Rajniben Descending the Staircase, 2020-2022 by Atul Dodiya
Oil on Canvas 60 x 78 in 152.4 x 198.1 cm
A large oil canvas with the aspect ratio of a 35-mm movie, Rajniben is one of a series of 24 scenes created by Atul Dodiya "in loving memory of Rajesh Khanna." The exhibition, mounted at a gallery in Mumbai in January this year, was titled Dr Banerjee in Dr Kulkarni’s Nursing Home & other paintings—invoking the 1971 film Anand starring Khanna in the title role (and Amitabh Bachhan as Dr Banerjee or ‘Babumoshai’). Like the other frames in the show, this one isolates, freezes and animates a cinematic moment—in this case the start of a comedic dance interlude which foreshadows the melodrama’s memorable coda in which … well you know.
This painting contains so many playful references it’s hard to look at it without feeling many things at once. Nostalgia of course, for a gentler time and its cinema but also a perplexed voyeurism that mirrors the Khanna character’s own gaze catching the eye of the dancer. Like so many of this artist’s works, this canvas is layered in painterly annotations. To me it evokes the aesthetic of vintage hand-painted lobby cards as well as the conventions of Mughal miniatures in the flat fields of colour.
As in many of the paintings in the series there’s Warhol-ery too but the most obvious art historical wink—one that Dodiya has flashed before—is to Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2. Scandalous in 1913, Marcel Duchamp’s painting had cinematic inspirations of its own—Eadweard Muybridge is often cited—but it was also kinetic with humour and restlessness. It’s said that it ended Duchamp’s career as a painter and set him on the path of Provocation as an art form.
Dodiya likes to put the provocation back in paint. After looking at Rajniben, I can’t help but think that Duchamp’s nude too, was really dancing down the stairs.