Ask any parent what their children are like, and usually their eyes will light up. They won’t stop talking, gushing and making jokes. When I ask Atul and Anju Dodiya what their 26-year-old daughter Biraaj is like, we laugh the most in the course of an interview that spans hours. A couple of stories stand out about Biraaj, who is currently preparing for her debut solo. Atul recalls a time when, after spending hours at the Venice Biennale, the family moved outdoors. Atul tried to make space to sit on a public bench by moving a stone and an umbrella that casually lay on the bench, perhaps left behind by someone. Biraaj warned her father, “Don’t move them, it’s probably art."

“What I admire most about her is her sense of humour. Humour is one of the best forms of creative expression," Atul, 60, says. “We give each other freedom to say good and bad things about each other’s art. Her work is different from what we do and that’s a big relief. And she is introducing us to new artists," says Biraaj’s mother, Anju, 55.

Anju, Atul and Biraaj Dodiya
Anju, Atul and Biraaj Dodiya (Photo courtesy: The Dodiyas)

This is a big year for the family. Atul’s new solo show of paintings and sculptural works has already opened at Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery—a shrine with mini shutters, with superimposed artworks and photographs. On 27 February, Mumbai’s Chemould Prescott Road gallery will host Anju’s next solo of largely watercolour paintings—a form that Anju has been perfecting and optimizing since her debut solo at the same gallery in 1991. And on 6 March, Biraaj’s debut solo of paintings and multi-material sculptural installations will open at Experimenter, Kolkata. “The paintings—part funereal abstractions, part landscapes—excavate themes around loss, distance and surface. The sculptural works combine a range of materials such as concrete, wood, plaster, epoxy resin, paint and collected personal objects, to confront memory and absence," Biraaj says; she is yet to know what shape the works will finally take.

Her artistic influences are diverse: ancient tombs, Pahari miniatures, Joseph Beuys, Kanye West and 15th century Italian painters. Besides introducing her parents to Instagram, she is introducing them to several new artists as well. “My parents think that input is as important as creative output, which has definitely influenced the way I negotiate with art. I have understood from them that a diversity of thought, visuals, social positions—everything is legitimate," Biraaj says. While her parents’ education at Mumbai’s Sir JJ School of Art in the late 1980s and later in museums and galleries around the world was steeped largely in the two-dimensional realm of a canvas, Biraaj chiselled her artistic idioms through the interdisciplinary route of modern American art education—at the Art Institute of Chicago and New York University.

‘Crimson Cave’ by Atul Dodiya
‘Crimson Cave’ by Atul Dodiya (Photo: Vadehra Art Gallery)

The beginning of the Dodiyas’ careers coincided with Shireen Gandhy starting off as the heir of Chemould art gallery. It has been 30 years since Atul’s first solo, at the Chemould in 1989. Two years later came Anju’s first solo, also at Chemould. Khorshed and Kekoo Gandhy, who started Chemould on the first floor of the Jehangir Art Gallery, discovered them. It was the beginning of a friendship and collaborative mettle that has lasted till today.

Atul’s first solo had large-scale oil paintings, photo-realist works—portraits of his father, sister, where he lived, the empty room of his neighbour, Marine Drive in the monsoon. They were quiet works, which Shireen Gandhy introduced to the world. Gandhy recalls: “That show was the big buzz, it was my first show too at Chemould, and Atul became my mascot. The three of us would spend hours together at the gallery, talking. That continued, then Biraaj came and I remember her being with Atul and Anju everywhere. She would keep running from room to room at our gallery." About a year later, Gandhy and her mother, Khorshed, visited them at their old Ghatkopar studio, which both shared, and Khorshed asked Anju to show her works. “She was hesitant, and from below the mattress, she pulled out these self-portraits made in charcoal. We fell in love with it," Gandhy says.

In the 1980s, the Dodiyas became part of a cultural community in Mumbai which included poets, film-makers and artists. The same people met at every screening or show, stayed at these venues for hours together, discussing, arguing. Author and critic Shanta Gokhale edited an arts page at The Times Of India, and curator and critic Ranjit Hoskote reviewed art shows for the paper. “It was a sense of community and all of us added something to each other’s life and works. It was like being part of a continuum," says Anju.

Biraaj Dodiya’s ‘Whales, Storm I’ (oil on linen, 2019), part of her forthcoming solo at the Experimenter
Biraaj Dodiya’s ‘Whales, Storm I’ (oil on linen, 2019), part of her forthcoming solo at the Experimenter (Photo: The Experimenter)

Today, the combined artistic value of Atul and Anju is difficult to measure, but they have created some of the best works of contemporary Indian art—rigorous, intellectual but rooted in emotional responses to the world around them, hyper-referential without being derivative. In thought and as people, they are steeped in an Indianness that speaks to the world. With the debut of their daughter and three shows each of the couple in the new year, the Dodiyas have become indisputably the first family of Indian contemporary art.

