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

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

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

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

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