"For a figurative painter like me, the reality is slightly different. I live in Ghatkopar, my figures are Indian in the sense that they would be dark skinned and they portray the life in India that includes the poverty, the concerns and the reality. But I don`t make any political statements."
Born in Mumbai in 1959, Atul Dodiya, one of the most sought after contemporary artists today, completed his Bachelor in Fine Arts from the Sir J. J. School of Arts in 1982. He says, "I was passionate about painting from childhood. I come from a liberal Kathiawadi family and was brought up on old Guru Dutt (Legendary Indian Film maker) movies and classical music of Kumar Gandharva (Classical Singer). Even though nobody in the family has an aesthetic background, they were very supportive. When I was 13, my father, a civil contractor, bought me a first class local train pass, so that I could go for art exhibitions. One of my elder sisters wanted me to be an architect. But I failed my Secondary School Certificate exams twice because I was weak in math. Finally, they allowed me to join the Sir J.J. School of Art."
Atul met his wife Anju --- also an artist --- at the Sir J. J. School of Art where he used to teach after completing his graduation. She was his student. "We are critical of each other`s work. It`s a great thing because it means a lot to have an opinion you can completely trust, coming from someone who understands you completely and knows what you are trying to say",
Both work out of what used to be Atul`s father`s home in Ghatkopar, in Central Mumbai. "While I work, neighbors keep coming in to look at my paintings and comment on them. These people, with their various priorities and concerns, do not come to the painting with any prejudice. They may say the work look like their bed cover. I do not consider their response useless. It can be hilarious and also very enlightening," he says.
Atul came into prominence in 1999 with his series on Mahatma Gandhi, where the painter sought to reconstruct images from a forgotten biography of the leader. His watercolors led the Mahatma out of the tumultuous pages of history into the gentle sepia-washed terrain of his canvas. Gandhi was given a new lease of life with sensitive brush strokes. A rich burnt sienna reaffirmed the strength and spirit of Gandhi beneath the frail `minimalist` body. Luminous yellow-whites merged into deep ambers. Says Atul, "There was a strong sense of aesthetics running through Gandhi`s life --- whether it is khadi, (homespun fabric) his choice of dress, the architecture of the Sabarmati ashram, fasting, non-cooperation or the charkha (the wheel used for spinning the yarn). He had a fine artistic way of doing things."
His other series that got him international acclaim was the Bombay:labyrinth/laboratory show at the Japan Foundation Asia Center in Tokyo. It included a selection of the artist`s paintings on store shutters, and other works created with ready-made objects that, reflect his concern with Indian middle-class aspirations and the impact of globalization on traditions underlying each individual reality, evoking images of closure, disruption and the storm beneath the calm," affirms Atul.
At most times, a pluralist and fragmentative mood dominates his compositions, with his images telling stories as he goes along. Atul draws heavily on historical influences that he both accepts and internalizes. Unlike earlier painters, there is no interrogation of western influences of artistic statement.
Reality affects his sensibilities a lot, and thus his art. Confesses Atul, "It is impossible to close your eyes to the world around you, however much you try. The blasts in March 1993 affected me a lot. They shattered my sense of wholeness and peace. They made me realize that certain truths have to be faced. They are reflected in my paintings in the form of peeling plasters and cracks."
Rendered in bold realism and drawing on pop art iconography, Atul`s work reveals his attempt to go back to his roots. Like his exhibition on kitsch art, that he held in New Delhi some years ago. He says, "In India, the majority live with this kind of gaudy chamkila (shiny) stuff - it is very normal. I do enjoy it. I explore the visual possibilities. I also like what they do with space, form, texture, and I like the colors of kitsch,"
But the turning point in his work, says Atul, was his trip to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. "I saw paintings from the early Renaissance onward to modern times. I was overwhelmed by the thickness of the centuries old paint, and wondered how could my work begin to measure up to the masters. I learnt to see things differently, not merely to create within a context, but to crate a context." For almost three years after he returned, he began questioning the relevance of his work. "And then memories of the young boy who drew for the sheer joy of it, penetrated his bleakness. Paris was so different from Mumbai, from my reality, that my art and that of the Masters had to be different too."
When Atul came back, his work had changed. He dropped the earlier photo realistic approach to replace it with a more flexible mode. The result was the 1994 `The Bombay Buccaneer`, an oil, acrylic and wood on canvas effort, a take off on the poster for the film `Baazigaar`.
In 1999, the artist won the Sotheby`s Prize for Contemporary Art. He says, "It was a great feeling. It is nice to know people are interested in my work and the fact that I attempt to create a new image."
The crowning glory was his works being shown at the Tate Museum, London, in 2000, as part of the exhibition `Centuries Cities: Art And Culture in Modern Metropolis`. He is one of the Indian artists whose work was shown at the museum as part of a major exhibition on nine cities of the world.
A slow worker, Atul does about six to eight paintings a year. He works on one painting at a time, for two months, for eight to ten hours a day. Every two years he holds an exhibition. "I experience the pain and suffering when doing a painting and feel drained after finishing it. An image remains in my mind for about three years before I put it down. It undergoes several modifications."
When he is not painting, Atul likes to travel. "But the last three or four years have been so hectic. I have not had the time. I do have a passion for reading and watching films. I place Satyajit Ray films on top of the list. They are marvelous; his vision of life and command over the technique is unique. Then there are others like Tarkovsky, Antonioni and Kurosawa."
One day he wants to make a film. "I think cinema is a complete medium without, sound, visuals or movement," he emphasizes. He is influenced by work of painters like M.F. Husain and Bhupen Khakkar. "There is a lot of fun in Khakkar`s work. He depicts it the way I am familiar with. There is a lot of Indianness in his works. If you go to rural India, you will find things exactly the way he has portrayed them."
Besides having held several solo exhibitions in Mumbai, Kolkata, New Delhi and Amsterdam, he has participated in many group exhibitions both in India and abroad. Atul Dodiya lives and works in Mumbai.
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