You probably think Subodh Gupta has been around for longer than he actually has.
But it hasn’t been even 15 years since India’s most well-known contemporary artist had his first international solo exhibition. It was in 1997 in Bose Pacia in New York. He had arrived seven years before that, a penniless art school graduate from Patna, in New Delhi.
The new free market euphoria was nascent, but a certain free-spiritedness was already evident in Indian art. In an orchestrated Brownian motion, art was moving to a fourth dimension with “performance” and “installation”. An increasing number of artists were travelling abroad for art residencies and shows. Most significantly, a viable market for Indian art was created when Sotheby’s held its first dedicated auction of Indian art in 1995.
In many ways, Subodh Gupta, now 47, epitomizes the best and the worst that economic liberalization brought about for Indian art. In 2008, he was the first to break the $1 million (around Rs 4.4 crore now) barrier for contemporary Indian art. Though far apart in scale, his sales records pegged him the subcontinental Damien Hirst, the British artist whose diamond-studded skull had been valued at $100 million, and taken the discourse from art to mart.
When we meet at Gupta’s sprawling studio-workshop in Gurgaon, he is very much the master of his two-storeyed enterprise. Fibreglass casts of his iconic sculptural installation Gandhi’s Three Monkeys frame the front lawn; inside, scale models of older works take up corners. Gupta has designed the avant-garde exposed concrete and glass exterior of the building himself. Inside, it gives way to wood-panelled luxury and statement furniture.
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All those years ago, Gupta had come to New Delhi to seek admission in a master’s programme at Delhi’s College of Art. “Being in art school would mean that I had a place to work,” he says. He was denied admission but stayed on with a Rs 1,000 research scholarship from the Lalit Kala Akademi. The youngest of six children from Khagaul in Bihar, he was expected to support himself, but was under no compulsion to support the family. “I had a place to sleep, dal, chawal, art supplies…what else did I need?” he says.
Urdu activist Kamna Prasad, who runs the annual Jashn-e-Bahar festival and hails from Patna as well, showed Gupta the ropes. She recalls an early episode when she had introduced Gupta to M.F. Husain. The senior artist had graciously spent the day with Gupta and gone through his work. Impressed, he’d offered him a job. Gupta could board with him, help around with odd jobs, and work on his art. He would be given a stipend and a scooter. Gupta had politely declined. Prasad remembers being horrified as well as embarrassed. “Husain saab told me later, ‘I’m going to follow this boy’,” she recalls. The two artists would cross paths several times after that, either at Prasad’s soirées or at art events. In 1996, in an early distinction, Gupta received the first prize at an all-India painting exhibition held at the Vadehra Art Gallery in New Delhi. It was judged by Husain.
Steely determination: Gupta at his studio-workshop in Gurgaon. Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Things really started changing in the mid-1990s when Gupta and a small coterie of artists—including his artist wife Bharti Kher, who’d just moved from London to New Delhi—began to talk about forming an artist’s association; a space where they could work without the trappings of the market. In 1997, Gupta and Kher, along with artists Ajay Desai, Sheila Makhijani, Shukla Sawant and gallerist Pooja Sood, formed the Khoj International Artists’ Association. And it was under the aegis of Khoj that Gupta produced some of his most exciting work. Pure (1999), a performance that had him lying caked in cow dung in an open field, referenced India’s obsession with ritual and symbolic purity. A year later, there was Vilas, for which Gupta posed nude and greased with Vaseline, confronting the camera and the long sordid history of marketing the Kamasutra.
In comparison with those risque pursuits, Gupta now toes a more defined creative line—borrowing shiny stainless steel utensils and other articles of daily use in middle-class India to make signature installations. In This Side is the Other Side, milk cans are slung on either side of a Priya scooter, signalling the old and the new India. In the quirkily titled Colgate, he gives us metallic sculptures of bundles of neem sticks which are used for dental hygiene in rural India. Critics have quietly snubbed these in recent years as being formulaic. I ask if he was worried when he started about whether he’d be liked, whether he’d be famous. Gupta responds in a way that seems to confirm this. “The beauty of being a young and struggling artist is that even if you go wrong, nobody tells you anything,” he says.
Gupta’s latest show in India, Oil on Canvas, in Nature Morte in New Delhi in December did go beyond what we have come to recognize as a Subodh Gupta work. He worked with bronze, marble, brass and wood and further explored themes of the ready-made and the found object. Over the last year, he collaborated as scenographer for a ballet staged at Moscow’s prestigious Bolshoi Theatre at the invitation of the celebrated French choreographer, Angelin Preljocaj. “I do many things but my detractors only focus on what they know; what they understand,” he says, arms crossed across his chest. “Think about any artist whose work you remember. You remember them because they created a bold style and believed in it completely,” says Gupta. “It took me years to find my ‘formula’. Why should I abandon it?”
Gupta is quick to confess that he didn’t learn anything in art school. His only other training in the arts had been during his adolescent years, when he travelled with Hindi language theatre groups, both as actor and set designer. “In five years (in College of Arts & Crafts, Patna), they taught us what they teach in art preparatory schools in Europe,” he says. But awareness of this handicap affected the way the young Subodh would navigate the world of contemporary art. “When people spoke of art history, I had no idea what was going on,” he admits.
Gupta rose to where he is today by creating art which was more visceral; an art born out of everyday motifs. Yet he was building upon questions raised by artists around the world. In his appropriation of everyday kitchen utensils he evoked Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades”, the Surrealists’ use of the found object, or even Pop Art. His nudity and his action art works were a throwback to the Viennese actionists of the 1960s.
In 1997, Gupta was awarded the Gasworks International Residency in London. An emerging artist award by Bose Pacia Modern, New York, came soon after and translated into a solo show. Then residencies and exhibitions in Japan, France, Australia and South Korea came in quick succession. It’s been a blur since. In the absence of a valid critical mechanism for art in the country, the market became his bouncing board, and he liked what it reflected. His wife Kher’s career has taken a similarly upward graph, with her becoming the most expensive female Indian contemporary artist at auction in June 2010. When we meet, he is working on a forthcoming show for London’s Hauser & Wirth Gallery. But now he can say that it will open “whenever he’s ready”.
For Peter Nagy, director, Nature Morte, what makes Gupta one of the country’s most important artists is how he straddles rural and urban contexts with élan and naivete, bridging the local and the global for an international context. He cites Everything is Inside, a 2004 installation with luggage cast in aluminium perched atop a black and yellow taxi. When Gupta travelled back from his various trips to Europe via the Gulf, he’d see labourers returning to their families. Their bundles held cheap clocks, toys, crockery and clothes: Gifts for everyone they cared for, bought with their blood and sweat, were packed inside. Gupta’s genius lay in casting this poignant human emotion in cold metal.
The milestones of Gupta’s blazing success may lie in the new millennium, but the foundations were laid in the 1990s. The great irony is that while Gupta’s art comments on the country’s economic growth and its newfound materialism, he was a beneficiary of the boom himself. In its critical depiction of deficit and excess, his art tells his own story of a young boy who went from Khagaul to the globe.