An archive of longing for the lost years
Atul Dodiya’s new paintings bring an entire era alive through the tropes of popular cinema and familiar details of domesticity
When Atul Dodiya freezes the frame, not only does he stop the actors on screen, he also reverses figure and ground. With Dr Banerjee in Dr Kulkarni’s Nursing Home and other paintings 2020-2022, currently showing at Chemould Prescott Road, Dodiya does to cinema what cinema once did to figurative painting and photography.
Cinema brought in a new elasticity to mise-en-scène (literally ‘setting the stage’), making the two-dimensional representation come to life by exploring space and depth in each shot. Figure and ground were separated through forms of cinematic focus. The dominant gaze of the actors, especially through the fourth wall, commanded attention to the exception of all else. Dodiya’s inherent understanding of the power of cinema allows him to invert this dominance, and return the image to a non-hierarchical position, giving us, the viewer, both freedom and the possibility of exploring the mise-en-scène without the power differentials created by the presence of the actors.
Dodiya returns to some eternal favourites of Hindi and Bengali cinema from 1949 to 1971, from which he picks shots, freeze-framed, with the intention of recreating them on his large canvases. These include iconic and everyday scenes from Barsaat, Kaagaz ke Phool, Anand, Padosan, Anupama, Mahanagar and Kapurush, among others. In fact, the title of the exhibition alludes to Amitabh Bachchan’s character in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand. In none of his recreations, however, do the foregrounded figures ever meet the eye of the viewer. On most of the canvases, we see the backs of the actors, and even when they face us, they are looking away. This breaks the gaze and flattens the separation between the actors and the space they occupy. Jyotindra Jain in his catalogue essay, explains: ‘Dodiya’s freezes, which are completely abstracted from the respective narrative of the film, result in a time-image relationship operating on a different plane.’ Once the binary between figure and ground is denied, strange things begin to happen. We see everything, all at once, and signifiers from all parts of the paintings call for attention.
Space, surroundings and objects in the mise en scène vie equally with costumes and hairstyles, reminding us of a certain period of defined domesticity, so well captured in the cinema of that time, but subsequently lost in the post-liberalisation millennium, where real estate number crunching reduced habitation to apartment units labelled 1BHK or 2BHK.
Dodiya immerses us in an era when habitation occurred in a variety of forms reflecting family structure, gender roles, class, and migration. He has chosen to paint chawls, kholis, barsatis, bungalows, even aalishaan mahals, clinics, and offices. Each typology comes with objects that give context to those spaces.
The sixties and early seventies were the years when consolidation and rebellion played out on the streets in equal measure, while homes reflected the constants and conventions that one returned to. Bedrooms were dominated by large bedsteads, living rooms focused on polished radiogram cabinets (television was still to make an appearance), and full-length mirrors on dressing tables were de rigueur for homemakers. The piano, grand or otherwise, made an occasional appearance, the zenith of aspiration and upward mobility. The rooms we see in Dodiya’s freezes are filled with historically identifiable objects that occupy space unselfconsciously with the characters on screen. We look at the familiar objects that hold so much memory— furniture from the turn of the century, shelving and show-cases, photo-frames and flowerpots, cupboards and modernist railings—while sofa furnishings and long curtains provide contrasting textures to the flowing saris of the women.
But this was also the era of mobility. As migrants in search of a ‘better life’ flooded into metropolises like Bombay and Calcutta—as they were known then—they found their raen-basera in rented accommodations. The rental model had been the core of the housing market through the last century, even as cities grew to be mercantile hubs. Those who built homes were the landlords, while those who found homes were the tenants, aspiring to urbanity. In cinema too, the idea of the ghar-malik and the kiraye-daar became tropes that backgrounded stories of domesticity. Most of the stills that Dodiya has extracted come from these films. The movement of tenants (punctuated by the vagaries of The Rent Control Act) meant that the only objects that they actually owned, and carried with them, were the moveable ones, small or big, old or new, and these heirlooms formed the fulcrum around which a stable domesticity was played out.
In the many paintings taken from scenes in Anand, we see, variously, an elaborately carved Victorian bench that a grief-stricken Isabhai Suratwala reaches out for, metal and cane seats, grilled verandas that add melancholy to Anand’s interrupted life, and the upholstered sofas and bare benches that line Dr. Kulkarni’s Nursing Home—objects that traverse nearly half a century of design. We contrast the sparse furnishing of the barsati in Padosan (our eyes drawn to a thermos flask hung on a nail and Bhola’s sola-topee) with the overblown garishness of sixties ‘interior decoration’ in a bungalow seen through the “saamnewaali khidki” where the elusive Bindu lives. We admire the vastness of Suresh Sinha’s bedroom in Kaagaz ke Phool (even as we rue the smallness of our own) and gaze longingly at the Art Deco ensemble of a mirrored dressing table and coordinated seat, while outside his window, an archetypal forties Art Deco apartment block looms in the distance. It is these objects, these views, that speak to us, now that the eye-gaze has been muted by Dodiya’s perceptive choices.
For those who lived through those decades, the experience of life and the experience of the movies has become interchangeable, over time. A middle-class childhood in the big city, and a coming of age in the metropolis stockpiled with memories of various homes lived-in and visited, aspired to or despised. Dodiya’s paintings make those memories green all over again, and a wistful longing fills the heart. They become an unintended, but welcome, archive of the lost years between independence and liberalisation presented through the documentation of objects that once populated homes. They are a reminder of those times, of the possibilities of inclusion and cosmopolitanism that urban India once offered, before the post-liberalisation years pushed us all, willy-nilly, into the homogenised anonymity of home-ownership.
ATUL DODIYA’s show ‘Dr Banerjee in Dr Kulkarni’s Nursing Home and other paintings 2020-2022’ is on at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai till 25 February 2023
MUSTANSIR DALVI teaches architecture at the Sir J.J. College of Architecture, Mumbai, and is the author of Cosmopolitician (2018) and Walk (2021)