Atul Dodiya was the one who inaugurated Chemould Prescott Road when it left the little corridor of space in Jehangir Art Gallery. It was a colourful show that was also a salute from Dodiya to Bhupen Khakhar. I remember walking into the gallery and seeing Dodiya gleeful and in the middle of installing the show, which was pretty much strewn objects all over the gallery. Some five-odd years later (maybe even more; can’t remember what year Chemould shifted. Alzheimer’s…), I walked into Chemould Prescott Road a few days before “Bako Exists. Imagine” opened and saw Dodiya, once again gleeful and in the middle of putting up another show. The gallery looked very different though for the simple reason that whereas the Bhupen Khakhar-inspired show was filled with candy colours, “Bako Exists. Imagine” is almost monochromatic. There are approximately 12 paintings in the show. All of them look like blackboards and have text written on them. It looks like the writing on the board is with chalk. The “blackboards” also have motifs painted on them. They look almost like they’ve been pressed into the boards, like fossilised leaves.
It turns out the blackboards are actually canvases, treated dilligently to give the effect of a smooth, slate surface. The chalk isn’t chalk either, but some sort of oil-paint crayons. Despite the fact that everything is done with paint, there are a wealth of textures in the works. Some parts have marble dust mixed with paint to give it a particular sheen and solidity. In other parts, Dodiya has carefully smudged the paint to look as thin as chalk smear. The text is taken from a Gujarati story that Dodiya had translated into English. It’s about a little boy who chats with M.K. Gandhi in his dreams. Initially, Dodiya had thought the paintings would just be the text on the faux blackboards. Once he started, he decided they needed more elements and so motifs like the moon and the weird puppet-like human figures were added. In some of the paintings, it’s these motifs look like fossilised leaves and stones. Those were the ones that particularly appealed to me. There’s a curious combination of delicacy and permanence to them. I’ve used the word ‘fossilised’ repeatedly because something that was once alive being transformed into something new, something that’s almost decorative is a running feature of the show.
When you walk in to the gallery, you see the blackboards to your left and right. In front of you are tall cabinets, filled with… stuff. On one wall, there are 9 cabinets in “Bako Exists. Imagine” and they comprise one work. Clearly created with a museum in mind, because you’d be hard pressed to line these cabinets up in anyone’s home. With the jumble of colours in them, the cabinets balance the monochrome of the paintings. There’s no doubt about the fact that there is a resemblance between Dodiya’s cabinets and Sophie Calle‘s “The Birthday Ceremony”. Calle’s cabinets opened up personal rituals to the public. Dodiya’s are a representation of the clutter of influences that crowd Dodiya’s artistic imagination but there’s also a haphazard record of the things, ideas, philosophies and works that have come together to create the modern Indian mind. Cartoon figures, modernist paintings, broken toys, vintage photographs, foreign films… it’s a fascinating collection of objects and their charm lies in the fact that they are not just personal. (Incidentally, much of the stuff in the cabinets is made by Dodiya.) They’re also things of the past, objects whose relevance is slowly slipping away and the only place they belong to is inside a cabinet, separated from contemporary reality. I suspect every viewer will find objects that resonate with them in those cabinets.
Are the cabinets derivative? Because this is Dodiya, who is not only among the most talented in Indian art but also one of the most curious and hungry artists we have, I want to say no. Dodiya is fully aware of the obvious similarities between his and Calle’s work. He’s obviously decided to show the piece because he’s confident it won’t make him appear like someone who ripped off someone else.
I wasn’t blown away by “Bako Exists. Imagine” but I thought it was a good show. I do have a little dilemma though. I’m not sure how differently I would have responded had Dodiya not walked me through it, telling me about the story that inspired him, the way he worked, the ideas he wanted the show to evoke. Maybe I’d have found it less likeable. There’s no questioning how sophisticated Dodiya’s technical skills are. But the question is, are those skills creating something extraordinary? I’m not sure. But I do know that works seem more special when Dodiya explains them and himself to you. He knows how to articulate intelligently without being poncy and impenetrable. The mischief that can be seen in many of his works is very much a part of his personality and his conversation. Things, particularly his own art, seem a lot more fun when Dodiya describes them. I remember hearing him talk about the paintings in “Pale Ancestors” (which, curiously, were the first time that these alien/puppet-esque figures appeared in Dodiya’s work) and finding the show far more interesting afterwards than I had when I first saw it. I wonder whether these paintings would have felt perhaps a little monotonous, for instance, if I hadn’t heard Dodiya talk about how and why he made them.
I can’t remember who it was but someone had written that there are two types of critics. One knows the creative set, mingles with them and is familiar with them. This can give the critic insight as well as “scoops” (the pivot of journalism). The other actively focuses on the work rather than the creator, which means they’re never short on objectivity even if they may be lacking in sympathetic understanding. The article had been about film reviewing but I think it applies to anyone who covers any part of a culture beat. Being a lazy curmudgeon, I usually adopt the latter approach. Also, I believe that a good exhibition doesn’t need a commentary. It may need a few pointers but art that isn’t willing to communicate to an interested viewer is one that has failed, as far as I’m concerned. It means I love few shows and know fewer artists. As much as I enjoyed listening to Dodiya, I think I’m more suited to curmudgeonry. At the end of the day, I may not have contacts but I do have a well-reasoned opinion.