Master lithographer Devraj Dakoji talks about his life spent pursuing printmaking
Devraj Dakoji’s canvas is inhabited by birds, birds and more birds. But the master printer didn’t discover what was to be a recurring figure in his work, in India. He discovered it after shifting base to New York. “One morning when I heard calls of peacocks there, I realised that life is the same everywhere, we live in the same world. Nature then crept into my work and since then birds have become an integral part of my imagery,” says the 68-year-old artist, who is showing in India after a gap of nine years.
Watercolours, prints and drawings make up his latest outing ‘The Wheel of Life’ at Art Heritage, the same gallery he had shown the last time he has an exhibition in the city. Dakoji belongs to the time when a lot of definitive work was being carried out in the arena of Indian art. The scene was robust with groups and collectives trying to push the frontiers and Dakoji in 1996 along with his wire, artist Pratibha, set up Atelier 2221 — the only independent edition-making studio in India at the time, in Shahpur Jat. Here artists working in different mediums could come, work and collaborate to produce prints.
“We ran for almost 8-9 years and then we had to close it. Artists wouldn’t use it because they found it expensive. According to me it wasn’t. We had invested lot of money in it,” he recalls. One can’t miss the tinge of sadness in his voice at this point.
His urge to promote his favourite medium of printmaking is understandable. After graduating from the College of Fine Arts and Architecture in Hyderabad, he went to M.S. University, Baroda, to study it. At the programmes taken up at The Tamarind Institute, Albuquerque, New Mexico University, and Chelsea School of Art, London, U.K, his horizons further broadened.
And now for years, the veteran lithographer has been associated with the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop in New York. In the show are several of his prints, made using new techniques. “In one of the works, I have used something that we call red and blue technique. We mix the colour and then we apply it with a roller. We add to it some petrol. We leave it overnight and then we make an aquatint. The techniques render softness to your work like nothing.” The work in question is a monochromatic print.
Yet another work mounted at the gallery, he informs us, is rendered in chine-colle technique. The lithographer has printed on a paper. In this case, the colours depend on the colour and opacity of the paper it is printed on. This was the technique he introduced to M.F. Husain, while collaborating with him in 2004 at the Robert Blackburn studio. “He would use a number of plates to get different colours and when I told him about this, he got so excited. He spent $5000 buying paper in various colours.” The subjects of his prints were Jainism, Hinduism and Taoism. “I again worked with him in 2009 and he came up with a brilliant idea — let us make each print with different colours. And then he made a print playing with different hues of black, which was brilliant.”
While nature takes precedence over everything else in Dakoji’s prints, it’s amazing to note how his vocabulary changes in his watercolours and drawings. The former is illusory and the latter so real and figurative. “It’s strange how human figures came into my watercolours after Husain sahab died.”
We come back to printmaking and ask him where the medium stands today. “The whole vision with which Sankho Chaudhary set up Garhi studios has been lost. The idea was that sculptors, painters and printmakers work together. What was envisaged was that a painter and a printmaker ideate together, and the printmaker come out with the prints of a painter, but what’s happening is that everybody is working in isolation. A printmaker is making his own prints, which doesn’t work for me,” feels Dakoji, who was the chief supervisor of graphic studios, Department of Art, Garhi studios.
(The exhibition is on at Shridharani Gallery, Triveni Kala Sangam, 205, Tansen Marg, till December 25)