Probir Gupta is explaining breathlessly why he painted his recent work,‘War of Demons and Gods’, like he did.
Asking us to back up 20 steps at his studio in Aya Nagar, on the outskirts of Delhi, for a fuller perspective, he strides along the breadth of his jumbo-sized canvas, stretched 13ft high and 7ft across the room.
He is dwarfed by his own work. But the tenor of the dark diptych, a collage of men distorted by colour and a scaly monster made of machine parts, is self-explanatory. The overwhelming impression is haunting and that of expansive violence, and it is overtly political. “This side,” Gupta says, pointing to the left of the canvas, “western and the well-heeled sorts are the civilized lot. And a lot of people,” he says, pointing to the other half, “are from the other side of civilization.”
You’ve probably never heard of 47-year-old Gupta. Even less likely that you’ve seen his works.
For about seven years, the artist went underground and stopped painting. Instead, after his return from France in 1987, he began to work with grass-roots groups to end human rights abuse.
His works today are ruthlessly close to his beliefs from this experience. Violence, he says, is absurd, a monumental folly of the wrong kind of politics. And it’s the absurdity of situations and images that Gupta powerfully combines.
George Bush and Tony Blair become fruit rotten to the core. A sewing machine serves as a metaphor of colonial rule. Crushed insects merge with bust-up pictures of men distorted with colour. Terrorists speak into microphones that turn into phallic objects. “I am stitching absurdities into my images all the time and I don’t have to be 100% logical to do that,” he says.
Gupta’s works, say critics, stand out because few artists favour making powerful political statements. He is a latecomer and a crusader. Some, such as Mamta Singhania who is organizing a show titled Found Objects at Academy of Fine Arts, Kolkata, admire his honesty and the fact that his works are still untouched by commerce.
When galleries wouldn’t touch his works, Gupta had to book space at Delhi’s Lalit Kala Akademi on his own in October 2003 and print a catalogue with his meagre savings. Art consultant Prima Kurien, who walked into that show, titled Transparencies in Black and White, recalls being “hit in the solar plexus” when she saw the works. But she was even more aghast to find that he had made no price list. “You rarely see something like this these days” she says.
“Gupta’s works are about human sensibility. He does it by locating it within a political structure and has developed a language to match the political position he stands for,” says art critic Gayatri Sinha.
As a student in Kolkata’s Government Art College, Gupta was always drawn to the history of India’s independence and leaned towards the Left ideology. A five-year course in painting at the Ecole Nationale Sepriere Des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the early 1980s did not make him particularly happy. “I was stopped at every border because of the colour of my skin. I desperately wanted to return home,” he reminisces.
“It is possible for art to change the world,” Gupta says, before he adds sarcastically, “I mean in a civilized world, of course.”
Probir Gupta’s paintings are on display at Academy of Fine Arts, Kolkata, from 11 March to 20 March; at Nature Morte inaugural show in Kolkata, 13 March to 14 April; and at Bodhi Art Gallery, New York City, in May.
Gupta’s works are available at prices ranging from Rs16 lakh to Rs20 lakh.