Three arresting large heads of American GIs fashioned out of old Indian utensils—one in Ray-Ban shades, one in a gas mask and the third in a face mask which leaves only the eyes uncovered—greeted visitors at the foyer of the hall hosting the recently concluded India Art Summit in New Delhi. The work was titled Gandhi’s Three Monkeys and its visual impact, along with the irony—both grim and witty—underscored creator Subodh Gupta’s stature as a pre-eminent artist of our times and India’s de facto brand ambassador to the art world. Gupta, who grew up in Bihar and studied fine arts at Patna Art College, is the curator of a show titled East Village featuring artists from Bihar. Edited excerpts from a conversation he had with Lounge about art education in India, his work and his home state:
Creative currents: (above) An untitled work by Shailendra Kumar; and Subodh Gupta. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Why have you put up this show?
We have nine artists from Bihar—not all live there now but they have studied there. Artists who have studied in Bihar, just like I did, and not in places like (Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University) Baroda or at JJ School (of Art, Mumbai), don’t get the same opportunities. I know what I had to go through, so I want to give them a platform.
Is there much scope for art to flourish in Bihar when people there are grappling with basic survival issues?
There are artists and they are practising in Bihar. Scope or no scope—they have no choice right now. With encouragement, better teachers, a better system, things can change. Just as an actor has to go to Bollywood, an artist gets educated and then goes to Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore or Baroda to establish himself.
How much do your roots mean to you as an artist?
A lot. I can’t look at myself in any other way. Upbringing, roots, identity—all this is involved in my practice and what I do in life. They have become my treasure. Some don’t want to be recognized—they’ll say, “I am from Varanasi, I’m not a Bihari.” But I am not like that.
Why did you become an artist?
I owe my becoming an artist to my mother; she would take me to watch theatre. I grew up in a small town, Danapur (near Patna), which was a 99% railway town. So there was the railway cinema, there was a club, there were two swimming pools; they would show English films there.
So you got the exposure, but not everyone has that.
What you need is insight—after all, we have had many geniuses from that region. For people who want to do (something) and are willing to do (something), the atmosphere around them, that surrounds them, is enough.
Many upcoming artists in India don’t come from privileged backgrounds and they often don’t seem to get enough guidance. Any advice for them?
Fortunately or unfortunately, most artists have never been from rich families—look at Husain. Sure, we need better education. But who was there to guide me? The road for me was no better. Beyond the hype, beyond what the market loves, at the end of the day only they will survive who are honest. The glamour and fake things can work for a few years but you can’t win the marathon that way. Your work may not look good, but you will have a voice and that is possible only with honesty. Otherwise, it is just glitter.
One often feels there is talent and skill among many young artists but no vision.
The vision comes from education. Compare Indian art schools to Western art schools—here they teach you how to do things but over there the teacher says, “Show me what you can do.”
India badly lacks good schools and teachers. Tell me how many young artists coming from Baroda have made a name in the last five years? (The art college in) Patna lacks a good library and good teachers. After 30 years (since it was founded) it keeps no contemporary art magazines and there are no art history classes. It is upsetting. Look at China—the government there is doing so much for artists, they have an infrastructure—art schools, museums. Why doesn’t a single art school here invite good artists to give a talk and a slide show on their works? I have given talks at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris but never in India.
How important is it for established artists to mentor upcoming artists?
Some years ago, Sudhir Patwardhan curated an exhibition that was organized by the Bodhi Gallery, where he asked all the important artists to contribute. The exhibition was not shown in the big cities but travelled to places like Aurangabad and Nagpur. I wish I could have taken that show to smaller towns of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal. He had the guts to do it. After all, students can love art only if they see it.
But how much can we do? If I open a school, how will I do my practice? If I want to change the system I should join politics, become the culture minister. What we can do, we do, but my job is to make art.
With all the international acclaim, are you tempted to make art for the international viewer and museums?
I make art for myself. I don’t make it for anyone. Initially, people here would say to me, “So this what you can make—a lota (water pot)!” It was people overseas who first bought my lota and gave me scholarships, otherwise I wouldn’t have been known—either at home or abroad.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
Now that I get to travel, I see the whole planet as my source of inspiration. It’s no longer regional thinking; art is about the human realm and that encompasses the whole world.
East Village will show from 31 August to 24 September at the Project 88 gallery in Mumbai.