Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher’s careers reflect a vivid new turn in Indian contemporary art. LAKSHMI INDRASIMHAN profiles the red hot couple
THERE’S A hyena in Bharti Kher’s bath. There’s what looks like a chimp’s skull on her bookshelf and magnified pictures of a fly
Photos: Shailendra Pandey
pinned to the wall. Three assistants are pressing hundreds of custom-made bindis onto paintings with meditative calm. Not far away, in her husband Subodh Gupta’s studio there is a signature utensil sculpture. Giant tiffin boxes (as appear in his work Silk Route, 2007) stand like soldiers in one corner. There’s a tower of copper pots on the staircase extending like a beanstalk into another world. A gas mask. Two huge paintings. The rooms gleam with a matter of fact industriousness.
Bharti is much as people have told me she would be. Tough and smart and worldly, if the word used to describe Subodh is playful, the one for her is ‘power’. She knows exactly what she wants, and it’s easy to see how her no bullshit attitude gets her far in uptight Delhi. The two are among the most important artists in India today. Crucially, they have jumped the ghettoised category of the ‘Indian artist’ and are represented by top galleries around the world. Reputedly savvy networkers, they are happily receptive to the kind of attention their work now commands. They love parties and people and good food. Even in shorts and chappals, they exude the impossible glamour of what, on the surface, appears to be a meteoric rise to fame.
Gupta’s art is steeped in the totems of rural India: the cow dung patty, the milk pail, the bicycle — that for all their banality resonate with an almost dangerous power. In globalising India such images both celebrate and subvert the sentimental nostalgia they evoke. His village Bihari persona places him in an authentic space, offering experience he plumbs with unique humour and knowingness. And yet the surety with which the images are transformed into an international language points to a sensibility that is well attuned to global trends and appetites. And it is the ease with which Gupta himself navigates the seemingly contradictory spaces of Patna and the Palazzo Grassi that points to his particular success. When village India goes global with such sophistication, something obvious and yet of great interest is afoot.
Born in Bihar, Subodh is the youngest of six children. His brothers and father were all railway men. “Apart from food and the school we didn’t have anything. So I was thinking, how can I run from here?” When it came to choose between arts and sciences in school he chose science despite being a poor student because in the science classes there were lots of figures and diagrams. He loved to draw. Through his mother he developed a great love of theatre. He went to art school but to do commercial art, not fine art, “because I wanted to make money.” For two years he worked for the Navbharat Times as a graphic artist. “The day they wanted to make me permanent, I resigned. I don’t want to be permanent anything.” While at art school, theatre remained as a second passion. “The best thing that happened in my life was that I learned to act. When you can act like someone else you feel like you are god. But at some point I had to make a choice between theatre and fine art.” It’s easy to see theatrical influence in his work: the use of symbolism, the dramatic potential of a stark set piece, the intriguing joining of language and image.
Gupta is an artist of the charismatic, rather than reticent, school. Addicted to making work, he exudes a vital creative energy. Deeply ambitious and convinced by his own talent, he’s sui generis. While still in college at Patna University, he heard about Russi Mody’s patronage of the arts. With characteristic chutzpah he sought out the TATA Steel Chairman to have him sponsor and inaugurate his final year show. “He gave me some money to hang my show, and a date for three months later, six o’ clock at this club in Jamshedpur. He came at the promised date, five minutes late and said, ‘I’m sorry I’m little late’. And he bought four works.” He likes the work of artist provocateurs like Maurizio Cattelan, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, yet his assistant says he’d prefer not to have the heatedly sensual photograph Vilas, 1999 (where he appears nude and covered in Vaseline) run with this story. On account of his kids. He used to be critical of MF Husain’s work. “We deserve something more from him. He makes very easy art, what sells in the market, yet he changed the face of contemporary art. My opinion of him has changed in the last fifteen years; I have a huge regard for him now.”
Like Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Steiglitz, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Bharti and Subodh as an artist couple have come to represent a particular moment in a nation’s creative history. Their careers are set to varying degrees of red hot. They are now in many of the world’s major private collections. On one hand there is the almost corporate power of their artist brand, and on the other, the human scale of Bharti and Subodh. On visits to their studios in Gurgaon, both sides are on display. There are the many people in their employ, required to create and sustain projects of such magnitude. There is the reality of vitamins and kid’s birthday parties. There are the artworks destined for exalted venues. And the conversations with suppliers and manufacturers that make the pieces happen. And as unpretentious as the two may be, it’s difficult to forget that the sculpture covered in bubblewrap in the corner may soon be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. As crass as it is to talk of price, expensive things do carry with them a certain aura.
Raised in Surrey by Indian parents who ran a textile business, Bharti’s first solo show in the UK, Virus is currently on at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Newcastle the desolate town where she studied painting in the late 80s (Last summer Subodh had a solo show there). “It was a hostile place and I just withdrew into myself.” She likes natural history museums and curiosities and medieval Christian art. And she is attracted to very traditional ways of making. “I like objects: sculptures, paintings. As opposed to even a photograph or video. It’s important to me that my pieces are made by hand, that they be touched, that everything be different.
The value of the piece is the value of time, of your own life in that you’ve given a part of your day.”
Shortly after graduation and to escape London (“I felt I had nothing to say”), she came to Delhi, met Subodh and fell in love in a then unusual story of reverse migration. In the early days they didn’t share a language. “She didn’t speak Hindi and I didn’t speak English. Only love! No need to understand! Expression is enough,” says Subodh laughing. They stayed in Delhi, because as Bharti puts it, “What the hell would he do in England? I’d have to go and get a job to look after him so he could make art and I’d work nine to five. I didn’t think so.” In India they could both do nothing. They were poor and they made art. “From the day I arrived, a year later I had a solo show at AIFACS. A terrible show, but at least I did it,” she says.
