Article: On Bako Exists. Imagine

This article was first published in Crest.

Bako to Basics

Anyone who remembers handwriting class in school will stare with envy at the neatly-printed handwriting on the paintings in Atul Dodiya’s new show, Bako Exists. Imagine. Dodiya wrote those unwavering straight lines of text by hand, without the help of lines or grids, and with his left hand. In case you were wondering, Dodiya is right-handed. “I wanted to give the impression of great care going into each letter that was written, like we did when we wrote in exercise books in school,” said Dodiya. “So I decided I’d write with my left hand because that way, I would be more careful.” He paused for a moment and then tossed out some trivia, “You know, Gandhi could write with both hands.”
Gandhi is among the artists and thinkers who have long fascinated Dodiya. The eclectic list  includes Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, Indian mystic Ramakrishna, American painter Jasper Johns, French filmmaker Jean Luc Godard and Gujarati poet Labhshanker Thaker. Thaker’s 2004 work, Bako Chhe Kalpo, is the inspiration for Bako Exists. Imagine.
Among Gujaratis. Bako is a common nickname. There’s a certain anonymity to it because any kid in shorts could be called Bako since it is also a term of endearment for a boy. In Bako Chhe Kalpo, Bako is like any other little boy. He’s mischievous, curious and he hates school. Unlike most schoolchildren, however, Thacker’s Bako hangs out with Mahatma Gandhi in his dreams. The father of the nation and the little boy have surreal conversations in which they discuss a curious variety of subjects, ranging from shadowplay to bird poop on statues.
Atul Dodiya first read Bako Chhe Kalpo in 2005 and was fascinated. The simplicity and mischief of the little boy’s mind as depicted by Thacker appealed to Dodiya and he began conceiving a set of text-based paintings that used the text of Bako Chhe Kalpo. So began a remarkable artistic collaboration. Dodiya asked his friend, writer and director Naushil Mehta to translate Bako Chhe Kalpo into English so that the works would be accessible to a wider audience. Mehta turned to poet Arundhati Subramaniam to add lyrical polish to the translation. Their words are what you read on the paintings that make up Dodiya’s Bako Exists. Imagine.
With Bako Exists. Imagine, Dodiya transforms the gallery into the classroom of Bako’s dreams, the one in which Bako’s teacher and classmate is Bapu. On one wall, nine cabinets are lined up. They are filled with photographs, paintings, sculptures, toys and other objects. All over the gallery are blackboards on which painstakingly printed letters spell out splintered bits of Bako’s dream conversations with Gandhi. Fossilized under the words are delicate images. Some look fragile, like ancient pressed leaves. Others are strongly solid, like slabs of stone. There’s a remarkable balance to the show. The almost minimalist and neutral blackboards are placed alongside the colourful clutter of the cabinets. Staring at the ghostly figures in the paintings are portraits of real people who are nonetheless unreal because not only are they in photographs, but most are also dead.
Dodiya is as playful as Bako, if not more. Bako Exists. Imagine is an enchanting and intriguing set of illusions and allusions. Dodiya never loses sight of the fact that art is primarily a visual medium, which means that a viewer must connect to a work at first sight and instinctively. One of the ways Dodiya attracts his viewer is with humour. For starters, the writing on the paintings are often funny. In addition, the blackboards are actually canvases that have been painted to look like smooth slate with chalk writing.
The exhibition is as much an exploration of idealism (symbolised by Gandhi) and innocence (exemplified by Bako) as it is a legend into the mind and life of Atul Dodiya. The usually neat categories of figurative, abstract and conceptual art are blurred with Dodiya taking real figures and objects but using them to create a curiously abstract narrative. Not only is the story of Bako Chhe Kalpo fragmented so that there isn’t any specific order to the paintings, but Dodiya’s own life is presented in the cabinets as an jigsaw puzzle of awkward pieces that fit perfectly.
The bric-a-brac in the cabinets may look artfully random but each item is precisely chosen and placed. Every object has a personal resonance for Dodiya. Most of them, including the Mondrian paintings and the sculpture of a man pissing on a skull, have been made by the artist. Photographs of Dodiya’s heroes, like Godard, Francois Truffaut and Rabindranath Tagore, adorn the cabinets. One cabinet shows a stack of books hanging like meat in a butcher’s shop. Another has a sheet with photographs of the Ramakrishna’s first disciples. Many of the photographs in the cabinets have been taken by Dodiya. It doesn’t bother Dodiya that a viewer may make assumptions about him on the basis of what they see in the cabinets. In fact, there’s a twinkle in his eye as he tells me that he’s looking forward to people looking at the objects and making sense of them.
In one of the faux blackboard paintings, there is a vignette of a conversation that takes place when Bako and Bapu’s shadows are leaning against each other one night. Its last few lines are, “Bapu’s shadow was wound-up as if by invisible hands,/And mine.” Dodiya’s waiting to see what our invisible hands do with the shadows of his own self that flit through Bako Exists, Imagine.


List: 10 Unexpectedly Arty Raw Materials

This piece was first published in India Today.

While its appeal may not be quite as widespread as that of Bollywood, contemporary Indian art has its fans all over the world. Indian artists have been our cultural ambassadors, showcasing realities and fantasies of modern India in their works. As a toast to their inventiveness, here are 10 commonplace items that became fine art when they caught the attention of our finest artists.

