A smooth grind

Kamal Swaroop’s documentary on eminent artist Atul Dodiya occupies both the mind and the eye

September 21, 2017 07:34 pm | Updated 07:34 pm IST

DEFT TOUCH: Atul Dodiya in a still from the film

DEFT TOUCH: Atul Dodiya in a still from the film

Award winning filmmaker Kamal Swaroop’s 55-minute Atul on the grandmaster of contemporary Indian art Atul Dodiya looks at the evolution of Dodiya's multifaceted career in which Dodiya turns narrator and storyteller. The film was screened at the PSBT’s Open Frame Festival at India International Centre in New Delhi.

It is the result of a seasoned and sensitively handled collaboration and emerges as an original and coherent work of artistic insight. Dodiya as Dodiya is natural, cinematically astute as he reveals a deep intensity that stuns visually.

Childhood memories

Dodiya begins his narrative with the memory of an accident with an uncle and an incident of retinal detachment – the loss of vision in one eye and gets into small images and symbols and places and then takes us into the complexity of vibrant western influences and eastern traditions that he drew from.

21dmc Kamal

21dmc Kamal

Swaroop captures with a fish lens an enormous range, from early photorealist paintings depicting middle-class life to ingenious assemblages that brilliantly fuse European and Indian artistic styles, history, and cultural references. In addition to some close ups of Dodiya's colourful art, the film works more as a flashback and was conceptualised by Swaroop in 2012.

The sweeping camera movements gives us a fluid aspect of the cultural integrity of the narrative. The soundtrack follows the quietude of the camera’s eloquence, combining ambient sounds, and dialogue loaded with quotations from Dodiya’s favourite gleanings to create a limpid sequential soundscape.

The recurring grindstone

We are shown several images of the grindstone (chakki) – a primordial Indian reference to Dodiya's neighbour, an old widow, who would prepare pickles and paapad at the old wadi in Ghatkopar where Dodiya lived. “Every morning and afternoon she would work on her grindstone. That sound would put us to sleep. That chakki takes different forms in my work. It not only symbolises memories of my childhood, but also symbolises hard work,” says Dodiya.

Letters and books

Dodiya links his works to his travels with precision and passion. The sound of his spoken Gujarati and Hindi along with English adds to the subtext of the beauty of the vernacular. “Letter from a Father” (1994), oil and acrylic on canvas, is a memoir of the artist’s first overseas trip – in this case – Paris. Dodiya unconsciously lets us into his world of books and language and letters. Dodiya explains his evolution of thought in “Lamentation”, with devotion and clarity towards the end.

“In ‘Lamentation’ half the painting is divided with an image of Gandhi walking away on an empty railway platform and half the painting draws inspiration from Picasso’s well-known painting of the girl and the mother during the civil war. I put an image of Shiva below her, which was inspired by the Kalighat painting. When I created this work, it was 1997, and India completed 50 years of independence. It was a moment of great celebration, but my painting was titled ‘Lamentation’,” explains Dodiya, “After creating this work, my obsession with Gandhi began.”

For those of us who have followed Dodiya over the past 25 odd years, there are some precious moments to cherish. When Dodiya speaks of his visit and stay at Ramakrishna Mission his work “Bed of Dakshineshwar House” becomes a signpost of the past.

Dodiya’s paintings become vignettes of visual punctuation. One wished there were more specially his Sabari works done at Singapore Tyler Print Institute.

Music and musings

“Mohd Rafi and Geeta Dutt are my most favourite singers. I’d like to be remembered as Mohd Rafi of Indian painting,” when he says this, we are looking at Atul Dodiya as a complete human with finer aesthetics, maybe a hint of romanticism.

Dodiya, the voracious reader, thinker and philosopher, also creeps into little places when he talks of abstract expressionist Philip Guston, and uses his quote for a painting – “What is freedom for an artist – it’s a long long preparation for a few moments of innocence.”

Dodiya says he started reading the poetry of Labshankar Thakar when he was 15 or 16. He speaks about three people whose work he loved and was influenced by. “I was stunned and amazed by the link between three creative minds – Jasper Johns at New York in the 1960s, Jean Luc Godard, the French New Wave Director in France and Labshankar in Ahmedabad. ”

Background Score

After the screening, Swaroop spoke about how he treated Dodiya with reverence. “When I shot the film it ran into four hours, I couldn’t prolong it and had to finish it in stipulated time. Yes, I was deeply fascinated by the beauty of his thoughts and his intellectual worth. I felt like a fool in front of him. After I finished, I was inspired to find out more and work on another film that would look at Atul with two artists and his wife Anju. ”

Swaroop sustains the narrative in the first person, with a study of few works. “In the background score, I included the sound of the sloshing of water, the chatter of women, handmills, and audio tracks from films such as Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and Ingmar Bergman’s Silence . There is chorale music and classical piano pieces because I wanted a subtle counterpoint in effect – both Atul and Anju love Bergman, that is why I used that,” says Swaroop.

He used sound and silence to give us references of reflections in reality. For example, Dodiya’s Night Studio was partially inspired by his memories of hearing the sound of handmills at his old home. “I wanted the film to float on the principle of multiple references.”

Swaroop’s film reflects a fervent knowledge and comprehensive understanding of human philosophy, a profound insight into the fragility and strength present in an artist’s world.

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