SUBODH HAD arrived in Delhi in 1988 after college, and spent his first year at the Lalit Kala Akademi guest house despite a rule that usually limited a stay to five days. At the time the Akademi was a vital stop for artists from small towns newly arrived to the capital. After he met Bharti in 1992, they moved around Delhi, always searching for more space and helped found the seminal experimental artists’ collective, Khoj, along the way. At the time, there was almost no art scene in Delhi. “We once did a commission for a beer company, about 75 or a 100 works and we did it for so cheap, just shamelessly undercut everyone. We lived on very little then. We had no expenses. Our rent was Rs 1,400 a month. And that was a lot,” says Bharti.
“But even when Subodh started his career with Gallery Espace in 1992, he was selling paintings, for 20,000- 40,000 which was a lot back then,” she says. “One day I said, Subodh you make really shit paintings. Some of them were actually really good. He would make one, then another. The gallery would say, we want the same painting. In blue. When you start doing that you’re on the road to ruin.” So Subodh changed his work and they didn’t make any money for a while.
“Bharti told me I was making bad art, and I really wanted to be a good artist. Between ‘93 and ‘95 I made really bad art, because I wanted to change my art, and it’s not easy. I didn’t have money. Bharti had come from a wealthy family, from abroad. I had to prove myself. I had to have a cooler. And I had to make art.” Funnily enough, it was the setting aside of monetary goals that saw the sea change. “At Khoj we said, let’s make art for art’s sake. Not for sale. And it helped me express myself as an artist. I made one of my major works at that time, My Mother and Me (a house made of dung cakes), and I did my first performance (in 1999) there as well.”
The first sculptural installation Subodh did was in 1996 on an Indo-Australian residency at the Sanskriti Kendra. The piece, 29 Mornings (now in the collection of the Fukuoka Museum of Art), signalled some kind of beginning. “After that I didn’t turn back. For any scholarship that I submitted that image, I would get selected.” As for the glimmering steel utensil sculptures that have become his trademark, how did that come about? “I’ll tell you my secret: I asked myself what are people attracted to. They like shining things. Polished things. What is polished but also so natural and domestic and also full of meaning? Why not use it in your artwork. Why not do that? And I did it.”
Bharti’s work, like Subodh’s suggests a particular fascination with the mass produced object that has been somehow altered, made personal and imbued with meaning. Her work is decidedly more sinister than his. Her show at the Baltic includes fibre glass trees with little gargoyle heads in place of leaves, part of the Solarum Series. An earlier work, Hirsute, was a catalogue of leering male moustaches. Her current work layers bindis on panels and giant animal sculptures. There’s a concern with the domestic just as there’s a fascination with the natural world, with unseen and unheard rhythms, grasped moments between shifting states. Much of the imagery resounds from her student days. “You have a certain library of images in your mind, and you work with it and push it in different directions,” she says.
One of her most impressive works, An Absence of Assignable Cause (now in the Saatchi collection) saw her cast a blue whale heart in steel. When a whale dies its internal organs combust in 3-5 hours, so it’s nearly impossible to find images of what it looks like. “I was writing to people around the world saying, can you help me, I’m a research student. That didn’t work. Then I said my son is doing a school project. That actually worked a lot better. And the ones where I said I was an artist, I got no responses at all.”
The couple’s work has sometimes been described pejoratively as decorative, as if art did not begin as the creation of visually exalted things. “Part of me would love to be a conceptual artist. There is a lot of courage to be able to do something so clean and so simple. There’s a side of me that wants to reduce, reduce, reduce to the bare minimum,” says Kher. “We’re so used to such a plethora of images and objects, sometimes it’s overkill. You have to find something that works conceptually, and aesthetically with your own process.” Subodh also acknowledges this supposed lack. “For good art, you have to be either very intellectual to make conceptual art, or visually strong. I was not good at studies, so I couldn’t be a conceptual artist. You have to be able to explain why you’re placing this empty cup, and I can’t explain it. Better I just make some art and you look at it and be happy,” says Subodh. But their success has been accompanied by some grumbling. ‘They have so many commissions that for the next few years they will be making old work,’ people say. That they are increasingly obsessed with scale and making huge pieces. That the work that has made them famous is not actually their most interesting work. These are complaints that exist, but the problems themselves perhaps do not.
TODAY THEY are each other’s first critics though that is also changing. “We know each other extremely well, how the work has developed, where the images come from, so we don’t have to discuss what the work is, just say if the piece is a success,” says Bharti. They stopped sharing a studio about four years ago. He loves to cook. After trips she brings home a suitcase full of books and he a suitcase full of ingredients. She often titles his works. They both hate Gurgaon, where they live and work. Kher calls it “bourgeois hell”.
“I think we’ve worked extremely hard to keep our practices quite different. We are both very different people. In the way we work. Our nature. He’s very outgoing. He can’t live without people. I like to be on my own. Subodh doesn’t read at all. He’s very intuitive about people, I’m not. I always get people wrong. I am more intuitive about the future. He doesn’t think about the future. He lives for today. Sometimes, we are quite opposite. But we both make art, and we like each other’s work, and respect each other’s practice,” she says.
They are sanguine about the pressures of a global art career. “We’ve been working to get here for fifteen years and now that you’re here you can’t say, I’m sorry, I’m tired,” says Bharti. But they are busy. More deadlines. More shows. They often don’t make it to each other’s openings abroad. Their two kids (12 and 4) travel with them often, usually about a third of the year. Now they also have choices. “We’re lucky, Indian artists today,” says Bharti. “People are interested in us. It’s our time — we have to make the most of it.” •