New Delhi

Atul Dodiya, Sunday Morning Marine Drive, 1995, oil, acrylic, and marble dust on canvas, 72 x 96".

Atul Dodiya, Sunday Morning Marine Drive, 1995, oil, acrylic, and marble dust on canvas, 72 x 96".

Atul Dodiya

National Gallery of Modern Art | New Delhi

Atul Dodiya, Sunday Morning Marine Drive, 1995, oil, acrylic, and marble dust on canvas, 72 x 96".

Atul Dodiya’s “Experiments with Truth” was the first survey show of a living Indian artist at the National Gallery. Curated by Ranjit Hoskote, the exhibition looked back on three decades of Dodiya’s practice and showcased more than eighty works, including paintings on paper, canvas, laminate boards, and rolling shutters, and assemblages housed in glass cabinets. The show wasn’t expansive enough to be considered a retrospective, particularly because a few significant bodies of work—“Cracks in Mondrian,” 2005, and “Broken Branches,” 2003, to name two—were not represented. Still, “Experiments with Truth” was an informative summary of the vertiginous turns in Dodiya’s practice.

One of India’s most important artists, Dodiya is known for the ease with which he borrows from the canons of both Indian and Western art. Packed with references, his works bring the local and the international, high art and popular culture, into conversation with each other, often with a dose of wit and humor. For more than fifteen years, Dodiya has been obsessed with the figure of Mahatma Gandhi. In keeping with this preoccupation, the exhibition borrowed its title from one of Gandhi’s autobiographies and showcased Dodiya’s earliest reference to the leader of India’s anticolonial struggles, the 1997 painting Lamentation. Made for the fiftieth anniversary of India’s independence, it presents an ambivalent view of the future—Giotto’s weeping angels mourn the departure of Gandhi as the young girl from Picasso’s 1943 canvas First Steps learns to walk.

Hoskote eschewed chronological order in favor of loose thematic groups. At the entrance, the viewer encountered never-before-seen realist portraits of Western masters, including Cézanne, Seurat, and Braque, made in 1981, when Dodiya was a student. Hoskote placed this series near three realist portraits of Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar, created in 2013, demonstrating how styles and images recur throughout Dodiya’s oeuvre. Many other paternal figures loom large in three works from 1996—Snail on the Shoulder (In Memory of Prabhakar Barwe) nods to a Mumbai artist; Magritte accompanies Dodiya and Khakhar in Three Painters; while Henri Rousseau is one of the protagonists of Douanier – My Father’s Moustache & Other Stories. Typical of Dodiya’s work from the 1990s, informed by a year of study in Paris from 1991 to 1992, these canvases amalgamate images and texts from public and private archives. Among the most striking works on display was the 1995 canvas Sunday Morning Marine Drive, an honest glimpse of the artist’s hometown, Mumbai. At times, the exhibition hall seemed too cramped for Dodiya’s large canvases and the multiplicity of images contained in each of them. The number of literature-inspired, text-heavy works, including Antler Anthology, 2004; If it rains fire, 2010; and Bako Exists. Imagine, 2011, overwhelmed a selection of Dodiya’s quiet, gemlike watercolors from “Pale Ancestors,” 2008.

Hoskote took advantage of NGMA’s collection of Indian art, borrowing works by Raja Ravi Varma, Nandalal Bose, and M. F. Husain, among others, for the show. Some were placed alongside the object-filled cabinet Between the Spider and the Lamp, 2013—whose title is a nod to one of Husain’s most celebrated paintings. The show oscillated between mischief-filled conversations with artistic ancestors and a more reverential dialogue with Gandhi. One of the eight mechanized shutters (devices alluding to the mercantile nature of Mumbai as well as to past instances of citywide shutdowns brought on by communal violence) featured a portrait of Gandhi with a calf. Rolled up, it revealed a goat atop Brancusi’s Endless Column, raining down pellets of dung. In the most recent suite, Painted Photographs/Paintings Photographed, 2013, mounted in a separate gallery, Dodiya depicts archival photographs of Gandhi juxtaposed with images of twentieth-century Euro-American art. The diptychs conjure visual puns. In one, the parallel lines of a Mondrian painting echo the train tracks in the photograph alongside it. But thirty such works were far too many to keep the humor going. Even as this grand survey made a compelling case for Dodiya’s painterly talent, his more recent output left the viewer in doubt of his direction.

Zeenat Nagree