Deepanjana Klein, international head of department for contemporary Indian & Southeast Asian art, Christie’s, says she has been keenly following their works for decades. “Painterly and poetic in style, Atul and Anju are two of the most promising future modernists in South Asia," Klein says.

Both artists have painterly visions, and Biraaj, as Priyanka Raja, co-founder of Experimenter, Kolkata, says, is “formally deconstructing painting" in her debut. “We felt her work is extremely poetic and layered. It shows a deep painterly practice that is rooted in research, personal experiences and mature handling of the medium. Biraaj is pushing the boundaries of her practice with the way she engages with material. She has a strong language of her own, and even at an early point in her practice, brings forth her nuanced position," Raja says.

Opposites do attract

It’s a mid-morning interview appointment with the Dodiyas at Anju’s studio in Ghatkopar, a tumultuous eastern suburb of Mumbai, where the Dodiyas work and live. Atul’s 10,000 sq. ft studio, also in Ghatkopar, a penthouse in a large industrial complex overlooking the Eastern Express Highway and Thane Creek, is like a museum of his inspirations. Satyajit Ray, Jasper Johns, Bhupen Khakhar, François Truffaut, Mahatma Gandhi and his father, Karamchand Gandhi, Bollywood villains like Amrish Puri, Joseph Beuys—the breadth of imagery, carefully juxtaposed, is staggering. Anju’s studio is much more intimate, with a balcony that has profusely green and large potted plants. The room where she works has all the artists’ tools, warm lights, cavernous sofas and chairs, and a neatness that belies all expectations of a space where an artist works.

Ghatkopar has a swanky mall but what one sees in its narrow arteries full of craters are heavy goods trucks, autorickshaws, buses and private vehicles jostling for space. Atul says it still inspires him: “It’s an India that interests me, it encompasses some of my quintessentially Indian concerns—the changing city, for example, the contrasts and the conflicts that exist in the city." Anju, who grew up in south Mumbai, has become a comfortable inhabitant of Ghatkopar. Their being in this suburb, far away from the art hot spots of the city, is just another index of their rootedness to the city and Everyman India, and why, perhaps, they are able to celebrate the universal in the local in their art.

Both Atul and Anju have referential breadth, but are starkly different in their processes. They are more willing to talk about their similarities—a passion for cinema, for seeing art and a love for the same artists and film-makers. Biraaj accompanies them on their trips to the Louvre in Paris or The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Once inside the galleries, they go their own ways; later, when they meet, they realize that uncannily, every time they agree on the merit of the same works, even take pictures of the same things. Biraaj is now an integral part of these Eureka moments. “I think conceptually and materially we are all quite different in the way we approach our work, but we enjoy similar interests," Biraaj says.

Both Atul and Anju are known to be clinical about cleaning up their work spaces after they finish a day’s work at their studios—wiping, folding and stacking all their tools to return to them the next day. But Atul works on a large scale and has many assistants, while Anju only has herself and her canvases. While Atul is immersed in all the stimuli around him, distracted yet immersed, thinking of ways to incorporate them in his art, Anju becomes obsessed with an idea and lives with it until she feels ready to paint. It is an anguished, painful, solitary process for her; Atul shares his work as he goes along, mapping feedback and reactions. Hesitatingly, Atul offers an analogy that describes his remarkably talented wife: “There are artists who never smile. Like Akbar Padamsee and (Henri) Matisse. Anju is in that category."

MEDIUMS AND THEMES

Ever since her first solo in 1991, self-portraits of a girl in a room—in her words, “an artist girl in a room"—in watercolour and charcoal, Anju has been steadfast about her medium, which is watercolour, and form, which is self-portraiture. She calls her own works “fictional autobiography". Once she decides on what a painting will be about and knows how she will distil an input from the external world, say an event or phenomenon or a film or a painting, she strives to develop an emotional climate, a temperature in the room, which will make the work singular.

Roshini Vadehra, director of the Vadehra Art Gallery, Delhi, who has seen both artists evolve since she was a teenager, collaborating with her family gallery, says: “Atul and Anju constantly reinvent themselves with new projects and exhibitions. Atul moves freely between mediums and themes, and Anju’s work has only become stronger in her visual language and also her varied exploration in painting." Vadehra says Atul’s work attracts buyers and collectors from around the world. But Atul has not consciously reached out to an international audience. He references (Pablo) Picasso and Alfred Hitchcock in one show, and then, in the next, he creates something that is rooted in Gandhi’s remains in Porbandar, which can be an effort for a non-Indian collector to process. Both their works are part of collections in India as well as abroad, including Tate Modern in London and museums and galleries in Europe. Klein says the highest that a work of Atul has fetched at a Christie’s auction is $541,000 (around 3.8 crore now) for Three Painters, an oil and acrylic on canvas, in 1996; the highest that a work by Anju has fetched at a Christie’s auction is $170,186 for The Site, an acrylic on mattress, in 2005.

Sanjukta Sharma is a Mumbai-based journalist and screenwriter.

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