Bodhi Art Gallery organises talks with reasonable regularity. It is generally sparsely attended. A good show is one where 80% of the chairs are occupied. Yesterday, critic Ranjit Hoskote was in conversation with Atul Dodiya, one of the few artists who can cheerfully call himself a figurative painter without any fear of being outdated, and the place was packed. There were about 30 chairs and behind them were another 15 people standing. All of those present (but one, i.e. yours truly) ignored some extremely yummy chocolate chip cookies while the artist and the inscrutable Mr. Hoskote (shown below) discussed Pale Ancestors, Dodiya’s latest show in Mumbai.
The last time I was at a talk in Bodhi, another critic, Girish Shahane, spoke about contemporary Indian artists and fluency of English among our artist community (Mr. Shahane chanced upon this blog and informed me I’d misunderstood him entirely; see comments). There is no doubt that Hoskote’s command over the English language is superlative. He knows as many polysyllabic words as Homi K. Bhabha and he peppers them in his conversation (I think he shaves his razor thin line of beard the way he speaks – with studied, pointed precision). There is also no doubt that Dodiya sounded about a hundred times more comprehensible and articulate than Hoskote despite his Gujarati accent and imperfect grammar.
Dodiya spoke simply, comprehensibly and without qualms. He admitted that he found himself more comfortable speaking about art in English when he was giving a lecture at Sabarmati recently. He agreed that the logic of his works is personal and may not always be accessible to the viewer. Raqib Shaw earned himself a dig from Dodiya for wanting to discard his Indian-ness as did Anish Kapoor for wanting to embrace his Indian origins only after the subcontinent struck a high point on the coolness index. Dodiya spoke with infectious energy about the joy he feels at visiting museums across the world and seeing works by old masters like Rembrandt. Without hesitation he said that, to his mind, the Progressives were much more open, intelligent and brilliant than the contemporary artists. He spoke about his mental blocks and what gave him the confidence to pick up a brush again (Gujarati and Marathi literature gave him his spunk back in the 1990s). Satyajit Ray, Ingmar Bergman, Rodin, bombs, the similarity between crushed charcoal and soot, violence in Gujarat – he touched upon everything and nothing seemed weighed down by bookish wisdom. Instead, it was reality that had been experienced, lived and felt. And so naturally, all of us fell in love with the faintly-coloured watercolours hanging on the walls around us.
When you have someone as charming and engaging as Dodiya before you, it’s hard to dislike his work. See Pale Ancestors without Dodiya chirpily telling you about how he’d take about a day to do each watercolour, how he’d begin with a line and then find the form of a body or a kaftan emerge out of that line, how he’d follow that up with staining the background and the series may not seem quite as enchanting. With the benefit of his banter, each painting almost seems worth Rs. 2.8-5 million (you do the conversion; it’s too many zeroes for me) the gallery is selling them for. The watercolours in Pale Ancestors are proof that Dodiya can do pretty much anything with a brush and some paint. His technique is superlative and the simplicity of the works is mesmerising on occasion. However, some do feel like he’s trying to force the point about how clever he is. Perhaps he was or perhaps we weren’t able to tap into the internal logic that guided the paintings.
It’s interesting to think of Dodiya’s paintings alongside his wife, Anju Dodiya’s recent show at the same space (All Night I Shall Gallop). Both artists are inspired by very personal details and the works have a strongly internalised logic. In case of Anju Dodiya, however, the visual impact of the works was matched by the care she took to create possibilities of different narratives out of different elements in the prints. In most of them, there wasn’t one story but many that you could weave. Atul Dodiya’s works are less generous towards the viewer. She’s reticent in person but that reserve gives her the freedom to be more direct in her work. Minimal and fragile, the subjects of Atul Dodiya’s watercolours hover delicately in the ether of his imagination, hanging by threads of logic that are like spider webs. Sometimes the threads catch the light, sometimes they don’t. Despite how open Atul Dodiya seems to be when he’s speaking, he’s the one who keeps the viewer at a distance from what he expresses in his paintings by adding a layer of cleverness, like a reference to Ingmar Bergman, or by taking away signifiers so that the viewer sees only an obscured object of his emotions.
So what do you suppose a viewer wants out of a catalogue to a show like Pale Ancestors, steeped as it is in Dodiya’s coded world? An interview with Atul Dodiya, perhaps. Something that has Dodiya’s voice taking you through the tinted images in the pages, definitely. Instead, you get 40 poems by Ranjit Hoskote whose regular speech is mystical enough to need a Rosetta stone. I’m not well-versed with his poetry so I can’t comment on whether it is good or not but I’m deadly certain that poems with titles like “The Quill Began Life as a Feather” and lines like “I’m waiting for the parrot to close its red eye/ So that I can close mine” will not help demystify anything (there are no parrots in Pale Ancestors). With infinite wisdom, the gallery has chosen to explain the metaphorical world of Dodiya’s paintings with the one thing more abstract than visual art – poetry. Poetry, which everyone from a teenager to Ted Hughes has used to express feelings obscurely. Poetry, whose charm lies in its ambivalence and its butterfly-like unwillingness to be pinned down. Yes, let’s get poetry to talk about paintings that cry out for an unambivalent context in order to be understood. I wonder if this is the gallery doing it’s best to make sure buyers don’t ever figure out what the paintings mean so that they’ll feel the exorbitant price is for one of the unsolved mysteries of the world. Fortunately, it’s a gorgeously-designed catalogue. So even though the price of Rs. 2,500 pinches the pocket some and the poetry is dauntingly vague, it’s worth keeping. Primarily because I’m hoping that I’ll remember Dodiya’s chatter every time I open the catalogue and get a hint of the secrets that he didn’t let us on to when we thought he was telling us everything.
(Aside from the first photograph of Ranjit Hoskote that was nicked courtesy Mr. Google, all the images are from Pale Ancestors. Limited edition posters showing “Hunter” cost Rs. 12, 000.)