The last time Anju Dodiya had a show in the city, she stuffed Bodhi Art gallery with her large paintings. Pictures of how these same paintings were displayed at the Laxmivilas Palace in Baroda were printed in most newspapers and magazines. At the palace, the paintings were shown in a large, opulent hall, complete with chandeliers and what not. Mostly showing figures painted on fabric, the paintings were double-sided and stood tall in a rectangular formation. The area in the middle was covered with broken glass whose large shards brokenly reflected the gilted and glittering richness of the hall. I felt rather cheated. There was none of that grandeur in Mumbai. Instead, like the city, the paintings were crammed into the gallery like all of us are in this teeming city – without space to breathe, let alone maneouvre. And yet, even without the ideal distance between viewer and painting, Dodiya’s works were breathtaking.
This time, there are no pictures of what her new show, All Night I Shall Gallop, looked like in Singapore. And frankly, I don’t care. Dodiya’s first attempt at printmaking is exquisite and this time, the display does the work justice. The only thing that I have a bit of a grouse against is the framing because the glass in front makes the works look flat unless you come up close. But then again, these are prints and collages on paper. You can’t keep them unframed.
This show had the potential to be really boring. Dodiya could have simply recycled some stuff for this show of prints but not this lady. She recycles but how! She took imagery that she has used in her paintings over the years and turned them into jigsaw puzzle pieces for these works and then she put them together. Running through all the pictures are random pickings from Plath’s poetry. At first, I found it quite surprising that she chose Plath because Dodiya is known for being really private but with Plath, there’s never any room for privacy. At her best, Plath’s work is so raw and genuine that you can taste the words on your tongue as though you’re saying them. Dodiya’s work is also personal – she shows up in a lot of her own paintings – but art has the potential to be more abstract and less explanatory than poetry.
But there are also so many similarities. Plath married a poet like and unlike herself, Dodiya also married a painter like and unlike herself (Atul Dodiya’s closest competition to the top spot in Indian art is probably his wife). Like with Plath and Hughes, the Dodiyas also met as students (I think Anju Dodiya was Atul Dodiya’s senior in art school). The rest of the love story is, thankfully, very different with the Dodiyas very much together and happy (apparently, at any rate). Less obviously, I think Dodiya shares that feeling of awkwardness that Plath battled constantly. That strange space between self-doubt and confidence is one that both women seem so familiar with, which is what makes this collection of prints work. Both Dodiya and Plath labour painstakingly over their work which for Plath was catharsis. Perhaps it is for Dodiya as well.
I went from this show to An Advertisement for Heaven or Hell by Suhasini Kejriwal and, predictably, didn’t like it much. But then, it would have been very difficult for anything to make an impact after Dodiya’s works. On hindsight, it was a decent show which was fairly well conceptualised and attempting that same balance between looking good and being meaningful which conceptual art generally chooses to ignore. But Kejriwal’s efforts to shock and make her audience wake up feel so laboured next to the delicate intuitive feel of Dodiya’s work. Kejriwal plays with illusions, makes plants with eyes for leaves and a gleaming, pink brain for a flower but ironically, Dodiya’s floaty bits of paper feel a lot more visceral.
Dodiya prints on paper and mirror; sculpts with paper pulp; stitches and makes collages… she clearly had great fun doing the works in this show. She’s put blobs of gold-painted resin in some of them; let colour seep in to give the illusion of feline scratches in others. Sometimes a mirror, neat and square, is inserted, like in the one where, if you stand in front of the painting, your face is reflected inside a larger face of Dodiya’s. Sometimes, the mirrors are violent and jagged. Going from print to print is like being privy to an incredible intimate dialogue between Anju Dodiya and Sylvia Plath. It was almost like eavesdropping and, for all the torment in those works, their sheer beauty made me walk out of the gallery with a huge smile.