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.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

It’s the new year and it’s already time to plan your next holiday

Here are some great destinations for you to consider.

Vacation planning can get serious and strategic. Some people swear by the save and splurge approach that allows for one mini getaway and one dream holiday in a year. Others use the solo to family tactic and distribute their budget across solo trips, couple getaways and family holidays. Regardless of what strategy you implement to plan your trip, the holiday list is a handy tool for eager travellers. After having extensively studied the 2018 holiday list, here’s what we recommend:

March: 10 days of literature, art and culture in Toronto

For those you have pledged to read more or have more artistic experiences in 2018, Toronto offers the Biblio-Mat, the world’s first randomising vending machine for old books. You can find the Biblio-Mat, paper artefacts, rare books and more at The Monkey’s Paw, an antiquarian bookseller. If you can tear yourself away from this eclectic bookstore, head over to The Public Library in Toronto for the Merril Collection of over 72000 items of science fiction, fantasy magic realism and graphic novels. With your bag full of books, grab a coffee at Room 2046 – a café cum store cum studio that celebrates all things whimsical and creative. Next, experience art while cycling across the 80km Pan Am Path. Built for walking, running, cycling and wheeling, the Pan Am Path is a recreational pathway that offers a green, scenic and river views along with art projects sprinkled throughout the route. You can opt for a guided tour of the path or wander aimlessly for serendipitous discoveries.

Nothing beats camping to ruminate over all those new ideas collected over the past few days. Make way to Killarney Provincial Park for 2-3 days for some quiet time amongst lakes and hills. You can grab a canoe, go hiking or get back to nature, but don’t forget to bring a tent.

If you use the long-weekend of 2nd March to extend your trip, you get to experience the Toronto Light Festival as a dazzling bonus.

June: 10 days of culinary treats, happy feet and a million laughs in Chicago

Famous for creating the deep-dish pizza and improv comedy, Chicago promises to banish that mid-year lull. Get tickets for The Second City’s Legendary Laughs at The UP-Comedy Club - the company that gave us the legendary Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and Key & Peele. All that laughter can sure work up an appetite, one that can be satiated with Lou Malnati’s classic deep-dish pizza. For dessert, head over to the Ferrara Original Bakery for mouth-watering treats.

Chicago in June is pleasant and warm enough to explore the outdoors and what better way to soak in the sunshine, than by having a picnic at the Maggie Daley Park. Picnic groves, wall climbing, mini golf, roller blading – the park offers a plethora of activities for individuals as well as families.

If you use the long weekend of 15th June, you can extend your trip to go for Country LakeShake – Chicago’s country music festival featuring Blake Shelton and Dierks Bentley.

August: 7 days in London for Europe’s biggest street festival

Since 1964, the Notting Hill Carnival has been celebrating London’s Caribbean communities with dancing, masquerade and music ranging from reggae to salsa. Watch London burst into colours and sparkle at the Notting Hill Carnival. Home to Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens Museum, London is best experienced by wandering through its tiny streets. Chance encounters with bookstores such as Foyles and Housemans, soaking in historic sights while enjoying breakfast at Arthur’s Café or Blackbird Bakery, rummaging the stalls at Broadway market or Camden Market – you can do so much in London while doing nothing at all.

The Museum of Brand, Packaging and Advertising can send you reminiscing about those old ads, while the Clowns Gallery Museum can give you an insight in clown-culture. If you’d rather not roam aimlessly, book a street-art tour run by Alternative London or a Jack the Ripper Tour.

October: 10 days of an out-of-body experience in Vegas

About 16 km south of the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and St. Rose Parkway in Henderson, lies a visual spectacle. Seven Magic Mountains, an art installation by Ugo Rondinone, stands far away from the wild vibe that people expect in Las Vegas and instead offers a sense of wonder. Imagine seven pillars of huge, neon boulders, stacked up against one another stretched towards the sky. There’s a lot more where that came from, in Las Vegas. Captivating colour at the permanent James Turrell exhibit in Louis Vuitton, outdoor adventures at the Bootleg Canyon and vintage shopping at Patina Décor offer experiences that are not usually associated with Vegas. For that quintessential Vegas show, go for Shannon McBeath: Absinthe for some circus-style entertainment. If you put the holiday list to use, you can make it for the risefestival – think thousands of lanterns floating in the sky, right above you.

It’s time to get on with the vacation planning for the new year. So, pin up the holiday list, look up deals on hotels and flights and start booking. Save money by taking advantage of the British Airways Holiday Sale. With up to 25% off on flight, the offer is available to book until 31st January 2018 for travel up to 31st December in economy and premium economy and up to 31st August for business class. For great fares to great destinations, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.