A house can be both home and workplace. If the home moves out and the space takes on a different life as a workplace, as in this case, it becomes a new place in the same space. But the ghost of the old never leaves completely. So what happens when the shell itself is reinvented—when the old cracks are repaired and the imperfect perpendicularity of walls rectified. Can the sparkling white paint, and an ambience different from the homes around, drive away that ghost forever?
Atul Dodiya’s home was once where his 600 sq. ft studio now is. Its story reveals that space and place are two different things. The studio occupies two units in a baithi chawl—a continuous line of small residential units linked by a common passage outside—in an eastern Mumbai suburb. A leading contemporary artist who regularly exhibits abroad, Dodiya actively moves across genres and media. But he has yet to leave his childhood home behind.
“I have lived in this space for about 45 years. I began using it as my studio from 1987 after my family of nine moved to an apartment and my sisters got married,” says Dodiya. The space remained almost exactly the way it had been while he was growing up. Then, in 2004, he asked his friend and well-known architect, Sen Kapadia, to redesign the interiors. The latter had earlier designed a studio space for Dodiya’s wife Anju, a well-regarded painter herself, a few units away. Kapadia, whose work belies his 71 years, has produced a white space that makes many visitors exclaim at its “internationalness”. Indeed, the whiteness of the place is startling. Strange, that this should be so. After all, white is the colour of modern architecture, and the colour of the modern art gallery. But the stark whiteness does surprise, because it is unusual to see the ambience of an art gallery in a space where the artwork is actually produced.
The whiteness and the abstraction of Dodiya’s studio also contrasts heavily with life around. It is obvious that the studio has found its new avatar by erasing the old.
Aesthetic choices can rarely be explained adequately through reasoned argument. But in design, it is possible to relate them to an inhabitant’s personality or the architect’s personal preferences. The white walls, sharp lines, as well as the little games the architect has played with walls and ceiling, work for Dodiya, himself a neat and meticulous worker, but always ready with a mischievous cackle.
Till three years ago, he would first dust every bit of the space himself before sitting down to work. “I am the kind of painter who washes his brushes at the end of the day. In the dark I know that I will find the green colour tubes here and the browns there.” Dodiya’s mischief surfaced, literally, in the bathroom, where he hesitatingly proposed an irreverent carnival of riotous colours and images on the tiles. To his shock, Kapadia, though a minimalist in one sense, agreed.
But then, Kapadia is himself never far from the state of play. Speaking of the way the walls suddenly move out of alignment over doors, or of the oversized door (to the cosy library) that bulges out on both sides, he says, “You cannot make a practical box and say it’s a studio, so there was a play in the wall.” There might not have been that play with the wall, the false ceiling might have been left without the large irregular cut-outs, and the space would still have been a practical, even an elegant, box. But that has never been enough for a Kapadia forever seeking to twist the modernist tail in its own pure language. That Dodiya enjoys being in the studio, enjoys the little (but tall) library, and the neat storage system that Kapadia has elegantly gleaned from a modest budget of space also suggests, however, that the games complement a delight in dwelling that the studio offers.
For many people, the still realism of Dodiya’s early paintings of his city, remains their first introduction to his work. The crisply meditative quality of that work is remarkable. Even more remarkable is the fact that this meditative quality evolved in the bustle of the chaali, (the common passage linking all the units in the chawl) where Dodiya used to paint because the house was too small. That experience of ongoing public scrutiny of works in progress, and that immersion in the public life of his neighbourhood is coded into his attitude to his surroundings as well as into his early work. Does he at all miss the place that used to be in this space, the place that is tied to his beginnings?
“There are so many memories of that house, learning to draw and paint, joining J. J. (School of Art), winning my first award. I look around and remember that the rooms were like that, or that we used to sleep there. Sometimes I miss that. But there were also problems. Till 1987, the toilet was outside. That was really tough. We also had to constantly repair the walls and plastering because of damp. When Sen did the place up, both side walls were completely replastered to get perfectly right-angled corners. Earlier, we had insects and white ants, my books would get torn, paintings spoilt. Now I feel very safe—there have been no problems in three years.”
It is revealing that Dodiya chose to continue with the limitations imposed by existing shared walls and roof, especially when they came with such problems. These could not be broken, only repaired on the surface. Moreover, as the chawls around have changed into multi-storey apartment blocks, their ground level has risen, and waterlogging is a serious concern. Electricity continues to be a problem, and a creaky, leaky roof is a nightmare waiting to happen. The broader reality today continues to be as fraught as the city Dodiya distilled into his early work.
The story of his studio, then, is about how far he has travelled while choosing to remain in the same physical space.
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