One of the most significant Indian artists on the international turf, Subodh Gupta tells, why after having wowed the world, his upcoming show at the National Gallery of Modern Art makes him feel like never before
When your subject is Subodh Gupta, who makes news when his work sells for an exorbitant price at an auction, or when his work goes unsold at an auction, and even when he supposedly buys a palatial house for Rs.100 crore, it makes things slightly difficult. With someone being written about all the time, the challenge is to say the unsaid.
Dubbed as India’s Damien Hirst, the story of Subodh’s rise eclipsed the story of his making, I begin by asking him that as we sit down on the lawns of National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi, where Subodh is preparing for his upcoming show.
His gigantic steel sculpture in the backdrop glistens in the afternoon sun, as he replies, “I don’t expect people to remember those days, that’s why I don’t get affected by what is being said. You are either sleeping under a roof or you are sleeping under the sky…For me, the most important thing has been to make art and I always pray that I don’t let people down, let myself down.”
So many would tell you that he hasn’t, in the journey that at the very least can be described as incredible. From being born in a modest family in Khagaul in Bihar to becoming the rock star of India’s contemporary art world, his is an amazing story of determination and success. He remembers the non-functional library of the College of Arts and Crafts, Patna, where he studied art. “Can you imagine the library of an art college forever locked? I just felt so lost when I passed out of the college. Had there been proper infrastructure in the college, I feel I wouldn’t have had to experience the same kind of struggle. I don’t want any art student to suffer because of such things but even if one doesn’t have access to resources, a student always has the freedom to think, the freedom to create and express. I had that drive to make a good painting and this was the discovery I made. You know, to discover the drive in you is another challenge,” says Subodh, one of India’s most famous names on the international art scene today.
Having showcased across the world in significant museums and strategic art fairs, Subodh picks out his outings at the First Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale in Fukuoka Asian Art Museum (1999) and the Kwangju Biennale (2000) as turning points of his artistic career. Khoj was yet another milestone in his life. His following showcases at the Armory Show in New York, Frieze Art Fair, Art Basel, made people sit up and took notice of the ready-made objects being transformed into objects of art. The objects — buckets, tiffin boxes, cow dung — the rituals, the faces, he grew up watching in the life around him shifted to his artistic realm with as much ease. They sometimes took the shape of a dense mushrooming cloud, a skull or a giant boat filled with chairs, beds and window frames, cooking pots and pans etc.
Some of these works would be on view at “Everything is Inside” that kicks off in NGMA on January 17. “People will get a glimpse of my journey, how my relationship with these objects has changed over the years. It’s very important for me as an artist that the viewer relates to the work. Fifteen years ago, when I started using steel utensils, 80 per cent of the population was using it. If not as much but people still use it. I feel so good when somebody sees the work and says ‘arre ye to apne ghar ka chammach hai na’. I feel so thrilled when people take their pictures against the backdrop of my work,” says Subodh, revealing he has just finished eating his lunch from steel tiffin.
In the exhibition will be some smaller works as well, he informs us. “As opposed to what people feel about bigger works being more challenging, I think smaller works are more difficult. You need to be precise. They are more poetic and more interesting.”
With unlimited adulation has flowed criticism as well but Subodh has remained indifferent to it. The criticism regarding the sameness to his work or about employing several people to create his giant installations, hasn’t affected him. “Artists have been doing for 500 years ago. Michelangelo had so many people working for him. It’s an old practice. What is most important is what are you creating and are you able to express yourself because an artist doesn’t succeed without effectively expressing himself or herself through the art work.”
With just a few days to go, there is a lot of pending work at the new wing of NGMA, where Subodh will exhibit significant works from the last 20 years of his life. As Subodh gets up to leave, he claims, “Every artist dreams of having a museum show one day in his life and I am having it and this is my achievement. More so because I am showing in my country in front of my people.”