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Few artists in contemporary India have been as deeply invested in recovering and archiving so many histories of art as Atul Dodiya has done in his practice in the course of his long and distinguished career.

Born in Mumbai in 1959, and educated in India and Paris, Dodiya is currently having a mid-career retrospective, thoughtfully curated by the cultural critic and poet, Ranjit Hoskote, at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. The title of the show, Experiments with Truth: Atul Dodiya Works 1981-2013, is laden with historical resonances—not just in its reference to a certain phase of the artist’s career but also in its allusion to what is perhaps one of the most memorable memoirs in the history of life-writing.

The figure of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, whose autobiography the title of the show refers to, has occupied a crucial place in Dodiya’s consciousness. But his compulsive revisiting of Gandhi’s life and philosophy in a range of work, executed in various media, has yielded many layers of meaning. In Dodiya’s work, the father of the nation seems to attain the stature of a mythic, even surreal, figure—one who has the potency of an Oedipal patriarch, whose voice echoes through the artist’s dreams and thoughts.

But Gandhi is just one of the many paternal presences that haunt this show.

On entering the gallery, one is confronted by a portrait, entitled Father, depicting a man seated on a sofa—who is, presumably, the artist’s biological parent. But soon other genealogies, drawn from other cultures and continents, begin to reveal themselves.

A significant body of Dodiya’s work consists of diptychs made of painted photographs and photographic paintings, juxtaposing scenes from Gandhi’s private and public lives with instances of 20th century modernist paintings. From Piet Mondrian’s stark grids to Marcel Duchamp’s spectral Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2, replicas of classic art appear next to the vignettes of Gandhi’s life and times preserved in the iconic photographs.

While the rules of modern art were being rewritten in Europe in the early decades of the 20th century, the political destiny of a people was being forged in a different corner of the planet—with other kinds of aesthetic revolutions, in the crafts and textiles, affecting ways of living and thinking. Similar continuities, tenuous as they may be, are suggested in Dodiya’s shutter-roller installations as well. Secreted behind the movable steel curtains are entire worlds where kitsch meets camp, celebrities and common people appear in the same frame, and hyperreal colours explode on the pallid texture of real life.

A consummately cerebral artist, Dodiya moves from the fathers of the European avant-garde to their Indian counterparts, bringing to bear on these twin legacies his peculiar gift of reinvention, touched by empathy. His response to Nandalal Bose’s realist paintings of Sabari, the woman who served Ram in the epic, is a minimal, pellucid figure, shorn of all excesses, the drama of her life sharply captured in the angular and emaciated features. Dialogues with other masters—Somnath Hore, Benode Bihari Mukherjee, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee—unfold in works of modest scale.

Old photographs of artists and memorabilia related to their lives—letters, handwritten notes, used nibs—are shored up and displayed in several large glass-fronted cabinets. These items of the past are not mere curiosities; rather, these are fragments of a history of making art that gets not only enshrined but also elaborated through newer forms of art, as Dodiya’s example shows.

In spite of their stillness, these objects come together to create vital continuities—linking artists across generations, exploring the affinities and inspirations that bind them, and setting up dialogues among them.

Dodiya’s most intense, and sustained, engagement is with Bhupen Khakhar, the master painter from Vadodara. Three towering portraits of Khakhar, each painted on a 72x96-inch canvas, fix the viewer from a wall. These tributes take on a special poignancy as the eye is repeatedly drawn to the shadowy figures that lurk in the background. At his most accomplished, Khakhar used this precise skill, of being able to combine stark realism with withering understatement, to insinuate narratives that are more perverse than they appear.

Dodiya, who has admitted to being absorbed in the movies of Guru Dutt and the music of Kumar Gandharva, can soar to operatic heights or plunge into the grim depths of the soul with equal agility. A portrait titled Angelina, presumably of his wife, the artist, Anju Dodiya, is framed against Roy Lichtenstein’s iconic Pop Art painting, Drowning Girl, in which waves crash over a tearful woman. A thought-bubble announces what goes on in her mind: “I don’t care! I’d rather sink than call Brad for help!" Dodiya adds a wry footnote— “24x7"—to his composition, a quiet masterstroke that establishes him as the true inheritor of a witty postmodern sensibility.

Experiments with Truth: Atul Dodiya Works 1981-2013 is on from 10am-5pm (Mondays closed) at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi (233686111/4640), till 29 December.

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