The zigzag artist

C

Atul Dodiya's free-form creativity forges art from cinema and politics, poetry and history. The artist on his many influences and why he refuses to settle into a style

Atul Dodiya meets me in his vast white loft in Ghatkopar. He still lives and works out of this eastern Mumbai suburb where he grew up, but has recently moved out of DK Wadi studio where he and his equally accomplished wife, Anju, produced most of their defining art. If that space was open to the surprise of the street and neighbourhood, this is a seventh-floor soundless cocoon.

He speaks quickly, and to the point. For all his courteousness, it is clear he would like this visit efficiently ended so that he can move on to the work awaiting him. This has been a hectic period, after all – last year, after Project Cinema City where he did a piece with suburban station signs, he did an affectionate photo series on the artistic community at the Kochi biennale, a major work for the 7th Asia Pacific Triennal in Brisbane, and a show at the Galerie Daniel Templon in Paris, called Scribes from Timbuktu. He is busy preparing for another solo show at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati.

Fifty-three-year-old Dodiya is part of a transitional generation in Indian art – he once palled around with modernist masters Tyeb Mehta and Akbar Padamsee in Mumbai, and now easily strides the global art circuit. The critical turns in his career have also been the hinge points for the Indian art world. And yet, if he had a weaker sense of vocation, he might have been working with bricks and mortar today, rather than creating high-concept artworks. His sister tried to turn his interest towards architecture, a more suitable profession, and all the better to assist his father, who was a civil contractor. But young Atul was busy making life-like portraits of movie stars and winning school art competitions. At the age of 11, he knew he was meant to follow his art. He joined Mumbai's Sir JJ School of Art, where his remarkable talent was acknowledged, and where he honed the technical prowess that served him well through his years of experiment. "I did everything, from still lives to portraiture. Because I had a strong figurative style, people often thought I was from the Baroda school," says Dodiya. He won a gold medal and fellowship, teaching at the school for a year after he graduated in 1982.

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