1980s Enamel paint

Ask about the medium of most paintings, and you’ll be told oils or watercolours. If you’re looking atPrabhakar Barwe‘s paintings from the 1980s, however, there’s a good chance that you’re looking at synthetic enamel paint on canvas. Yes, the stuff that’s generally used on walls. Barwe thinned the gloopy enamel paint using turpentine and kerosene to make beautiful, delicate paintings in muted shades.

1995 Bindis

Indian women have adorned themselves with these cheap little stickies for decades but when Bharti Kher stuck the bindi on her sculptures and paintings, their value multiplied million-fold. Kher’s interest in the fashion accessory began in the mid-1990s. She was at a market when she noticed a stranger wearing a black bindi that reminded her of a sperm. Kher asked the woman where she’d bought the bindi, then went to that shop and bought its entire supply of serpentine bindis. It was, as Kher put it, her “supernova moment”. This year Kher became India’s top-selling female artist when one of her bindi works was sold for $1.5 million.

1996 Fake Eyes

You’ve seen them on statues of Hindu deities, looking kindly or angry, depending upon the deity in question and how the eyelashes and eyelids have been painted. Manufactured eyes have also been a regular feature in Anita Dube‘s art since 1996. A cluster of these unblinking synthetic eyes would spread over a wall in the gallery or encrust the surface of objects, like in the photograph C-Creature that shows hands covered with these fake eyes. Their unblinking gaze is tremendously unnerving and yet, it’s impossible to take one’s eyes off them.

1999 Bottle Caps

Does Coca-Cola remind you of saris? If yes, then you’ve probably seen Sharmila Samant‘s “Handmade Saree”, a gorgeous, unwearable creation made entirely of Coca-Cola bottle caps. Samant made the first Handmade Saree out of 1,800 bottle caps during a year-long residency. It cleverly talks about globalisation, exploitation of labour, commodification, notions of waste and value, the opposition between readymade and custom-made, threats to handicraft traditions and homogeneity, but without getting burdened by the gravitas of polysyllabic words.

2000 Metal Shutters

Generally when shutters come clanking down, it means the shop’s shut. Unless Atul Dodiya has painted on them. Then they become fine art. Dodiya first painted shutters in 2000 when he was asked to participate in an exhibition called Century City at London’s Tate Modern. He chose shutters as his canvas because he wanted to use something that was emblematic of Mumbai’s streets but would also communicate a sense of anxiety. The shutters were perfect because they’re fixtures in shops and the sound of them coming down was one of Dodiya’s sharpest memories from the 1992 Mumbai riots. Dodiya had an entire show of his shutter paintings earlier this year.

2003 Blessings from God

Many temples, churches and mosques have websites but only at could you download a blessing that was less divine and more fine art. In 2003, Shilpa Gupta created the website Visitors were invited to log in, choose a religion and then get blessings from the relevant religious authority. They could also download a certificate to prove they’d been blessed. The website was commissioned by Tate Online, the digital arm of London’s Tate Galleries, and was Gupta’s meditation upon religion and the divisive role it often plays in society.

2005 Mattresses

In 2005, Anju Dodiya exhibited her first series of paintings made on mattresses. The show was called “The Cloud Hunt”, which sounds like an aggressive form of daydreaming and explains where the mattresses fitted into Dodiya’s scheme of things. One would think the bulkiness of a mattress would make it an inelegant starting point for a painting but Dodiya transformed this sleeping apparatus into a wonderful canvas. Mattresses added a hint of three-dimensionality to the two-dimensional medium and were strangely perfect for Dodiya’s works, particularly when they explored themes of fantasy, sleep and night.

2006 Hawker Stalls and Sofas

This one’s a double whammy. In 2006, Tushar Joag came up with a brilliant contraption for hawkers being harassed into shutting shop by officials of the Brihanmumbai Municipality Corporation (BMC): theShanghai Couch. (The BMC had banned hawkers as part of its master plan to give Mumbai a makeover and turn it into Shanghai; hence the name.) The Shanghai Couch was a hawker stall that in a few swift, nifty moves could turn into a bright red couch. Because, as Joag pointed out, there wasn’t any law banning couches on Mumbai’s pavements.

2007 Rubberstamp

It’s impossible to find an Indian office that doesn’t have at least one person rubberstamping away. In Reena Saini Kallat‘s art, however, the rubberstamp is a sign of her disapproval of the state of affairs. Kallat first used rubberstamps to create portraits of missing persons in 2007. The custom-made stamps had names from missing persons written in 14 languages. Two years later, she used rubberstamps again in a series inspired by the Taj Mahal. Contrary to popular belief, there is a record of the names of the artists who worked on the monument, which Kallat discovered in an archive. She recreated some of the motifs of the Taj Mahal using rubberstamps that had the artists’ names on them.

2007 Steel Utensils

There are two places where you will almost always find steel utensils: in Indian kitchens and Subodh Gupta‘s art. Even as a moderately-successful painter, Gupta’s muse was steel kitchenware but it’s when he turned to installations that he became Indian art’s brightest star. His works have used tiffin-carriers, plates, glasses, serving spoons, bowls and every other stainless steel item you would expect to see in a middle-class Indian kitchen. Among the other items he’s turned into fine art are petroleum jelly, cowdung and the Ambassador taxi.