Delhi based photography artist and my dear friend Anurag Sharma asks me, after reading my take on the tendency of artists copying themselves, about Subodh Gupta. He asks whether Subodh’s works that have kitchen utensils as their major component could be called ‘self repetitive’ works. Close to the heel of this question, my former student and artist Vaibhav Sharma writes to me a very long mail to tell me how he looks at the whole issue of artists’ tendency to be self repetitive. In this mail he takes up Jitish Kallat’s ‘bone’ works as a point of reference and debates by saying that couldn’t it be a sort of ingenuity that helps the artist to do make different forms and shapes through the repetitive use of a catchy material.
Perhaps I have been always waiting for these questions. If anyone raises the issue of installation, style and repetition in the context of Indian contemporary art context, can there be a situation that does not invite a question on Subodh Gupta or Jitish Kallat? There cannot be one. Many, in their circles must be asking these questions quite loud and harsh and must be debating it with due vehemence and clarity. However, many would not dare to ask these questions because as these artists have been transported to certain levels of godliness vis-a-vis our art scene, very few dare to question them in public. It is not just about ‘questioning’ them in a negative sense, but raising questions so that the artists feel the responsibility to answer those questions, of course in a responsible fashion. I am happy for these questions put to me because it tells the artists indirectly that ‘Look, here there are people who are watching you. You just cannot get away with anything that you do.’
To anybody who looks at the recent works of Subodh Gupta, it would be quite natural to think that Subodh repeats himself, not only in methods and materials but also in ideas. It is very easy to hurl an allegation and step back. But we need to address the contexts in which Subodh, consciously or sub-consciously, feels the pressure to repeat his own methods and materials. To address this issue we need to look at the creative practice of Subodh in its entirety. Also we need to see how Subodh as an artist evolved during the last two decades as an artist whose name rings familiar when uttered even in the international art circles.
(Subodh Gupta giving a lecture)
I remember Subodh giving an interview to some foreign corresponded a few years back (which is available in youtube and you may check by youtubing Subodh Gupta there) where speaks of his childhood and his encounters with Indian mythology through films and other popular cultural forms. This is a pointer to understand Subodh’s personality formation and the ways of his thinking. Though the comment might be a momentary response to a question asked to him by a foreigner in a foreign location surrounded by not so familiar people, the sudden establishment of his connection with Indian mythology should be taken both as an anchor of his cultural outlook and as a context of his creative understanding.
Subodh comes from a Hindu family and milieu soaked in Hindu mythology. When you are a child you tend to believe in demons, angels, gods and their various incarnations. You believe in the largeness of life and the life before and beyond life. You develop this idea of magnanimity through the medium of your innocent imagination. You don’t differentiate much between you and the mythical characters. A young child could speak to his invisible companions because those invisible presences are so real for him. As he grows up he loses this sense of reality and is replaced by a strong sense of material realism. You grow sceptical and negate the existence of gods and demons. You develop your social thinking that leads you to a political thinking. You become so frustrated and disturbed by the existing material realities and you feel like breaking everything down and creating everything new. But soon you realize your incapability of doing so. Shamed by your own impotence, you leave your place and walk to another land in order to gain strength and visibility so that you could go back and facilitate changes in your own place.
(Subodh Gupta with one of his works)
You are political till you have this idea of changing. Self perpetuation of the existing reality is a stagnated situation and you want to change it. Subodh Gupta comes to Delhi with this fire in his mind. His early works (including the theatre and films he has acted in) have the fire of a young man who wants to change his reality. Like anybody who comes to an urban centre where opportunities beckon you like the displayed dishes in a sweet shop. Only you need to gather enough money and momentum to buy those sweets. Opportunities are abundant. Subodh also had seen these opportunities and he knew that he needed to find out ways to make use of those opportunities. And opportunities came through contacts and affiliations.
In a performance work he did during the initial years of Khoj in late 1990s Subodh lied down on a clearing covered all over with mud. Before doing that he had created a huge hut out of dried cow dung cake. This mud/sun bath and cow dung cake hut that reminded one of the domes of a nuclear plant was interesting because this was how Subodh was introducing his past and its present and the huge possibilities to a larger audience in Delhi. It brought the mythological affiliations he had besides the rural milieu within which he had grown up. This work had set the tone of Subodh’s future works. And that’s why when his major solo show happened with the Nature Morte gallery in Delhi, he could bring the lathis, bicycles, milk cans and so on casted in aluminium and bronze.
(Work by Subodh Gupta)
As far as Subodh was concerned at that particular juncture of success in his creative life in Delhi, he was coming out as a political artist with a sheer sense of cynicism towards the aesthetic object. This Bihar rural boy with no linguistic skills (Subodh’s speeches for the scholarly audience could be compared to the speeches of Lalu Prasad Yadav, former Bihar Chief Minister and Central Railway Minister, who had given lectures in high end institutes like IITs and IIMs regarding the topic of effective management after his successful stint as the central Railway Minister) was responding to the urban public’s taste in a critical way by placing something totally non-palatable before them in highly solidified sculptural forms. The lathis (long sticks) that he used were emblematic of the violence as well as the quotidian like of a rural Bihari. The milk cans and cycles were the daily reality. How they could be brought into the plush houses of the art collectors. Subodh was successful in getting even his cow dung cake hut into the dining room of one of the richest collectors in India. How could one afford to have cow dung cakes in a posh dining room when cow dung cake cooking is considered to be quite ‘vernie’ and ‘desi’ for the rich and the sophisticated?
