Subodh Gupta is 42 and lives in a high rise in Gurgaon with his wife Bharti Kher and their two children, having moved six years ago from a modest flat in Mayur Vihar. Although barely known outside the small art community, he’s an international star, as his recent track record demonstrates. In 2005, he showed at the Venice Biennale and London’s Frieze art fair, and had solos at Sakshi Gallery in Bombay, the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York and Gallery inSITU in Paris. In January 2006, he was among eight nominees for Cardiff’s prestigious Artes Mundi Visual Arts Prize. Three months later, an untitled painting by him sold for 80 lakh rupees at auction. The same Saffronart sale saw a collector pay 60 lakh for Two Cows, an aluminium, bronze and chrome sculpture of bicycles slung with milk pails, one of an edition of three. In June that year Subodh made an impact at the world’s largest art fair, Art Basel, with Across Seven Seas, which consisted of cast aluminium luggage items moving endlessly round an airport carousel. That piece, displayed by the Geneva-based Art & Public, was snapped up for just short of a million dollars. He rounded out a bumper year with showings in Paris and Lille, and at the massive Arario gallery in Beijing.
It is improbable enough that such success would visit a boy from Khagaul in Bihar whose enthusiasm for painting led to a BFA from Patna’s College of Arts and Crafts. The story’s even more unlikely considering that, little over a decade ago, few credited him with being one of Delhi’s outstanding young artists. Subodh admits his beginnings in the art world were not promising. “When I first came to Delhi, I was making some good paintings, but also a lot of crap stuff. But I was selling it. Meeting Bharti changed everything. She told me, ‘Subodh what you’re creating is no good’. I realized that if I continued to do what I was doing, I might sell, maybe even make a name, but I wouldn’t be doing myself justice.” He attempted to change his style and, in the process, lost what patronage he’d enjoyed. “For two years, 1994 and 1995, I put out really bad work. It was a frustrating period. Galleries stopped taking my paintings, I was totally lost.” He eventually found a way out of the slump by creating an installation called 29 Mornings which used low wooden seats, or patlas, with a variety of objects placed or painted on them. These objects, such as a length of folded red cloth, burnt wood, an umbrella, coins and a torch were connected with nostalgic memories or associable with Hindu mourning rituals.
Installation art was a novelty at the time, having sailed in with the tide of globalisation which also brought to India Subodh’s future wife, an artist who’d spent her early years in the UK, and his future dealer Peter Nagy, who had established a name in the New York art scene at a remarkably young age, before briefly losing his groove and deciding to start afresh in Delhi, helping build the nascent market for experimental art. Few Indian collectors were buying installations then, but new avenues had opened up in the form of international biennials, workshops and residencies which favoured explorations outside traditional painting and sculpture. Whereas, in previous decades, Indian representation in shows abroad would be decided by the official state fine arts council, the Lalit Kala Akademi, artists were now contacted directly by independent curators at the helm of international displays.
Subodh flourished on the workshop-residency-biennial circuit dominated by new media art and installation, the latter often site specific and perishable. He set himself apart through a use of organic materials intrinsic to Indian culture, notably cowdung. My Mother and Me, which he constructed in 1997 during a workshop conducted by the Khoj Artists' Association workshop at Modinagar near Delhi, was a cylindrical structure ten feet high made from cowpats. A layer of ash on the floor inside added to the feeling of being in a space connected with ritual. He was painting as well, and his images were now simpler, more direct. Three canvases of cows shown at Bombay’s Gallery Chemould in 1999 had a coating of dung as their background. There was also a self-portrait, underneath which small red lights spelt the word ‘Bihari’ in Devanagari script. If this image ironised the stereotyping of his home state and its citizens, the show’s centrepiece, titled The Way Home, indicated that some of those stereotypes weren’t far off the mark. Consisting of a cow sculpture surrounded by plates and glasses, among which were casually strewn replicas of country made revolvers, the installation suggested that crime and violence had become part of daily life in Bihar.
Looking back on The Way Home, it comes across as an important transitional work. It was composed, perhaps, of too many elements, a contrast with the spareness that Subodh had found in his paintings, and would soon achieve in sculpture. The cow at the centre linked with the artist’s previous output, which evoked an Indianness conceived around tradition, ritual, family and a pre-industrial lifestyle. The Way Home was made, however, from non-organic materials: fibreglass and stainless steel. Over the next few years, he shifted to working with corrosion resistant steel and aluminium rather than cowdung, cloth, ash and wood. In the process, he envisioned a different kind of identity, one that was modern but inflected in distinctively Indian ways, an identity predicated upon class, caste, migration and consumption.
Was The Way Home, then, the first sign of a move away from home as a source of inspiration? Not quite, because the town of his birth contained features relating to Subodh’s early installations as well as his later sculptures. In an otherwise insightful essay in the July 1998 issue of Art India, Roobina Karode referred to Khagaul as “a small remote village”. It isn’t really that. Khagaul and its twin Danapur are a short train ride from Patna. Danapur was one of the earliest British cantonments in the country and is one of the divisional headquarters of Indian Railways. Most of the inhabitants of Khagaul work for the railways, including many of Subodh’s relatives. He says of his home, “Due to the railway, it was more than just any small town. We had two swimming pools, and people used to go to the club, which had a billiards room. The railway cinema screened English movies every morning. And there were lots of art activities; no less than seven theatre groups were based there.” His childhood memories are at least as much about sleek tracks and locomotives as about cows and dung-smeared walls.
