Contemporary art

Women, history and art masters: Artist Atul Dodiya weaves his fascinations into one show

The female figure connects the artist’s new works, which draw on 2,100 years of art history.

When artist Atul Dodiya painted the likeness of his wife, painter Anju Dodiya, for the first time, he did it in the style of the Fayum Mummy portraits found on boards attached to Egyptian mummies. If the choice was morbid, Anju was to blame.

“It was a stray remark from me that triggered the thought,” said Anju. “Many years ago, we had a conversation. People used to ask him why don’t you paint your wife? He was painting realism in those days. This was in 1988-’89. I told him then that if you ever paint me, do it in the Fayum style… Atul does this a lot in his works – he will refer to some conversation we had or some image we saw many years ago and then bring it all together and overlap it with his own take on art history.”

The Fayum Mummy tradition is thought to date back to the 1st century BCE and comprises portraits – usually just faces, but sometimes up to the waist – made posthumously on wooden panels and placed on mummified bodies. Europeans explorers first discovered these in remarkably good condition in the early 1600s and they are now part of the permanent collections of museums like the Museum of Modern Art in New York and The British Museum in London.

Atul Dodiya’s eight Fayum Mummy-style portraits of Anju are currently on show at Vadehra Art Gallery in New Delhi, as part of a solo show titled Girlfriends: French, German, Italian, Egyptian, Santiniketan, Ghatkopar…

Atul and Anju Dodiya. Credit: Chanpreet Khurana
Atul and Anju Dodiya. Credit: Chanpreet Khurana

The title, chosen by Atul Dodiya, is telling of the Mumbai-based artist’s preoccupations in this show – all 47 paintings in the show are of women. The female figure, says Dodiya, connects these works which draw on 2,100 years of art history, from the first century BCE to the 20th century CE and take inspiration across geography, from Arezzo in Italy to Santiniketan in West Bengal. “Since there are so many female figures, I thought if I called them my girlfriends, that would be so special and beautiful,” said Atul Dodiya.

“‘Girlfriends’ suggests familiarity, intimacy,” added his wife. “We have seen these paintings through our student years and in museums around the world. It may be a bit at my expense, but I think ‘girlfriends’ is just the right word.”

The second preoccupation in these works, as with almost everything Dodiya paints, is history. “We say history is an earlier period, it’s nostalgia, it’s memory,” he said. “But all of this jumps back and asserts itself on the present. You don’t forget things. What shall we do with that memory, is also one of the questions.”

Untitled - I (Santiniketan Girlfriend), by Atul Dodiya. Courtesy: Atul Dodiya and Vadehra Art Gallery
Untitled - I (Santiniketan Girlfriend), by Atul Dodiya. Courtesy: Atul Dodiya and Vadehra Art Gallery

Through the 47 works in his show, Dodiya tries to reconcile historical references with a present-day context. So a series of works inspired by Pierro della Francesca’s 16th century frescos, The Legend of the True Cross, mimics the original but sets the figures in synthetic laminate to signal the “huge rupture” between then and now. The present moment, the artist explains, is marked by a violence and an excess of information that simply was not there before. “Technology and information is coming at you all the time. My phone rings all the time – there are calls and messages and emails and notifications – but I can’t say I am not going to look at these.”

The third preoccupation in the show – and a recurring idea in Dodiya’s work – is an engagement with the art masters. “Some of the greatest art has been made already in such a profound way,” said Dodiya. “I buy a lot of books. I go back to see these works of art again and again, whenever I want, in my own space, and that inspires me.”

In Girlfriends, as in his exhibition Mahatma and the Masters in Brussels, Dodiya processes and re-imagines some of these well-known works which he studied closely and repeatedly over the years. “I’ve learnt so much from the great masters – French, German, Italian – and I continue to learn from them. My paintings in this show are very close to their work, but trying to understand the feeling I get when I am looking at their works.”

Untitled - III (Italian Girlfriends), by Atul Dodiya. Courtesy: Atul Dodiya and Vadehra Art Gallery
Untitled - III (Italian Girlfriends), by Atul Dodiya. Courtesy: Atul Dodiya and Vadehra Art Gallery

The one exception is the found drawings by an unknown artist from Ghatkopar, Mumbai. Some of the images here are accompanied by lyrics from old Hindi film songs and black blobs scattered across the drawings. Here, as in his other works, Atul Dodiya draws on personal experience to make art – Anju has vitiligo, which has left white spots on her body. The black blobs are like the spots, which he describes as clouds travelling over Anju’s body.

Elsewhere, in the paintings inspired by, say, Picabia’s Olga, Dodiya has left clues for the viewer to recognise the female figure as something that was made before – but he also wanted to filter the images through his experiences and imagination – like the portraits of his wife in the Fayum Mummy style.

“The Fayum tradition is an iconic, well-established work from history,” said Dodiya. “Then to add something from today’s context, from my personal context, I thought that would create a tension. That happens when there is engagement from the artist and the viewer.”

The Fayum Mummy-style portraits hang in a sort of gallery within the Vadehra Art Gallery in a room somewhat segregated from the rest of the show. For this show, the room feels like a mausoleum. Not somber, just quiet. Atul and Anju Dodiya stand among the portraits for a photograph. Everything is calm and beautifully still.

Untitled - III (German Girlfriend), by Atul Dodiya. Courtesy: Atul Dodiya and Vadehra Art Gallery
Untitled - III (German Girlfriend), by Atul Dodiya. Courtesy: Atul Dodiya and Vadehra Art Gallery

Girlfriends: French, German, Italian, Egyptian, Santiniketan, Ghatkopar… is on at Vadehra Art Gallery, D-53, Defence Colony, Delhi, till March 4.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

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Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.