The mundane as high art

Subodh Gupta gave a new impetus to Indian art with his installations, paintings, videos, sculpture and photographs, all of which celebrate everyday life in India.

Updated - July 11, 2016 03:51 pm IST

Published - May 10, 2012 09:59 pm IST

INSPIRED BY ALL THINGS INDIAN: Contemporary artist Subodh Gupta in Kochi. Photo: Vipin Chandran

INSPIRED BY ALL THINGS INDIAN: Contemporary artist Subodh Gupta in Kochi. Photo: Vipin Chandran

It does not come as a surprise that artist Subodh Gupta should wish to head to a utensil shop in any city. The internationally acclaimed, Delhi-based artist who is showcasing his artistry at the upcoming Kochi Muziris Biennale has celebrated the humble steel thali, katori, tiffin box, tumbler, milk pail and other traditional kitchen ware and exported them to the tony galleries of the Western art world. His expansive, bold, maverick art experiments have earned him monikers like the superstar of contemporary art, the Damien Hirst of Delhi and the sub-continent's Marcel Duchamp.

He winces at the comparisons, calling them incorrect. “Duchamp, to me, is the god of the art world, and Damien Hirst and I are good friends,” he says, overwhelmed by such sobriquets.

But the artist's journey from Patna to the top echelons of the art world has been more a matter of disbelief than a carefully planned career. “Honestly it surprises me,” he says with distinctive wonder in his eyes that sparkle behind blue-framed glasses.

Coming from a middle class conservative family, where it was taken for granted that he would step into the family mould of a job in the railways, he dared to break the mould.

A non-conformist from the start, he was deeply involved in theatre until someone pointed out that he painted good posters, he remembers. He moved to Arts College and realised that this was his calling. But he is indebted to theatre. It is the reason for him being boldly experimental in his art. Theatre allows you to mix mediums, he says, something which he does with ease, his works ranging from oil on canvas, installations and video, sculpture to photography.

“I am very lucky,” he says looking back at the family support during his growing-up years. His orthodox day-to-day living, which was steeped in rituals, customs and tradition, is his deep pool of inspiration from which he draws unabashedly.

The work, ‘29 Mornings', (1996) which he did during a residency at Sankriti Kendra, a UNESCO project that proved to be a turning point, was one inspired by the wooden plank, peedha , on which one sits to dine. He took 29 such wooden planks and placed objects from his daily life – simple everyday objects that included cowdung cakes, terracotta roof tiles, turmeric and so on, recreating the daily life in a traditional Indian home in North India. The idiom was so original and direct that it caught the imagination of the viewers. There was literally no looking back after that, he recalls, saying that he received invitations from colleges abroad and then moved on to the international art scene.

“The biggest achievement for an artist is to create your own language. I am an aam aadmi from Bihar with middle class roots. Even today my work is about that. Unless you create your own language people won't recognise you. Even now I work with utensils.”

But hasn't the shift in audience necessitated a change in idiom? Haven't the conveyor belt and suitcases, images in his subsequent works, distanced him from his roots, from the kitchen that he so nostalgically holds on to? “No, the conveyor belt in ‘Across Seven Seas' or ‘Saat Samundar Paar', has the tiffin from my home,” he says categorically.

But then isn't the tiffin box turning a clichéd image? “The language of art is universal. Jesper John created images of the American flag, he cannot but create that… each artist will talk about his own culture and environment and deliver in that language.”

Taking his attachment to rituals to an altogether new high, Subodh presented The Spirit Eaters at Khoj Live in the Indian Art Fair in Delhi earlier this year. He has three ‘kanthababas' or rice eaters from a ‘bereavement meal', a ritual during mourning, where the rice eaters gobble up an amazing quantity of food and negotiate a rate for their work!

Subodh says he enjoyed bringing the ritual to the forefront of a public so far away from a common ritual. Although Subodh received flak for taking an emotionally sacred ritual to a public platform, he regards that as something he too holds close to his heart.” An artist can feel bereavement even when there is no death. They eat for the spirit, they negotiate the price for eating…I like the whole ritual.”

Now ruling the contemporary art world with his works fetching unbelievable prices, he refrains from talking about the art market. “Market always diverts you from art. We are giving our thoughts to the public….” he says. Good museums select with care, and even exhibit the unknown artist, he feels.

Married to Bharti Kher, an established artist in her own right, Subodh says that they both are each other's first critic.

He refers to his art practice as the fabled ‘samudramanthan,' the story of the churning of the ocean in Indian mythology; a churning that throws up the images that he uses. The utensils remain while something new will come up from the churning.

And so his search goes on in Kerala, a land he is smitten by.

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