Babies and infants have always occupied somewhat of a formal position in the art world. In Renaissance paintings, they were decorative embellishments in stiff family portraits, tiny bookends swaddled in layers of decorative silk. Even as sensibilities evolved, and children were viewed as subjects in their own right, they were treated and rendered with an adult perspective. Look at Renoir’s finely brushed portrait of his son Claude, or Manet’s flute boy, and it becomes quickly apparent, that formality — in both execution and posture — was just one way of ensuring that some invisible line between painter/subject and subject/viewer remained indelibly drawn.
In India, Chintan Upadhyay has made somewhat of a name for upending these conventions. Though known to immortalize the occasional adult in oil, he is for the most part celebrated for his ‘smart alec’ babies, rotund monsters that are more horrifying than huggable. Beady-eyed, and open-mouthed, they sulk, pout, glare and glower with uncomfortable menace, babies only in the vaguest sense that on some superficial level they resemble them anatomically.
Upadhyay’s babies are malicious metaphors for a changing India.
With Upadhyay the line doesn’t exist, and this has the express effect of making the viewer acutely uncomfortable. We are privy to babies not as the cuddly specimens of genetic predisposition, but as evolved and vicious spawn of a rapidly changing society. “They are arrogant and at times cause embarrassment to the parents,” or so says the curator’s note that accompanies Upadhyay’s latest exhibit at Ashish Balram Nagpal Gallery in Mumbai.
Here, Upadhyay’s babies are rainbow hued and about 3ft tall, imprisoned in gilded cages. With their hands bent awkwardly back (except for one that gazes upwards in rapt fascination), they could be handcuffed or merely coy, ready to proffer at any moment a hidden treat. It’s only by walking around and through them that we see that the arms are simply pulled back, fingers caught in mid-wiggle. Some have miniature works printed on them, a stag, a floral print, a snake coursing over the head, even what appears to be a position from the Kamasutra.
The problem is that the gallery is small and poky, with dim lighting and depressingly musty interiors that do absolutely nothing for the works themselves. Walking in, there is the sinking feeling that not only have we seen these works many times before in multiple versions but that the whole effect, the message, the intentional irony and ha-ha, aren’t-I-clever jabs are forced and tired.
Yes, the babies are malicious little metaphors for a changing India, and its commercialized, market-obsessed art world, but they fail to jolt. Just as Upadhyay wishes us to know that art like the babies — all titled Take Me Home — is a product that needs to be nourished and nurtured like a puppy in a pet shop (geddit??), we’d like Upadhyay to know that yes, we get it, and in fact, got it the first dozen times.
There’s a helpful FAQ posted on the wall of the gallery that will help viewers understand the why, what and how could yous of this exhibit. Tongue-in-cheek? Perhaps. Effective? Not entirely. Art-speak and convoluted jargon baffle, while attempts at riling the viewer are just silly and confusing. “Viewer is a benevolent and malevolent god at the same time. At times they are stupid too,” reads the answer to “What is the message?”
Yes, viewers can be stupid. But so can artists. And at Rs25 lakh a baby, stupidity is a dear premium indeed.
Pet Shop on view at Ashish Balram Nagpal Gallery, The Courtyard, Mumbai, until 18 August.