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Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Remembering Hema Upadhyay

I got introduced to Hema at the Prithvi Theatre’s Art Gallery in 1997 in Mumbai at the opening of my husband Jitish’s first solo exhibition. She radiated a warm energy and vibrant personality. A year later, she was married to Chintan Upadhyay, and moved to Mumbai; we would often meet at each other’s homes to talk about art and life, and the struggles that made those early years both memorable and special. We were part of some exhibitions where we travelled together to Oslo, Lille, London, Mysore, Milan, and more recently, to Korea where I spent time with her during a project up in the mountains.

Her work is deeply autobiographical, with her surroundings and life experiences directly percolating into the paintings and large-scale installations she made. Right from her early works, when they moved homes as a young couple, the changing environment brought changes in her work and she often spoke of how that became both the subject and her material. I remember visiting her home when she was handcrafting thousands of lifelike sculptures of cockroaches titled “The Nymph and the Adult" and later installing them piece-by-piece at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Oslo, in a group exhibition we were both part of in 2003. She spoke of how the nuclear power-mongering that India and Pakistan engaged in in 1999 made her think about this work as a response to what we’re doing to ourselves, and the environment; that perhaps we will leave the planet inhabitable only by cockroaches, the sole survivors of nuclear catastrophes.

There was both simplicity and humour in how she approached the collage paintings “Sweet-Sweat memories" in 2001 at gallery Chemould, where the self was foregrounded in isolation in a crowded city. The work reflects a sense of alienation and loss, and at the same time, the feeling of awe and excitement one usually feels when in a new place.

One of the ways I recall Hema is through her generosity of spirit. While exhibiting together, she would finish her installation and typically be around offering other artists help if they needed any. At a group exhibition at the HangarBicocca in Milan in 2007, she painstakingly installed lampshades made using thousands of matchsticks and I remember photographing and sending her shots of her installation for her image archives. She often said that these lampshades have no cultural identity and they can both light up lives or be used to destroy them. They were first made during a residency in Karachi, exploring the ideas of religion, beauty and violence existing hand-in-hand between the two countries.

About her work in Lille “Dream a wish-wish a dream" 2006, or “Where the bees suck there suck I" 2009 at the Museo Macro in Rome, both inspired by the slums of Mumbai, and development and decay in the city, she said that she believed in the purity of form and in the experiential aspect of the work.

“Of course I know the socio-economic structures and social hierarchy in the slum and the city," she said in an interview. “But as an artist, I am more interested in the aesthetics they created in the slum. When I looked at the architecture, the set up of the area, the form and colours they created, I am seeing surrealism, conceptual art and arte povera. But it’s their home".

She repeatedly referenced the socio-economic inequalities that emerge as a hidden consequence of the relentless tide of urban development in the city. She would speak of how when she works in her studio in Mumbai there are lots of elements—of decay, of life, of chaos—around her.

“It’s a double-edged condition when you see development in the making," she said. “You see growth but decay, you see modern skyscrapers but the mushrooming of slums…"

In an interview in 2010 during a residency at the Atelier Calder, France, in the middle of a forest, she said “It is the dichotomy which exists within us and outside us as well. Here, it seems to be no chaos but an internal chaos is there in the forest."

She was wonderful with children and would find a way to engage our son when she was with him on a few of our travels. She loved cooking and sharing food with friends. Sometimes in the middle of installing works before an exhibition, we would be struck by all the delicious food she’d carried from for us.

As condolence messages from friends in the art fraternity continue to pour in, she will be remembered for her warm appreciation of people’s strengths and accomplishments; as someone who was fiercely independent, both confident and comfortable with taking on scale in her work, and for the way she brought humour and horror together.

So many fond memories of her have gone through my mind over the last two days. It is a deep loss to her family, friends and the art world at large, which in many ways was her extended family.

Reena Kallat is a Mumbai-based artist.

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