as they were to the portrayal of his social environment. Having mastered the skill of depiction, and bored by the repetitiveness, he began to innovate. He says, "I had depicted enough of quiet, middle-class, suburban living." Having assimilated his early experiences, he was able to experiment with free flowing thought, examining his conscious, subconscious and unconscious mind to develop an individual insight that seeks a unique expression.

Recognising his own classical temperament, content and form still predominate his work. Not, as in the photo-realism of his earlier works as a dispassionate observer, truthful to reality, but in the ability to personify his emotions and experiences through everyday objects. For him, objects are always against a background, foreground or mid-ground, and his paintings pay complete attention to detail. Nothing is there by chance, only because of conscious thought, and so, nothing remains inexplicable.

Dodiya has conscientiously studied art, and consciously experimented in developing his own style, out of the need to grow and to diversify. With the rare gift of being able to talk about art to anyone who cares to ask, he has stripped the esoteric of its pedestal of pretentious intellectualism. Having moved considerably beyond a narrative style of depiction, he is now able to explore the social milleu he hails from with unaffected humour. He acknowledges the influences on his life and paintings with an unusual directness through homages in his work itself, thus freeing himself to grow beyond. He renders the sublime to the prosaic, without diluting it's value. He treats life seriously, without taking himself too seriously, and so achieves an unmistakable balance.


For several years he helplessly watched his sister suffering from excruciating pain inflicted by a brain tumour. His painting "Oh Nayna" exhibited at Gallery Chemould a few years ago is dedicated to her. The peeling paint on the white hospital bed, the chart monitoring her condition, the worn striped bed-sheet all tell a poignant tale, impossible not to be moved by. The bizarre combination of a brain and the hacking and sawing tools spread on the bed tell an unspeakable story of Dodiya's trauma at watching his sister repeatedly undergo invasive surgery. The rakhi lying amidst the instruments of pain define the depth of an indefinable relationship. The soft satin embroidered pillow is Dodiya's only gift of comfort to his sister. By not including the subject of the painting, a painful objectivity is achieved. Despite his own urgent need for catharsis, he has not sacrificed the privacy of the one who suffers. The emptiness of the bed represents Dodiya's own conscious struggle to come to terms with an inevitable reality. When he showed his painting to his sister she smiled. Perhaps in recognition of what she already knew.

For the past few years Dodiya has repeatedly been confronted with suffering, trauma and death, and they have led to the inevitable search for explanation, justification and eventually, equanimity and faith. Art is the result of being willing to explore oneself, life and the meaning of existence, through a chosen medium. Having known the torment of agony, he has also experienced ecstacy, and through both he has achieved the development of intuition, clearly reflected in his recent work.

As a young boy having suffered eye injury, he had only partial vision in one eye. His painting "Crucifixion" with the background in sharp detail and the blurred image of a man's head in the foreground tells the simple truth of what Dodiya actually sees. The painting reveals Dodiya's matter-of-fact acceptance of reality.


More recently having suffered retinal detachment, surgery in both eyes and almost total loss of vision in one eye, he was preoccupied with the threat of visual loss. After a check-up, his painting, "No Fresh Lesions" is a hazy blurred image of Pedder Road, which tells the tale of a grim reality. Yet it is simultaneously a celebration of his optimism and the affirmation of a quiet courage. The black tape at the corner is a reminder of the impermanence of life itself.

Dodiya does not romanticise suffering. Despite growing up in an environment where art was irrelevant, he knew neither opposition nor disparagement. On the contrary, being the youngest he felt pampered. His father always encouraged him to seek his own destiny and Dodiya recalls how he would buy him expensive books needing only to know whether Atul considered it important for his work. He could always invite his friends home and recalls an occasion when he invited friends to celebrate the centenary of Paul Klee's birth on 18th December 1979, as a tribute to his art.

He never felt a sense of social isolation nor alienation. Considering his chosen profession, do his down-to-earth neighbours find him eccentric ? "No," he says simply, "my behaviour is not eccentric." Leading a quiet, moderate life, he is completely attuned to his environment, and prefers the company of his neighbours in the chawl to those where he now lives. "Here, they never want to know what I am earning. There they calculate how much each painting sells for and how many I sell in a year so that they can estimate my annual income."


