The Story of Indian Art #10: Atul Dodiya

Atul Dodiya is one of the finest Indian artists of our generation. This piece gives us an intimate portrait about the way he thinks.

Atul Dodiya (Picture Courtesy: Red Room Boulevard)


  • Born: 20 January, 1959
  • Place of birth: Ghatkopar, Mumbai
  • Formal Education: Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art
  • Nationality: Indian
  • Known for:
    • Hyperrealist depictions of middle-class Indian life
    • Paintings on the security shutters of shops throughout Mumbai
    • Watercolour paintings centered around the life of Mahatma Gandhi
    • Series of watercolour paintings depicting marginalized and poor sections of society for example, a plumber, a scribe, or a painter.
Fisherwoman - Atul Dodiya

Fisherwoman – Atul Dodiya

“For a figurative painter like me, the reality is slightly different. I live in Ghatkopar, my figures are Indian in the sense that they would be dark skinned and they portray the life in India that includes the poverty, the concerns and the reality. But I don’t make any political statements.” – Atul Dodiya

One of India’s great painters was born in the third week of this month (January) in 1959. Let’s meet him.

Atul Dodiya is one of the most sought after contemporary artists today. He completed his Bachelor in Fine Arts from the Sir J. J. School of Arts in 1982.

He says, “I was passionate about painting from childhood. I come from a liberal Kathiawadi family and was brought up on old Guru Dutt movies and classical music of Kumar Gandharva.

Even though nobody in the family has an aesthetic background, they were very supportive. When I was 13, my father, a civil contractor, bought me a first class local train pass, so that I could go for art exhibitions. One of my elder sisters wanted me to be an architect. But I failed my Secondary School Certificate exams twice because I was weak in math. Finally, they allowed me to join the Sir J.J. School of Art.”

“Eyes” (2013) - Shutter Painting by Atul Dodiya

“Eyes” (2013) – Shutter Painting by Atul Dodiya

Gandhi Shutter Art - Atul Dodiya

Gandhi Shutter Art – Atul Dodiya

Atul met his wife Anju — also an artist — at the Sir J. J. School of Art where he used to teach after completing his graduation. She was his student.

“We are critical of each other’s work. It’s a great thing because it means a lot to have an opinion you can completely trust, coming from someone who understands you completely and knows what you are trying to say.”

Both work out of what used to be Atul’s father’s home in Ghatkopar, in Central Mumbai.

“While I work, neighbors keep coming in to look at my paintings and comment on them. These people, with their various priorities and concerns, do not come to the painting with any prejudice. They may say the work look like their bed cover. I do not consider their response useless. It can be hilarious and also very enlightening,” he says.

Atul came into prominence in 1999 with his series on Mahatma Gandhi, where the painter sought to reconstruct images from a forgotten biography of the leader. His watercolours led the Mahatma out of the tumultuous pages of history into the gentle sepia-washed terrain of his canvas.

Says Atul, “There was a strong sense of aesthetics running through Gandhi’s life — whether it is khadi, (homespun fabric) his choice of dress, the architecture of the Sabarmati ashram, fasting, non-cooperation or the charkha (the wheel used for spinning the yarn). He had a fine artistic way of doing things.”

Reality affects his sensibilities a lot, and thus his art. Confesses Atul, “It is impossible to close your eyes to the world around you, however much you try. The blasts in March 1993 affected me a lot. They shattered my sense of wholeness and peace. They made me realize that certain truths have to be faced. They are reflected in my paintings in the form of peeling plasters and cracks.”

Chancellor Gandhi - Atul Dodiya

Chancellor Gandhi – Atul Dodiya

The turning point in his work, says Atul, was his trip to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.

“I saw paintings from the early Renaissance onward to modern times. I was overwhelmed by the thickness of the centuries old paint, and wondered how could my work begin to measure up to the masters. I learnt to see things differently, not merely to create within a context, but to create a context.”

When Atul came back, his work had changed. He dropped the earlier photo realistic approach to replace it with a more flexible mode. The result was the 1994 ‘The Bombay Buccaneer,’ an oil, acrylic and wood on canvas effort, a take-off on the poster for the film ‘Baazigaar.’

In 1999, Atul won the Sotheby’s Prize for Contemporary Art.

He says, “It was a great feeling. It is nice to know people are interested in my work and the fact that I attempt to create a new image.” The crowning glory was his works being shown at the Tate Museum, London, in 2000, as part of the exhibition ‘Centuries Cities: Art and Culture in Modern Metropolis.’ He is one of the Indian artists whose work was shown at the museum as part of a major exhibition on nine cities of the world.

A slow worker, Atul does about six to eight paintings a year. He works on one painting at a time, for two months, for eight to ten hours a day. Every two years he holds an exhibition.

“I experience the pain and suffering when doing a painting and feel drained after finishing it. An image remains in my mind for about three years before I put it down. It undergoes several modifications.”

Woman from Kabul, 2001
Acrylic and marble dust on fabric, 183 x 122 cm

When he is not painting, Atul likes to travel.

“But the last three or four years have been so hectic. I have not had the time. I do have a passion for reading and watching films. I place Satyajit Ray films on top of the list. They are marvellous; his vision of life and command over the technique is unique. Then there are others like Tarkovsky, Antonioni and Kurosawa.”

To read other editions of the series, click here.

Avinash Subramaniam

Avinash has been an advertising writer, fiction writer, poetry writer, freelance writer and serial wronger. Other roles he has been in include those of an editor, brand builder, and teacher. His interests include advertising, scrabble, body building, chess, cinema, making money, reading, internet culture, cricket, photography. To hear him air his thoughts, follow him on Twitter @armchairexpert.


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