Subodh Gupta’s first museum solo exhibition in France, Adda / Rendez-vous, opened in Paris last week and was nothing short of breathtaking. The show runs till the August 26, 2018, at Monnaie de Paris and has been curated by Camille Morineau and Mathilde de Croix.
Monnaie de Paris is centrally located on the banks of the river Seine, along the romantic promenade, a short walk from Musee d’Orsay, with the Louvre on the opposite bank. I had visited Paris just to see the exhibition, and also to be part of Gupta’s very famous — but nearly impossible to be part of — food performance. A bonus to all this was the visit of the First Lady of France, Brigitte Macron, for the inauguration. She and her husband, the President of France, are fans of Subodh Gupta’s artwork. My trip was already a blockbuster experience.
At the apex
For the past twenty years, Subodh Gupta has steadily risen to be the top contemporary artist from India. He made his mark on Indian art with a performance he did at KHOJ, Delhi, back in 1999, where he covered himself in cow dung and subsequently stood under a shower till it all got washed off. From here, he went on to make pieces based on everyday stainless steel utensils. Some moved along on conveyor belts, some were amalgamated into giant heads and mushroom clouds, some modified to make forms that were completely new.
The hero piece of this exhibition, Very Hungry God, stands installed in the museum’s main hall.
Monnaie de Paris is a palatial 18th-Century building with several large rooms and a functioning coin mint on its premises: an excellent setting to showcase contemporary art. The juxtaposition of steel forms and the metallic nature of coins have a seamless dialogue. This has been the curatorial success of this exhibition. Climbing up the grand staircase of the museum, one enters the enormous hall with hand-painted ceilings, and the viewer encounters the giant Very Hungry God.
On a crisp Parisian evening, a small group of lucky patrons: supporters, curators, gallerists and diplomats, were invited to attend a very special performance by Subodh Gupta. In true French style, tables were laid out — surrounding the Very Hungry God — with the finest crystal and silverware.
It was like a scene out of a fairytale. Candles were lit and lights were dimmed. The sun was setting and the sky above Paris was every shade of pink. Everyone gathered, introduced themselves, and on seeing the menu, became Very Hungry Guests.
We were all excited, because the menu was entirely prepared and cooked for us this night by Gupta himself. Every detail of this performance was planned by him. From the clay plates in which each course was served, to the authentic and delicate flavours of the cuisine, Gupta had it all under control.
Art on a platter
The performance dinner started with a cheela , a savoury chickpea crepe. This was followed by bhel puri, and finishing off the round of starters was a crispy eggplant pakora . All these are Gupta’s favourite foods. They resonate with him deeply and represent the most common meals he would have eaten growing up in Bihar.
The next course was something different. Served in a terracotta bowl was a khichdi topped with yoghurt and crushed papadum, accompanied in the same bowl with a dollop of aloo bharta . The textures were great and the aloo was a delightful amuse bouchewith its tangy lime flavour.
Next, impeccably dressed waiters brought out thali s for each guest. Another seven dishes to enjoy, and no one was complaining. The thali included basmati rice, daal , raita , a beautiful mustard and mixed greens sabzi , potato and cumin sabzi , mustard tofu and — for non-vegetarians — a Goan prawn curry and lamb.
My favourite, if I had to really choose, was the dessert: a well-set dahi (curd) with bananas and saffron. This is Gupta’s comfort food.
The night rolled on and the food and wine kept flowing. Finally, Gupta made an appearance — a warrior who had cooked the most delicious meal for an audience who had literally consumed his artwork.
The best way to understand art is to understand the artist. Gupta has been gracious enough to allow me this visibility into his practice and life.
He is a fantastic storyteller, and I am always at the edge of my seat when I listen to him talk about beauty in the simplest of things. He is always so curious. He is very brave. He takes on the world with a confidence I have never encountered before and so he owns his space in this world.
This is a man who can see the cosmos on the scratched surface of his dinner plate. This is the man who gets nostalgic about each meal he ate and how every time the plate is washed, it leaves a tiny imprint of our lives on it; our lives are documented on the objects we use.
Gupta presents these objects on a pedestal as a reminder of who we really are. The shiny steel surface is the mirror on which we reflect our own cosmic journey.
Ashvin E Rajagopalan is an art historian and Director, Piramal Museum of Art