Atul Dodiya is a busy man. Before he came to spend two days in Kerala, to view the sites of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the Mumbai-based artist had just returned from a ten-day trip to Copenhagen where he took part in a group show. One day after he returned from Kochi, he flew to Paris where he was holding a solo show of his works at the Galerie Daniel Templon.
Atul has been one of India’s leading artists for more than twenty years. And his desire to be an artist crystallised when he was only 11 years old. Expectedly, there was opposition that the son of a civil contractor wanted to be an artist, but when he failed twice in his Class 10 examinations, the family realised that Atul was different from other boys. In 1982, he joined the JJ School of Art, and passed out as a gold medalist.
As he says simply, “You don’t become an artist. Either you are an artist or not. And there is no substitute to hard work.” So Atul spends more than ten hours a day painting and the rest of the time he is thinking about his work. “It is a 24 hour obsession,” he says. “Even after so many years, the passion burns brightly inside me. If you don’t have passion it is difficult to achieve anything in art.
Atul is well-known for his realistic paintings. So he has drawn images of his father, sister and friends, as well as a series on Mahatma Gandhi called, ‘An artist of non-violence’. “It is a bit hypocritical that when you have an image of Gandhi on the Indian rupee note, every third road is called MG [Mahatma Gandhi] Road, and every government office has his photo, his philosophy of non-violence has been abandoned,” says Atul. “There is so much of tension between the communities. We see so much of violence due to communal riots and terrorism. The 1993 serial bomb blasts in Mumbai and the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat : How do people become so evil? Gandhi had always fought for love and dignity for fellow human beings, but that is no longer there now. Art should reflect that.”
Atul’s turning point as an artist took place in 1991 when he went abroad, to France, for the first time on a French government scholarship. “I wanted to see the original works of great masters,” he says. “I saw great paintings by Picasso and Matisse and many modern masters.”
Today, he is an avid fan of Picasso. “He was fearless,” says Atul. “I went to the large Picasso Museum at Barcelona, and saw how this man at the age of 14 did a huge realistic painting and later, as he matured, he created the unique art form of Cubism. There is 80 years of work and you can clearly see how Picasso has evolved as an artist.”
And Atul also learned some lifelong lessons. “After seeing the paintings I realised that the great artists were not afraid of taking risks,” says Atul. “I told myself, ‘Never succumb to market forces, to your friends’ ideas, to the critics and their likes and dislikes, and the need to cater to current trends and fashions. Just keep everything outside the studio and paint the way you feel. That is why people often say I don’t have a style. Each show of mine is different, in terms of medium, subject matter, and material.”
So, expectedly, he is going to do something unique for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. “It will be an installation art with photographs,” he says. “The sites are amazing and fantastic. When I am showing my work in Germany, France, Japan, or the Moscow Biennale, these spaces are ultimately in a foreign land. But here, for the first time I will be showing a work in my own country. The walls, the floors, the smells, the lights, it is all so familiar and I am excited by it.”
Atul is also excited by Malayali artists. “Some of my finest contemporaries are Malayalis,” he says. They include Surendran Nair, Alex Mathew, Riyas Komu, Jitesh Kallat, Justin Ponmani, Jyoti Basu, Ratheesh, and Bose Krishnamachari. “They are dear friends and I respect them as artists,” says Atul. “Through them, I have learnt something about a different region in our country. There is a peculiar voice that one sees in their work. They talk about the life, nature, and a certain mythology. They, along with other international artists, will ensure that the Kochi Biennale will be a great show and will establish India on the international art scene.”