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At the centre of the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum gallery are seven vertical vitrines painted white. Wooden display cabinets that house artefacts made from lacquer, silver and horn, dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, surround the vitrines. Inside the cabinet are sculptures, photographs, found objects and canvases, made and assembled by artist Atul Dodiya.

The back of each cabinet has a poster with a poem by the late English and Marathi poet Arun Kolatkar, brought to life with Dodiya’s paintbrush. Each cabinet has multiple things to tell its viewers, much like the permanent collection of the museum, but the most important point it seems to make is a larger one on the act of viewership itself. “I see how people see, how they don’t see; the body language of the people watching art. I live in those moments," says Dodiya.

Titled 7000 Museums: A Project For The Republic Of India, the exhibition is the latest in director Tasneem Mehta’s effort to contemporize the museum. In 2013, Reena Kallat’s giant spider web, made out of rubber stamps strung together, hung across the facade of the 142-year-old colonial building that was once known as the Victoria & Albert Museum. From December 2012 to January 2013, it was also the Mumbai site for the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a global project undertaken by the New York museum. Mehta’s curation indicates the museum’s continued engagement with the city, and by extension, contemporary art. And just as the city museum is “a museum about museums"—as Mehta puts it—Dodiya’s show is an exhibition about exhibitions.

Atul Dodiya.
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Atul Dodiya.

Shireen Gandhy, whose gallery Chemould Prescott Road represents the 55-year-old artist, recalls one of Dodiya’s early exhibitions at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Kala Ghoda, Mumbai. “He would visit the Jehangir every day to see people watch his paintings. When someone spent a little more time than usual on a particular painting, he would go up and talk to them. Atul is very conscious about his everyday audience. He is particularly interested in the aam aadmi (common man)," she says. Other works that form part of this exhibition prove Gandhy’s point.

The title of the exhibition takes its cue from the 24 watercolours that juxtapose the aam aadmi— some naked and impoverished, some pared-down reconfigurations of gods like Krishna, others dressed in colonial attire and sipping tea—against the backdrop of avant-garde buildings that are museums and art foundations in far-flung locations. The Museum Of Arts And Craft, Agartala, for instance, shows a lean painter with a set of brushes standing before a modernist building. The 21st Century Museum Of Contemporary Art, Jhumri Talaiya shows a man defecating outside the building, beneath an installation. A fakir (ascetic) sits on an animal-skin rug with a knowing look on his face outside the Guggenheim, Gorakhpur. The Bhau Daji Lad gets a nod in the Bhau Daji Annex Mumbai Gallery, Byculla.

These watercolours are part playful, part serious, as they bring up pressing questions of the function and role of art in a society beset with backbreaking poverty and deprivation. Is the government’s inability to justify spending money on art projects and museums indicative of cultural poverty? What role do the existing museums play in such a scenario? These are some of the questions that Dodiya says he grapples with.

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A photorealistic painting depicting the Mumbai riots of 1964.

“Of course, we can’t directly compare India with these countries, because our struggle to earn and support families is different. But art is not a priority for our government. At the same time, if you go to our museums, such as the Bhau Daji Lad or the Prince of Wales museum, you’ll see a lot of public that is not the usual gallery-goers. What do they see here? They know that there is something amazing in here, something from our past," says Dodiya, whose exhibition also includes oil and acrylic paintings of scenes from India’s struggle for independence, such as Mahatma Gandhi at the Congress House, or Quit India movement protests outside Mumbai’s iconic Gowalia Tank area.

The vital role that museums play in inviting city-goers to think about their past and present—and possibly the future—dovetails neatly with Dodiya’s own impulse to share art. “Something has to be said for getting joy from art. Life is not only about eating, sleeping and eking out a living. I exhibit to share my art," he says.

7000 Museums: A Project For The Republic Of India is on till 10 February, 10am-5.30pm (Wednesdays closed), at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum, Byculla

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