Artist Chintan Upadhyay talks to Shailaja Tripathi about surviving in intolerant times
It is a sheer coincidence that Chintan Upadhyay is on our pages in the week that first had Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), protesting against the “The Naked and the Nude” — an art show displaying some of the finest nudes our masters have done in the last century —, at Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) and then was followed by the removal of Anirudh Sainath Krishnamani’s nude works from the walls of Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath in Bangalore fearing a similar reaction from the moral police.
Media at its worst now
We meet him after he has returned from DAG, where a few artists had gathered to stage a peaceful protest against the groups disrupting the art show. I ask him if he would have been apprehensive about staging his performance “Baar, baar kitne baar? Har Baar…” — the artist sat nude inviting the viewers to daub him with saffron — today. The piece presented in 2005 in Vadodara was about the 2002 Godhra carnage. “I didn’t call anybody even then. Nobody from the media was invited. I had called one or two journalist friends who I knew were sensitive. When one piece appeared from Bombay, media in Baroda was very angry. I did it very quietly then and even today I will keep them away. The worst thing in our country today is media. They way they have done with Ashis Nandy and other people. Media has made everybody insensitive towards issues. Controversies are manufactured…There is a new middle class victimised by it…,” says the artist.
Born in Rajasthan, he took up science in school because he didn’t want to struggle like his abstract artist father. “But I guess it has to do something with our genes.” The combination of sensitive soul who needs to respond to things around him and a creative mind set him on to the journey eventually. He studied art at the Faculty of Fine Arts in M.S. University Baroda, received the Charles Wallace Fellowship for a residency in the U.K.
His concern at moral policing and a generally irresponsible media has been part of his discourse for long. Chintan’s first show in Delhi in “Metamorphosis of Signs”, he remembers was all about misreading, misinterpreting and misinforming. “I did these babies talking in sign language. Viewers would come and take away meanings they would want to. Since they didn’t know how to have a dialogue with them in their language, they misunderstood it. Same thing happens with art. It is a visual medium. If you don’t know it, you will understand it violently, vulgarly and ferociously. The show had pornographic piece with sounds ‘break the gallery’…what is you think what the **** it is? Put it off. Break the art work.’ So I put these sounds into my artwork. I had also collected a lot of MMSes at that time. I was referring to the new culture. The moment these camera phones came into the hands of people, people started making videos of themselves. There was sex and everything else. It was cultural disaster. That time the VHP never came. But when we represent this change, they target us. We are soft targets for them. They are faceless people. They come, attack, destroy and disappear. A rapist won’t be subtle, a politician won’t be subtle, a killer won’t be subtle but when it comes to an expression, they want us to be subtle, without any irony.”
Living in conformity plus a lack of understanding by public affects Chintan. That, he feels, sometimes renders an art work meaningless. “It is difficult to show what you do, here. I can’t show a video that I had done sometime back, here. People will kill me. My work is about body, control system, genetic history, urbanity and sexuality.”
Having tried different things — mediums and visual grammar — some 10 years ago, Chintan finally found his voice in a baby sculpture in fibreglass. He got fixated on them. So viewers at times would find them on a canvas, at times in a cage, on a stand, doing somersaults, jumping…the babies were there all the time and everywhere in his world. At his home too, the babies abound wearing the same expression. Manufactured and not real, alienated and not innocent, the artist is referring to consumerism and the society’s obsession with the new. “I was talking about genetic modification and designer babies in India when nobody else was. Look at the surrogacy industry today. I wasn’t wrong. Now people tell me to stop making babies because they feel I am repeating myself. But I won’t do that…I am sorry. The babies are changing. If you can’t see it then it’s not my problem. The changes that are happening are taking place internally. I give them fake identity by means of its skin. Recently, I have started doing Manga on them and my latest project involves text. And they are other artists’ texts.”
Chintan hasn’t shown for last five years. For last one year, he had been preparing for a show at his house, “Where people could come and live here, spend time with the art works, touch them. And everything would be grilled…sofas, chair…but the neighbours created so much ruckus. They say it’s ‘commercial’ and can’t take place here. I was working on it for a long time, so I am in a state of shock. I am still recovering from it.”
Been there, done that
Chintan Upadhyay started doing his babies in 2003 with the show “Designer Babies” in 2003 at Ashish Balram Gallery in Mumbai.
“Mutants – Sorry Doesn’t Matter Any More” was another one.
The tide turned with his hugely successful show “Commemorative Stamps” in 2002 in which he had created installations with the stamps of popular icons.
“Tentuaa Dabaa Do” was another landmark show in his career. “Having grown up in North India, witnessing craziness for a male child, I was affected and it has seeped into my work,” he says.
Through his babies, he is addressing this issue too but this particular show exclusively dealt with female infanticide.
Interesting projects like a collaborative installation “Made in China”, a site-specific installation “Floating thoughts” and many more has dotted his artistic sojourn.
Chintan is fiercely proud of Sandarbh and at the same time disappointed too that in existence for so long, art writer, art critics and artists never bothered about it. Not many people know about it, he says. It’s a radical experiment that brings artists from India and the world to a small village called Partapur, Chintan’s native town in Rajasthan, for residencies. They live and engage with the local community there through the means of art. “Nature is at the core of this project. Technology has affected our rural India in a big way. I believe that in a country like India if you don’t have a vision for rural India then it is an incomplete vision.”
The founder of Sandarbh has now taken a backseat with younger artists taking on the reigns. Mumbai-based Shreyas Karle is now its director. “We are now doing away with residencies. We realised residencies are also becoming industry because funds are involved. Now we plan to focus on projects. We will make a sort of network connecting, Delhi, Partapur and Bombay. We just started a chapter in Jaipur and in Delhi we will collaborate with Kona.”