Master collaborator

Different Strokes

REAL AND IMAGINARY Prints and Watercolours by Devraj Dakoj

One of the prominent names in contemporary art, Devraj Dakoji (b 1944, Dharmaji Gudem, Andhra Pradesh) is highly respected for his deep knowledge and indefatigable energy, particularly in promoting the art of printmaking.

Apart from an intense personal practice, Dakoji has, for over three decades, taught classes, juried exhibitions, hosted demonstrations, and collaborated as Master Printer with hundreds of artists in India and abroad.

 


The artist with children at a workshop. Photo by author 

Known to be a veritable one-man printmaking movement, he has helped set up presses and printmaking studios in Garhi in Delhi and in several regional centres of Lalit Kala Akademi. He has also had a longstanding connect with the city of Bengaluru and Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat (CKP), where scores of artists and students have attended and benefited from his workshops, demonstrations and lively interactions. A long-term resident of New York, Dakoji has been associated with the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop Program, a cooperative workspace that provides professional-quality printmaking facilities to artists and printmakers of every skill level. One of his admirers acknowledges: “It is not possible to know the Blackburn Workshop without also knowing Dakoji’s generosity, warmth, and willingness to assist new and
accomplished printmakers alike.” The genial 74-year-old artist (who had his first solo exhibition way back in 1978) was in Bengaluru recently to receive Prof M S Nanjunda Rao Award and conduct a printmaking workshop for students at CKP. He shared vignettes from his sparkling journey in the world of art. Here are some edited excerpts:

On his art education

Coming from a family of doctors, I became a deviant by choosing to enter the art field. After studying printmaking in Hyderabad and Baroda, a British Council scholarship took me to London for postgraduate studies. Following that, I travelled extensively across England and Europe, which was truly a great learning experience.

On his growing up years

The 1970s and 80s were an interesting time for visual arts in India. As young and energetic practitioners, we were entrenched with passionate art-making, experimentation, dynamic interactions and cultural contacts. Let me give you an example. In 1970, over a four-month period, about 100 artists from Delhi, Lucknow, Bombay, Baroda, Madras and Calcutta worked intensely in a graphic print workshop directed by Paul Lingren, an exceptional artist-teacher from California. He allowed each artist to explore his/her own process, and also ingrained in us the importance of developing a highly
disciplined work ethic. He also made us realise that there was no end to the process of learning. Such interactions helped us tremendously those days.

On his involvement in arts management

In the 1980s and 90s, I got involved in art administration as the Chief Supervisor and Programming Officer of Garhi Studios, Lalit Kala Akademi (LKA), New Delhi.

Later I was appointed as commissioner and jury member for the second Graphic International Print Biennale, Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal. In 1996, my wife, artist Pratibha, and I set up Atelier 2221 in Shahpur Jat, Delhi, the only independent edition-making studio in India at the time. The idea was to create a space where artists working in different mediums could collaborate and produce prints. We ran it for almost 8-9 years, before I moved to the United States. So, my involvement with the art world went beyond my own studio practice and art creation.  

On the importance of collaboration

For me, collaborations not only enhance technical skills but also help in exploring and exchanging ideas. I have been lucky to collaborate with exceptional artists like Robert Blackburn, Krishna Reddy, K G Subramanyan, and others. My collaboration with M F Husain in New York, first in 2004 and then in 2009, was exciting and mutually beneficial. He was one artist always ready to experiment and learn. When I spoke to him on the ‘chine-colle’ technique, he became so excited that we spent many hours making prints in that medium. Amazingly, he not only mastered the technique but also brought in his own playful variations. So, working with him, I became both a teacher and student at the same time. That is the beauty of collaborations and workshops. When I conduct workshops with young students and practitioners, I learn as much as I teach them. 

On his continuing relationship with Bengaluru

I must remember Nanjunda Rao here. As a member of the Central Lalit Kala Akademi in the 1980s, he would come to attend meetings in Delhi at regular intervals. He would also make it a point to visit the graphic studios, which I headed then at LKA. An advantage was that we could both converse in my mother tongue, Telugu! One day, in 1986, he asked me to come and set up a graphics studio in Bengaluru. He arranged for my trip and gave me full freedom in establishing the graphics department in CKP. I have vivid memories of going through several markets, shops and yards, hunting for presses, apparatuses and equipment. I am really happy that the graphic department that I helped set up has not only survived for more than three decades but also produced some outstanding artists and students. So, whenever I come to Bengaluru and CKP, it’s like homecoming for me. And now, to receive the award instituted in the name of Late Nanjunda Rao is a real honour and humbling experience.

On his recently concluded exhibition in Delhi

Although I have spent my lifetime in promoting graphic arts, I have never given up my interest in painting, particularly the watercolours. In recent years, I have been working on the theme of ‘Circle of Life’ exploring various facets of modern man; his relationship with ever-changing surroundings; and overall human condition. My imagery is based on both real and surreal interpretations of life around me.

My latest show, titled ‘On the LIRR’ at Art Heritage, Delhi, was quite unique. The entire show was based on dozens of small drawings created by me over eight years of transit; and each drawing was rendered on a tiny Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) ticket! 

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