Atul Dodiya uses a series of enactments and abstractions in his latest exhibition, "The Wet Sleeves of My Paper Robe" at Bodhi Art in New Delhi.
There are challenging and exhilarating times for Indian art. The artist as a star and the gallery as a promotional venue have changed not only the way art is seen but the way art is made. In the last two weeks, a cutting edge exhibition of Sudarshan Shetty's sculptural installations at Gallery SKE in Bangalore, a major conference around art and cultural theory at the MPCVA in Mumbai, Vivan Sundaram's drawings for Bhupen Khakhar titled "Bad Drawings for Dost" at Chemould, Mumbai, and an exhibition of Atul Dodiya's works in mixed media opened in the Capital. At the same time, the Bull Run in prices, the proliferation of art shops by fly-by-night operators, dogma and persecution by the right wing and a huge yawning gap in critical discourse render art activity unstable - and much activity tends to oscillate between such extremes. Atul Dodiya's exhibition, "The Wet Sleeves of My Paper Robe" (Sabari in her youth: After Nandalal Bose) supported by Bodhi Art, was entirely made at the state-of-the-art printing facility at STPI, Singapore. By an odd coincidence, the exhibition opened on Sabari Diwas, an event marked by traditional prayers steeped in the bhakti, of the Ramayana. In Dodiya's work, however, the image is never as uncomplicated as a deep singular love. His point of entry into the Sabari myth is the images from Nandalal Bose that envision Sabari as a santhal, one who nurtures the forests but also one who foretells the future, to guide Ram out of the hazardous forests of Kishkinda. The crux of Dodiya's engagement is with mythic structures, but also Indian art history, in using his painterly forebears of post-Independent India like a pedagogical map of references. Nandalal Bose's three watercolours on Sabari as a Santhal, singular and socially self-determined, traces her evolution as the young potent woman atop the trees, as a mature woman tending the fruit and as the old woman of the forest. The reference to the salabhanjika whom the 9th Century critic Mallinatha locates as the potent feminine force that causes the tree to flower and fructify with the touch of her body is implicit in these modest works. Arguably, Dodiya may also be aware of the myths of the sabaras, or forest dwellers who empower themselves, through the worship of Mahadevi, eponymous mother goddess, outside Brahminical power structures. Dodiya's Sabari then is an attenuation of his Karaikalammiar figure of the Tearscape series of paintings, potent free, even potentially deranged in her bhakti, her vigorous self-assertion.
Next door references
But as is with Atul Doldiya, the range of references urges a rich universalism. Dodiya's immediate reference is to the very young widow who lived next door to his parents' home in a Bombay chawl, where he grew up with his siblings. Her dwelling comprised a corridor that was 30 feet wide and a few feet wide, once constructed to contain metal pipes in storage, pipes that configure as a referent to the innards of the city in his Mondrian paintings (2004-2005). To support her dependent children she would grind her chakki each afternoon to make savouries to sell, an activity that he continued for decades. In Dodiya's painting, alongside the flowers of the forest appears the chakki redolent with its evocations of female labour and acts of nurture, even as its endless grinding marks the relentlessness of the passage of time.The young Sabari, of a pre-mythic past, one that is not acknowledged in the Ramayana and belongs to a pre-brahminical age that exists outside the patriarchal order, encounters the tensions of contemporary urbanism. In the definitive figures of Rama and Ravana are located the antipodes of male energy that define the conflict between good and evil for the appropriation of female sexuality. Rama and Ravana are fragmented through the symbols of the bow and the dismembered shirt - coeval with postmodern readings of body parts. Male energies are also represented by figures of Athenian athletes engaged in acts of virile contest. The contemporary contextualisation, however, occurs through the intervention of working class shirt fronts and sleeves. `Portrait of Ravana' thus bears ten shirt fronts, a sleeve encased sword, and a switch of artificial hair, symbolic of Sita in captivity. Dodiya's methodology proceeds through a series of enactments and abstractions as ancient Greek Olympic runners and fork tailed satyrs, Meret Oppenheim and Mondrian encounter Nandalal Bose and Gujarat school textbooks. These are animated as valid artistic categories of social polemic because of Dodiya's engagement with myth as a contemporary metaphor. Sabari in his paintings is the only figure who appears whole. In the imperial conflict and its masculine determinations, the male principle is suggested through truncated torsos, and bloodied sleeves. The epic reading of Sabari's tribe moreover, foregrounds the political position of the marginalised, of the mlechcha, or the forest dweller, who also absorbs the great Shiva, when he chooses to live among them (Anusasana Parva, Chapter 65) or else when many Kshatriyas, who when living in the forest over a long period of time, came to count among the Sabaras. It is such acts of resistance, the generosity and the nourishment that the forest provides that Sabari embodies. In the wanton destruction of forest cover and contestations over religious identity, Sabari becomes emblematic of a singular identity.