Dodiya detests this evaluation of worth in monetary terms. He readily admits however that money is important to livng, and that he would personally like to have the money to stay in his own flat. Dodiya, who believes that his only concern should be to paint, allows dealers to determine the price of his paintings, which now sell for anything upwards of Rs. 50,000. As always, he hands over the money he earns to his father, taking money from him from time to time for his personal needs.

He believes that it is imperative to paint only because of the urgency to paint, and is not willing to compromise his work, caring neither for the salability of his paintings, nor gearing himself towards prolific productivity. Indeed, it sometimes takes him several months to complete a painting. Inspired by an exhibition he was asked to participate in, entitled, "A Tree in My Life", he struggled for four months over a painting.

The background in deep greyish-green is of the wooden slats of a door on which the markings of the tree are clearly visible. There are several frames within the canvas. In one corner is a homage to Piet Mondrian in the form of a Mondrian-like composition. In a tribute to a Chinese painter of the 14th-15th century Dodiya has drawn a faceless Chinese monk meditating in the woods. There are several bolts and locks on the door representing Dodiya's observation of a middle-class that is preoccupied by security, and is perhaps simultaneously suggestive of his own need for freedom. One chain is hinged by an interlocking pair of J's that are a tribute to Jasper Johns, an artist he admires.


In the foreground is a homage to Binodh Behari Mukherjee, a painter from Shantiniketan who grew blind, and about whom Satyajit Ray made a film, "The Inner Eye". This is simultaneously a homage to Ray whose films have left an indelible impression on Dodiya for their quality of restrained emotion, seemingly dispassionate observation and the starkness and clarity of expression through understatement. There was a time when Dodiya, with his own awareness of partial vision in one eye was fascinated by blindness and regularly drew blind men. When he underwent the trauma of simultaneous surgery in both eyes, and knew a world of complete darkness for a week, he was frightened into repressing all thoughts of blindness and avoided drawing blind people. After several years, consciously dealing with his own fears, he has again brought to the fore what is an area of real concern for him.

Dodiya is unrestrained in his praise of different painters. Among twentieth century painters he admires Pablo Picasso's sheer knowledge of art and of history, and the range and depth of his work, along with the disturbing quality of his paintings that reveal a brutality of perception. Equally, he appreciates British painter David Hockney, Italian Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico and American neo-Dadaist realist Jasper Johns. Among the Indian artists, while he appreciates the work of V. S. Gaitonde and S. H. Raza, he has anecdotes to tell of how Gieve Patel, Sudhir Patwardhan, Akbar Padamsee, Ganesh Pyne and Tyeb Mehta personally encouraged him or influenced him. Yet, it is Bhupen Khakhar whose paintings he has never failed to respond to.

This century is witnessing a creative phase for art in India. While the first generation modern Indian painters were compelled to draw inspiration from international artists, the second generation were self-consciously Indian. It is only now that Indian painting is coming of age in an era where Indian art is assured it's place in the sun. Dodiya however, sought his kindred souls not merely among painters, but through his appreciation of poetry, literature and cinema, as well.


If the several homages in his paintings represent the conscious attempt to free himself of influences through complete recognition, another continual link in his recent works is of tapes, clips and hinges that pin his work. This is the expression of his recurring preoccupation with impermanence and transience. And yet Dodiya's search for immortality is philosophical. He does not sign his own name on his paintings, simply because he finds it unnecessary.

The visual wit displayed in his paintings arises from his quiet humour. He remarks that his name and photograph appearing in newspapers and magazines has served a purpose. He no longer feels obliged to waste time offering lengthy explanations to friends and neighbours about the importance of his work. They now accept that what he does also has value.

Dodiya's work displays a sense of balance in contradictions. Despite the personal significance behind each and every object, there is a complete absence of self-obsession. His paintings reveal the transparency of his nature. Ask him if he is proud of his achievements. "Yes, I am very proud," he says with astonishing candidness and without the slightest trace of pride.

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Editor: Romola Butalia       (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.