Making the rich and the sophisticated to buy the rural Biharis’ lota (a metal pot that is used both for drinking water from and washing bottom after toilet use) and to go gaga over their latest buy of Subodh Gupta was a critical ploy used by Subodh Gupta in late 1990s. His political aesthetics became quite handy as he could find not only lathis and cycles and many other things from his repository of images from the rural life and imaginations. Bringing the urban middle class and all his vagaries and cleverness to survive in the big bad world, and also the ultimate survival of the politicians in this country called India, Subodh meticulously chose the images like Bajaj Scooter (the pre-globalized Indian’s ultimate dream of mobility), and the Ambassador car (the arrogance of a nationalized economy embodied in the body of a car which could masquerade both as a powerful symbol of political supremacy and an ordinary man’s taxi) for his sculptural renditions. And it was first time in India that someone casts the whole object into another medium. A car could be made in a factory but what about a car that could be casted in a factory and render it completely useless as a car and elevate into the level of an aesthetic object? Subodh did it and it was quite political move in art.
(Ambassador- Subodh Gupta)
But this was that juncture when Subodh slowly turns into a victim of the revenge of the urban art collectors who strategically makes him into a celebrity of sorts. Though one, with the increased visibility naturally turn into a celebrity, the mechanizations behind this image boosting was a result of the investment point that the rich and powerful had seen in Subodh at that point of time. But Subodh was a rebel. He shirked off such attributed glamour by turning his attention to the plights of the NRIs in general and the NRBs in particular (Non resident Indians and Non Resident Biharis). Ambassador cars that ply as taxis near the airports, the luggage tied on their carriers, the baggage trolleys and so on became a part of Subodh’s paintings and sculptures at this point. With this introduction of image ensemble in his works, Subodh was talking about the labor export and migration of the Biharis since the time of colonialism. He knew that poverty, illiteracy, hostile climates, bad governance, feudalism, casteism and so on had sent the Biharis as indentured labours in foreign farms. Subodh, consciously or sub-consciously brought all those discourses in his art. I don’t think it was addressed fiercely by the Indian critics and curators as they were more interested in Subodh as a celebrity than a politically inclined artist.
From here Subodh turns his attention to the utensils. It is here that I would like to underline Subodh’s upbringing in a Bihari Hindu household and in the milieu of mythologies. In mythologies kitchen utensils play a great role. It is totally connected with food and satisfaction. Most of my readers must be knowing the story of Akshaya Patram (the vessel that could bring forth any amount of food. Krishna eats a grain of rice from it and sends all the visitors full and happy). If you visit any rural household one could see the way the people give respect to their utensils. They keep it clean and arranged. They literally do installation art with their vessels and utensils. A society that lives a hand to mouth existence, kitchen utensils are very important. Even the pavement dwellers keep their utensils arranged and clean. In the Indian dowry practice, especially amongst the middle class and lower middle class sending the bride away to her bridegroom’s house will not be complete affair if there are not enough kitchen utensils in her dowry package.
(Painting by Subodh Gupta)
Subodh was trying to bring all these experiences in his works when he was taking up utensils as his dominant imagery. He used chimtas, vessel racks, huge eating plates and so many of their permutations and combinations. Even he could develop a whole city on the move out of vessels and motor mechanism. It was fine till then. I have feeling that when you reach some stage of your glory, you tend to perpetuate the same glory. You become worried about your own status. Then you need to replicate the same situation again and again. Subodh seems to have fallen victim to this idea of perpetuation of existing situation, which he was completely against, when he came to Delhi first time. Now he realizes that he is Subodh Gupta brand and the brand needs the brand identification marks. The utensils have become the byword for his brand value.
(Spirit Eaters-Performance organized by Subodh Gupta)
I should explain why and how Subodh has lost his political edge: When he was introducing the quotidian materials with sufficient cynicism, he was aspiring for the changes that he could bring forth in the society, at least to his own society through a cultural discourse. For that he wanted to remain terribly political but cleverly subtle on the expressions of the same. This strategy worked well for him. But when he realized at some stage that he could replicate and magnify the already saturated images not only in his memory but also in the public memory, he lost his political edge. Now it is like a play. Give him anything he could replicate them with utensils welded together. It is like someone practicing juggling. First you start with two balls and then you increase the number. You get some kind of fun out of doing it. But a juggler muses the public only up to certain extent because they would move on as other spectacles in a carnival or mela appear before them.
(Line of Control- Subodh Gupta)
Postscript: You may ask me then what about Christo who covered objects and cars and then Reichstag of Germany. I have the answer. Christo idea of packaging came as a response to the packaging culture of the west. It was sort of reaction against the commoditiy fetish-ism of the society. But then he wanted to cover the ‘un-coverable’. German parliament, the seat of power was considered to be beyond all creative and critical interventions despite the cruel histories involved with it. Christo fought a legal war with the government and that lasted for almost twelve years. Finally he could cover it. A work of art transcends itself into a political dialogue when the artist consciously does it. Of late, Subodh has started attempting at food and waste as a concept. But orgy of the rich happens often on the waste of their own richness including food. Subodh’s critique of the same through the large scale paintings of unwashed vessels and the eating performance does not turn effective mainly because today Subodh’s personality is considered to be closely connected to that orgy culture. Subodh needs to take a sabbatical as even his negation of the very aspect of paintings through bronze casting the reverse side of canvases seems to be falling only in the zone of spectacle and juggling in the carnival. Subodh Gupta should sit under a Bodhi Tree. Perhaps he too wants it. That’s why recently he did a ‘bodhi tree’ of utensils.