In stainless steel, Subodh settled upon a material which evoked a common set of associations across the country. His paintings of shops displaying shiny pots and pans played on these associations. “I use materials that are connected with collective memory”, he explains. “I remember when I was in school, stainless steel was so desirable, to eat on it at an uncle’s house was the height of luxury. It was more expensive than brass at that time.” The alloy has become cheaper and gone down market since then, but also attracts the interest of high end designers, as it has intermittently done since the heyday of art deco. A range of class associations therefore comes into play when responding to one of Subodh’s sculptural pieces or paintings.
The fact that stainless steel in Indian homes relates to cooking, eating and bathing brings in notions of ritual purity and impurity connected with caste. He attempted to explore these concepts through an exhibition titled Jootha in 2005. A row of kitchen sinks stood along a wall accompanied by an audio track of metal dishes being washed. There was also a video of guests at a reception gorging themselves. If Jootha wasn’t entirely successful it could be because it adhered too closely to what it represented. Subodh likes the objects he uses to be “the same, but not the same” when displayed. It’s a difficult balance to maintain, and his kitchen sinks looked too much like plain old kitchen sinks to be carriers of any larger idea. A series of wall mounted dish racks titled Curry was better actualized, the gleaming array of thalis seductive enough to entice even the most affluent spectators.
If the artist’s stainless steel pieces revolved around domesticity, his sculptures in aluminium created in the same period explored the world of commuting and migrant labour. He had casts made of luggage typically carried by workers returning from the Gulf, and placed these on trolleys cast in bronze. A cloth bundle elaborately tied with string came to look like a precious object in its sculptural version. The metamorphosis was appropriate given how much the contents of such packages meant to the owners. As Subodh describes his encounters with these returnees, it is apparent the mid-air meetings made a deep impression on him. “Sometimes I have taken the route via the Gulf on my way back from Europe. The kind of people who sit next to you after you change at Dubai, they are your people – but different. I’d talk to them, tailors, bus-drivers, building workers, cooks. The luggage they’d have, it was so colourful, the suitcases, the bundles tied with string. And when you see that, your emotions get stirred. Come on, they work so hard, and look at the way they tie those bundles! What must they be carrying? Some cash, a radio, some gifts… whatever it is, they tighten it so hard, no normal person can open it.” He made paintings around this theme too, snapshot images of men with their backs to the viewer, or only their torsos visible, loading packed TV sets onto carriers of ambassador taxis. Men whose sense of self-worth was contained in what they had brought back for family and friends from the Emirates, from Oman, from Bahrain. Men who were the lowest of the low where they worked but gained status in their community back home by buying rare branded goods.
While Subodh’s art has always had a political dimension, it has never seemed committed to an ideology. Freedom from dogma was crucial in the creation of his gulf worker series. Politically oriented Indian artists – and there are many of them working in media art and installation – tend to view with suspicion any kind of attraction to commodities, categorising it as a form of false consciousness. When they take up subjects like migrant labour, the result is images of pure victimhood. Subodh focussed on the desires of the subalterns, so to speak, and showed how the poignancy of their lives was most visible precisely in the fulfillment, however partial, of those desires.
The shift in expression seen in his work following The Way Home came at a propitious moment. During the nineties, many among the art world’s intellectual elite had glorified local cultures and traditional ways of living as a profoundly important antithesis of the homogenising impulse of globalisation. After the World Trade Center towers collapsed, this extreme multiculturalist perspective also began to crumble. Curatorial tastes moved away from the previous valorisation of ethnic, organic art to a preference for a less exotic look. Subodh’s work was composed of precisely the right mix of similarity and difference. He made sculptures of Vespa scooters and Ambassador cars, vehicles which, while still common on the roads of twenty-first century India, had acquired a niche, retro-chic quality in Europe. When he turned to the natural world, it was to create ironic transpositions similar to what he did with luggage: making the humble look precious. He placed before viewers an aluminium wicker basket holding bronze cowpats; or ‘Colgate’, a silvery copy of sticks used in Indian villages for cleaning teeth. An additional level of irony was provided by the extraordinary prices at which these sold.
By 2005, even as he was poised for take-off internationally, his work was at a crossroads. The bicycles and scooters, the bartans and dish racks, appeared a little played out. The manner in which he moved to a new stage illustrates very well his mode of imagining. 2004 had begun with a catastrophic tsunami, and 2005 produced the Bombay deluge and the breached levees of New Orleans. He responded by making a dramatic car sculpture, Everything Is Inside. It consisted of a taxi, cast metal luggage on its carrier, its bottom half cut off so it looked as if it had sunk into the ground. Or was being overwhelmed by rising water.
Seized of the flood theme, he created a series titled Hungry God which looked entirely different from anything he’d done before. The stainless steel pots and pans were back, representing not goods to be coveted but possessions washed away. An installation in a church in Lille had vessels pouring into the centre from every surrounding niche, choking off escape routes. Another in the series was installed for twenty-four hours in a Parisian church in October 2006, part of an all-night arts festival called Les Nuits Blanche. It was bought by Francois Pinault, one of France’s richest men and owner of Christie’s auction house. A giant skull made out of utensils, the sculpture related to the venerable Christian tradition of the memento mori, as well as modern special effects extravaganzas like The Mummy. Subodh had managed to take a ubiquitous symbol and make it meaningful anew, an enormously difficult task that could only have been accomplished by a consummate artist.
(The interview with Subodh Gupta was conducted in conjunction with Zehra Jumabhoy, who also transcribed it)