Melding East and West in the art of Atul Dodiya

[From The Gallery Insider Series]

Painting by Roy Lichtenstein

I saw this painting on a metal shutter (above left) by Atul Dodiya at the 2014 Armory Show, presented by Vadehra Art Gallery, which is based in Delhi, India. The title of Dodiya's piece is Shakuntala, 2013 and the exterior is enamel paint and brass letters on a motorized metal roller shutter, which he salvaged from a store in Mumbai. As you can see in the pictures above, Dodiya has copied Roy Lichtenstein's 1964 painting titled I Know How You Must Feel, Brad (above center), which itself is a copy from a comic book illustration (artist unknown, above right).

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But there's a lot more to this art work than just a copy of Lichtenstein's painting ... while I was admiring this painting, the gallery assistant, pictured at the right side of the shutter, pressed a button and the metal gate started to roll up, revealing another painting underneath.

painting on metal shutter by Atul Dodiya

Topic for discussion, #1: What's your initial reaction to this piece? What do you think is the meaning behind this, having a second painting behind the first?

My first reaction was to think it was an unusual but creative idea to have an interactive art work made with an electronic metal gate. My second reaction was noticing some visual clues that suggested to me that Dodiya might be slyly making fun of America's obsession with celebrities.

Topic for discussion, #2: How might Atul Dodiya be making fun of celebrities? Do you see any references to a particular celebrity couple? Scroll down to review our responses and/or replies to these topic questions.

Despite my initial assumptions about the meaning of this work, I was curious to learn more. Let's recall that the title of the piece is Shakuntala.

Topic for discussion, #3: Who, what, or where is Shakuntala? If you look closely at this next picture, you'll see that the artist has put the title on the top of the piece in bronze letters.

art by Atul Dodiya

We'll actually discuss the answer to the name Shakuntala here (rather than with the other answers at the bottom) because it will feed into our next discovery. Shakuntala is the name of a character in a mythical love story from Hindu mythology and the folklore of India. The legend of the beautiful Shakuntala and the king Dushyant is a love story within the epic book titled "Mahabharata," which is the longest epic in world literature, over 3 times as long as the Bible. The description of this story is a bit long for this space, but if you would like to know more, check out this link for an overview.

It was during the research of who was Shakuntala that revealed another thing about this art work: the inside painting is also a copy, and in this case it's a copy of Raja Ravi Varma's painting of the birth of Shakuntala, the original of which is seen below left, compared to Atul Dodiya's version, below right. Raja Ravi Varma (April 29, 1848 - October 2, 1906) was an Indian artist who achieved recognition for his depiction of scenes from the Mahabharata, in which Shakuntala was a character, as we just mentioned. His paintings are considered to be among the best examples of the fusion of Indian traditions with the techniques of European academic painting. Varma's art was so popular during his lifetime that reproductions of his work were found in almost every middle-class Indian home.

Atul Dodiya's recreation of Raja Ravi Verma's art

Topic for discussion, #4: What might be the significance of having an image of a classic Indian painting being covered - or hidden behind - by a slide-down metal door with an American artist's painting on top?

Atul Dodiya was born in Mumbai in 1959, and continues to live and work there now. It's interesting to note that while he studied art in college in Mumbai, he also spent time at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, so he received an arts education in both the East and the West. Dodiya received acclaim early on in his career from his ability to paint photorealistic scenes of everyday life in a quickly changing India. But after his studies in Paris, his work took a dramatic shift and he began to blend artistic styles from East and West with a new perspective.

Topic for discussion, #5: Where is Mumbai? What should we know about Mumbai?

(Scroll down for our explanations and answers to these Essential Questions, including further discussion points one can use in the classroom)



Explanations and Answers to the various Discussion Topics

#1: What's your initial reaction to this piece? What do you think is the meaning behind this, having a second painting behind the first?

The metal shutters used in Atul Dodiya's work are from salvaged from store fronts from the streets of Mumbai. In Mumbai, the shutter is a symbol of security and marks the sharp change in the aesthetic of the city between day and night. Dodiya has created a series of shutter door works which were inspired by views of the city's previously bustling small businesses locked down in fear of religious persecution and violence following the 1993 bombings in Mumbai. The artist himself further explains: "Inside-outside, above-below, real-unreal, hidden-revealed, single-double, are these opposites? The roller shutter, with its two spaces, the inside and the outside, is an apt device to understand these dual realities."

#2: How might Atul Dodiya be making fun of celebrities? Do you see any references to a particular celebrity couple?

My thought, upon seeing the words "I know how you must feel, Brad ..." at the top of the gate, and then seeing the revealed painting of a woman offering a baby to a man who turns away, made me think that Dodiya was making fun of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. There's a slight resemblance, as you can see below, and obviously the name "Brad" crosses over. Then there's the real-life fact that Jolie and Pitt have three biological children and three adopted children, and so this image, of a woman offering a baby, made me think that Dodiya was presenting a scene where Angelina Jolie is offering yet another child to Brad Pitt. The dialogue balloon which says "I know how you feel, Brad," could suggest that she knows he's overwhelmed with six kids and is not ready for another. Does this interpretation seem feasible to you? Or do you think this interpretation is ridiculous? The fact that this visual association came to me so quickly makes me think it wasn't completely by accident.

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt

#3: Who, what, or where is Shakuntala? A character in ancient Indian folklore ... more details are included above right after the question. But if you would like to learn even more, there's a Wikipedia page for her as well.

#4: What might be the significance of having an image of a classic Indian painting being covered - or hidden behind - by a slide-down metal door with an American artist's painting on top?

This is just speculation, but I wonder if it might reflect a concern that influences of western culture might be overwhelming the traditional art of India?

#5: Where is Mumbai? What should we know about Mumbai?

Mumbai is the capital city of the Indian state of Maharashtra. It is the most populous city in India, and the fifth most populous city in the world, with a total metropolitan area population of approximately 20.5 million people. As you can see from the map, it is approximately 900 miles southwest of New Dehli, which is the capital of India and the seat of the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of the Government of India.

Mumbai was formerly known as Bombay, but for the locals, it's always been Mumbai, in honor of Mumbadevi, the city's deity. But the city's official name change happened in 1995, when the nationalist Shiv Sena party came to power, because they thought of "Bombay" as an English version of "Mumbai" and therefore a reminder of former British rule.


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Map of India, showing Mumbai in relation to New Dehli



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