Cutty Snark: "That Little Snake"

There are some fantastic art exhibitions that have opened in Mumbai this week, which means my notebook overfloweth with notes. At some point soon, I will write about Simryn Gill’s new show in detail, but for now, here’s the unedited version of this week’s Cutty Snark. The edited version was published in today’s Hindustan Times.

Simryn Gill’s Soft Tissue is on at Jhaveri Contemporary, till March 2.

Atul Dodiya’s Seven Minutes of Blackmail is on at Chemould Prescott Road, till February 21.

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There isn’t supposed to be a connection between Simryn Gill’s Naga Doodles series of prints and Atul Dodiya’s paintings of scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 film Blackmail. Gill lives in Port Dickson, Malaysia, while Atul Dodiya is from Ghatkopar, Mumbai. The Naga Doodles are prints made directly from the bodies of dead snakes (Gill found a snake that had been run over and decided to bring it into her studio, ink the body and make prints. As you do. Because not even roadkill is safe from an artist). Mostly black and white, some of them have smudges of colour – yes, that rusty smear you see is indeed dried blood – and they’re powerful and mesmerising in their weirdness.

In the suite of 36 paintings that are the centrepiece of Seven Minutes of Blackmail, Dodiya shows off his prodigious painting skills. The images he’s painted were scenes first photographed while “Blackmail” was playing on a television screen. These are rendered into little paintings that are faithful to the medium of celluloid but also enriched with painterly strokes that add texture, shadow and nuance to the moment. Speaking in technological terms, making copies usually involves generation loss, or the loss of quality between subsequent copies. While the images do lose their sharpness and definition when transmuted into paintings, there are also gains both in terms of artistry and perspective.

Chances are, if Gill and Dodiya’s shows had opened at any other time, their lines would never have crossed. But cross they did in January 2019 when a woman stood before one of Dodiya’s paintings, in which a man is saying to a woman, “Besides, I always think a girl knows instinctively”, and muttered, “That little snake.” In that moment, there was a cross connection between the snakes of Naga Doodles and almost-rapist in Dodiya’s paintings. Suddenly, the similarities between the two showed up. Both sets of works display rigorous attention to detail and an almost violent obsession. Gill made 70 Naga Doodles in two months — leaving aside the macabre quality of the artist compulsively foraging for dead snakes, that’s more than one dead snake being turned into a work of art daily. Meanwhile Dodiya’s 36 paintings are meticulous recreations of an attempted rape and its consequences.

Both Gill’s prints and Dodiya’s paintings have a whiff of Rorschach about them. The Blackmail-inspired paintings may have figures and be underpinned by a narrative, but the colour palette is reminiscent of the inkblots used as psychological tests. He’s also chosen his frames in a way that gives you a sense of what is going on, but if you don’t know or remember the film’s plot, there’s a mysterious quality to it and it falls upon the viewer to make sense of what the artist has laid out before them. Gill’s prints are also filled with figures — after all, what you’re seeing is literally the body of a snake —but in the process of being turned into a print, the figures lose their corporeality. The lines of their body and the patterns of their scales transform into landscapes, other animals, the route of a river as seen from up high, the jaw of a fantastical beast, and whatever else your imagination can conjure.

Dodiya shows ‘the snake’ in action as a predatory male; Gill remembers the reptile that has often been interpreted as a phallic symbol, as roadkill and transforms it into an abstract. While the “Blackmail”-inspired paintings urge you to see the woman’s vulnerability, Gill’s Naga Doodles transforms the snakes that inspire fear when alive into melancholy, broken creatures in this artistic afterlife. It’s tempting to imagine the luminous Alice White of “Blackmail” going on to become a celebrated artist who collects and make prints of 70 dead snakes in two months. Never doubt the cathartic power of art.  

One of Simryn Gill’s Naga Doodles

One of Simryn Gill’s Naga Doodles

Hitchcock’s “Blackmail” is about how Alice White is blackmailed after she kills a man who tried to rape her. Dodiya’s paintings are particularly sensitive to Alice, who can’t bring herself to tell anyone what drove her to murder. As it’s displayed in the gallery now, the visitor is directed towards the suite of paintings by an image from the film that says “To the British Museum”. The museum is where the climax of Blackmail unfolds (includes a fabulous chase) and the villain of the film gets his due. In Seven Minutes of Blackmail, however, Dodiya takes us back to the beginning of the film, to the scene of the original crime, when another villain gets his comeuppance. In the film, no one knows Alice White is a survivor because she doesn’t tell anyone that the man she killed had tried to rape her. Her major problem is one that countless #MeToo survivors have – there are no witnesses. In Seven Minutes of Blackmail, Dodiya attempts to solve that problem by installing mirrors above some of the paintings. They’re tilted at an angle that leads to light reflecting off their surfaces and casting a rectangular panel on the floor. Stand in that panel of light and you’re close enough to become part of the frame and a witness — you see Alice running away, you hear her protesting “Let me go!”, you see her painting over her name (in an effort to remove signs that she was at the murder scene).

It’s all sorts of poetic irony that Gill’s show and Seven Minutes of Blackmail have opened just when a fresh set of #MeToo allegations have surfaced, this time against director Raju Hirani who is accused of sexual abuse by a colleague. The woman who has made the accusation didn’t come forward immediately after it happened in April 2019. She has said that she kept quiet because she needed the job and her father was suffering from a terminal illness. After her father passed away, the woman found the courage to speak up and report Hirani in November 2018. Hirani has denied the allegations and said he is open to being investigated by an independent body. Those who believe Hirani have said the accusations are “malicious and defamatory”. Those who can’t decide which side to believe are asking for evidence. As Dodiya’s paintings show, sometimes the evidence lies in being able to imagine the scene.   

From Atul Dodiya’s Seven Minutes of Blackmail

From Atul Dodiya’s Seven Minutes of Blackmail