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.