By Payel Majumdar
Anju Dodiya is one of India’s most recognized artists to have been involved with the medium of painting. She lives and works in Mumbai. She has exhibited in major art galleries in India and abroad, including the Venice Biennale in 2009. Her works are metaphorical in nature and often reinterpret her personal self.
The ‘self’ is at the centre of Anju’s works, though she initially resisted the lure of self-portraiture. Her art remains rooted in the figurative and all elements within her paintings are charged with an emotional value. Anju has created a niche for herself while exploring various possibilities within it. Anju’s self keeps recurring in the changing pictorial contexts. These are, on one hand, inward looking investigations but they are not narcissist in any sense. There is a keen sense of self-awareness and introspection, and at the same time these works compel the viewer to unravel the untold stories and ambiguous frames. She continually creates her own legend as though she were a fictional character caught in bizarre but lyrical narrative, a self-disruptive autobiography. Her watercolours are her take on the heroic, romantic representation of the self and self-discovery. There is something vulnerable in her works as stringent violence is inflicted on her mind and her art, for example, the dagger piercing the heart, women in despair, swords pointing towards figures present in the painting, and so on. Anju’s paintings start a process of moving beyond the narrow self and towards a larger self.
Is your art autobiographical? From where do you get your inspiration for them, if not?
Actually, I would say they (artworks) are characters in a narrative which I build. So my art is not necessarily about me. It’s been a constant theme in my work to depict the creative process and the artist engaged in the struggle for creativity, something which is important to me. Apart from that, many characters have come to me from literature and mythology. I have painted Penelope and Daphne before from the Greek epics, and recently I have worked with Draupadi and Gandhari from the Mahabharata.
Are you drawn to a certain character prototype, or do they differ?
They differ, depending entirely on a story that I want to tell. It is the time, which moves you to connect with a certain kind of character who may or may not be different from the others.
You have worked on a variety of media; would you say the material used is a part of the narrative?
I would say very much so in a sense, since the material itself takes you in certain directions. When I’m working on cotton fabric and doing a pen drawing, the way the ink blots and absorbs and creates stains has a certain kind of beauty that connects to the narrative in question. The textures create a particular emotional atmosphere.
How much of your personal art would you say is cognitive for you, and how much is instinctual?
I work a lot with intuition, but I’m quite systematic at the same time with the way I connect with my medium. So I think watercolour is a difficult medium, but I have taken naturally to it. It demands a certain precision and concentration, but it still allows me to feel free and take spontaneous decisions. I can’t just work with strategy, so I need a combination where there is a rigor, yet a great joyous connection with your medium. Ingmar Bergman once said, “Intuition is throwing a spear in the forest, and intelligence is getting up in the morning and finding that spear”. So that is the challenge, to work with a combination of intuition and intelligence. I can be inspired only if I am open to the world; I have seen and experienced things. If I have a large variety of inputs in my life, then all these inputs at some point will inspire me. It is the surprise, the delight of life.
Is the viewer present in your mind while you create your artwork?
One doesn’t think of the viewer on the first day, for instance. While the viewer is extremely important to me, I do not think about the viewer while the process of creation is still on. In the end, when my work leaves the studio, how my work is reviewed is important to me. I am trying to structure a certain emotion, a formal construct in my work. The process of creation is so strong and requires concentration, so if I think about people, it would not work out. The viewer comes into the picture at the end.
Do you paint daily?
I would say so. Sometimes, I have gaps, but apart from the direct contact of the brush against the canvas, I’m thinking about art, I’m reading, and in my opinion all of that involves the process of making art. I am not a 9-5 artist. Sometimes I work very long hours, sometimes I don’t.
Death and violence recur in your art – does the question of death intrigue you often?
I wouldn’t say violence as much, I would instead put it as our mortality. Life is about fragility, and the philosophy of death, not the aspect of physical death itself which interests me. All of us know we are going to die some day, but there is a mad rush of desires in which we seem to forget the transcendental nature of life. We are here for a brief while but there is so much going on. So, there is limited time in which a huge expanse of thoughts and desires go on in our mind, and it fascinates me. The mind’s connection to death, sometimes the fear of death, while at other times forgetfulness towards it certainly intrigues me. It is about pushing yourself and other realities, it is about your imagination and desires. Something beyond your body.
Was there a particular moment on which your decision to become an artist was hinged upon?
I wanted to write, maybe paint. I joined the JJ School of Arts with that fuzzy idea, and I enjoyed drawing and painting so much that in those six months I knew that I wanted to become an artist. If there was any doubt left before that, it went away.
You have spoken about two of your influences before – Sylvia Plath and Ingmar Bergman.
If you see the films of Bergman or works of Plath, they create a very sharp landscape of pain – of the human predicament. There’s a certain sensitivity, a certain hard beauty about their works. Plath has a very dark side, but I connect with them because they look at form and content in a way which is also my oeuvre – how I like to examine the world.
The art world was not as organised at the time when you took the plunge to pursue a career in art. How difficult a decision was it?
At that time, when you chose to become an artist, it was certainly not about money – you had to do other jobs on the side to be self-sufficient. At the same time, around me in Mumbai we had Akbar Padamsee, Tyeb Mehta, other strong personalities, who were working from tiny studios with total integrity. The ambition was always around making a greater work of art. These were my fathers, and it was a strong education being around them. Even today with the boom time, and the market going up, these are a bonus, but the best part is you can read books and make the art you want and watch the films you like. And that is the life I want. It is the ideal life. There was never any market for art at that time, and whatever happened later was wonderful, but we were prepared for the worst.