Home Architect Mario D’Souza on Atul Dodiya

Mario D’Souza on Atul Dodiya

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Atul Dodiya’s solo exhibition “Dr. Banerjee in Nursing Home and Other Paintings 2020–2022 by Dr. Kulkarni” was, among other things, an ode to classic Hindi cinema. The twenty-four works in the exhibition correspond to the twenty-four images per second of a film. Each image emerges from a freeze in the flow of time, a moment of pause that the artist continues to paint. Unlike drawing a storyboard before making a film, Dodiya paints retrospectively, reducing moving images to still images.

Dodiya included scenes from famous Hindi movies including that of Hrishikesh Mukherjee Anupama (Incomparable, 1966), by Raj Kapoor Barsat (Rain, 1949) and Guru Dutt Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers, 1959). If it weren’t for the titles of the paintings, however, it might be difficult to identify the characters depicted or the movies they belong to. By isolating the image from the larger narrative, Dodiya seeks a sustained encounter with moments that otherwise pass by in the blink of an eye. The painting that gave its title to the whole show, Dr Banerjee in Dr Kulkarni’s nursing home (all works 2020–22), features a still from Mukherjee’s 1971 film Anand, in which a nurse watches oncologist Dr. Banerjee (Amitabh Bachchan) as he descends a small flight of stairs. There is an urgency in her gaze, as if she needed to convey some important information.

None of the characters in the paintings are looking directly at us; some have their backs turned. By refusing the fiction of the gaze, Dodiya diverts the actors’ attention, flattens and melts the characters into the background. Protagonists and props are equalized. We began to notice the decorations: patterned lamps, consoles, bookcases, statues, paintings, vases, sometimes a piano. The only sense of movement was suggested by the position of the actor’s body and the flowing curtains in the background. These frames testify to the image of the house and life in post-independence Indian cinema before the economic liberalization of 1991 began to change the nature of cities and reduce architecture to standardized units. The influence of modernism and deco aesthetics was rampant during this phase of nation building. In Anand with his collection of poems, for example, Rajesh Khanna is seen walking past woven metal chairs towards a sunscreen wall. In other paintings, woven wall hangings, grilles, tiles, pillars and partitions attempt a similar stylistic idiom.

Primarily upper-middle-class environments, these sets sometimes include quirky elements that nod to the aspirational. In The cowardwhose title is the English translation of Kapurush, film by Satyajit Ray from 1965, we see Soumitra Chatterjee’s character, Amitabha Roy, pass the frame. A sports bag with the Lufthansa logo hangs from his left arm. In the background, a tiger skin is stretched on the wall. These two objects – one referring to the ability to travel abroad and the second, a trophy from a colonial hunting hobby – seemed out of place in the otherwise humble domestic setting.

One way to establish depth in a movie is to arrange objects in the foreground and background. Layers of color, applied in rough impasto, provide the same depth to Dodiya’s paintings. The tonal quality is very similar to the celluloid color of films of that era. For example, in Anuradha with a sprained ankle, we see the actress Leela Naidu wearing an off-white dress. Her injured leg rests gently on a pillow as she reads a book. It is framed by pastel shades of powder blue and mint green. A work that stands out from this color palette is the large black and white part Rita and Raj in the moonlightof Kapoor’s 1951 crime drama Awara (The Vagabond). The protagonists catch sight of each other reflected in the water, illuminated by the moon above their heads – an appropriate image for Dodiya’s own impulse to find oblique meaning in the cinematic moment.

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