Some deaths make us silent and some eloquent. Hema Upadhyay’s death is of the former kind that leaves friends and acquaintances in a state of shock and forces them into deep silence. What they could do maximum is to share the information and glean more silence. What newspapers and channels could do is to speculate. An artist friend, after much prodding, said, “Crime fiction has come home.” Another one, more seasoned with life spoke to me in broken words, “A life that ended in tragedy. Frustrated, depressed and eventually mutilated. She did not deserve it.” As news trickled in yesterday, the enormity of the tragedy descended on all of us, the members of the art community. Hema Upadhyay, who had come to attend the opening of a show at the Chemould Gallery, Mumbai a few days back suddenly goes missing and then she resurfaces as a mutilated body in a plastic bag along with the similarly mutilated body of her legal counsel in a drain. How could one believe it? I was one of those friends sitting in Delhi, looking at the pictures of the Chemould opening and feeling happy for her. After a prolonged legal fight she had finally walked into freedom with a divorce from Chintan Upadhyay, whose surname she ironically carried all the way to death.
Death provokes metaphors. And it suddenly makes us a bit wiser. When asked by the Times of India, Kochi edition yesterday night, I told the reporter that I found Hema’s death as a loss to the generation which I would call as the ‘forty plus generation’. Hema Upadhyay belonged to this generation of artists and art lovers that had come of age with the art boom of early 2000s. Hema was forty three years old. She, like me and many others including Chintan Upadhyay was born to a country which did not have television sets, computers and mobile phones. That was not a problem. Many before us had grown up without all those communication mediums. But ours was a generation that was placed neither here nor there. We were not really a part of the flower generation, nor were we a part of those generation that faced partition, emergency and Naxalism. We were still growing up and were not in a position to tackle the historical complexities of all what had happened in 1970s and before. By the time the computers and internet came, we all were in our late twenties. To handle those, we had to learn all from the scratch. We were awkward with the gadgets but we got adapted everything as if we were born to it or with it. To make our art we had to remember; remember very hard. We had to conjure up the partition narratives, we had to re-live the pangs of our country’s partition and all what had gone and happened before our arrival. Hema’s initial years as an artist went into a very deep remembering of her family’s history and India’s partition. Post-colonial discourse was still around and she was part of it. She took a few more years to become comfortable with idea of ‘contemporary art’. It was then she started living the narratives of her city, Mumbai. The works that might eventually underline her artistic merit in the annals of history, I believe, would be her urban narratives, including the obvious slum installations and the ‘rice paintings’.
(Made in China, a collaborative project with Chintan-Hema duo- the catalogue in my study)
As an art critic, I should have gone for a bit more specificity about her works. But I think, I am not writing a critical appreciation about Hema’s works. In this article I am just trying to remember her as a friend as well as an artist. I have been thinking about her and was trying not to think about the things that she might have gone through since the time of her missing and since she had come face to face with her tormentors. I kept looking at her picture sitting pretty in my study on a catalogue cover, standing with Chintan, peeping out of a square flat screen television, a photograph photoshopped for their combined show titled ‘Made in China’ at the Viart Gallery, New Delhi in 2004. While most of my artist friends were reveling in money and fame, somehow I had grown disillusioned with art and was keeping myself off from the scene in those days. The artist-duo, before Tukral and Tagra and Manil-Rohit came to the scene, Chintan and Hema as well as Shantanu and Manmeet had created their mark in the art scene with combined projects. Hema was looking much relaxed then. They were still in love. Chintan had just finished ‘Commemorative Stamps’ show with the Ashish Balram Nagpal Gallery, Mumbai. Both of them had achieved some sort of celebrity status by then. Chintan used to tell me that boys from Rajasthan came to Mumbai to become tea sellers. He did not want to become one. Hema, on the other hand, had her Sindhi/Gujarati familiarity with the terrains of Mumbai. Together they made it big, an enviable life with a sea facing apartment in Juhu, which unfortunately became a bone of contention in their later life.
When Hema received the Triennale Award in late 1990s, as her elder contemporaries I was a bit taken aback, exactly the same way most in the art community did at that time. We were still struggling in Delhi, hardly getting money or recognition and here was Hema Upadhyay, my junior in college (MSU), walking away with a Triennale Award. To feel jealousy and irritated was very human. But the award brought Hema into focus. Her works were good and before Chintan could make it in the scene, Hema was already a star of her own worth. I don’t know what made them ‘celebrities’ and ‘high profile’ people. Chintan had obviously done a lot of gimmicks to become a celebrity. He even gave an advertisement in Times of India masquerading as a pregnant man, one of the daring acts that an artist could imagine at that time. Artists were still getting comfortable in their VIBGYOR trousers, sundial wrist watches and other accessories. But Hema did not want all these. She kept to herself and worked. You may wonder why I always talk about Chintan when I talk about Hema. For people like me, though they are separated now, they were two sides of the same entity. As the art scene changed with the flooding of money into it, and human beings in artists transformed into beasts of different kinds, somewhere things were cracking up for Chintan and Hema, otherwise a couple so compassionate and loving for their friends.
(Hema with one of her installations)
I knew Hema before she became Upadhyaya. She was Hema Hirani and a happy face in the campus of the Fine Arts Faculty, MS University, Baroda. Most of the girls came from rich back grounds and the boys came from not so affluent families. Those lucky boys who hailed from rich families had motor bikes and hot girls as pillion riders and most of them studied in the applied arts department. Shabbiness was the hallmark of the boys who studied fine arts and all of them reeked in the smell of onions and potatoes, two items lavishly given at the hostel mess. But girls looked neat and clean. Hema, coming from home was always seen in a pair of blue jeans and white shirts (at times with blue dots). I have seen her coming to the canteen where the lovers and intellectuals gathered and talked as if there was no tomorrow, wearing a paint stained apron and smiling away. Many girls loved the ‘faculty dogs’ (a few of them were there and recently I found that the latest generation of those dogs are still there near around the canteen) and fed them biscuits and omelets, while we, the underdogs of the fine arts faculty were gloriously neglected by these girls. Hema too was one of those girls who loved dogs and later in her life she hated them (I was told) as Chintan brought one home. Hema was a friendly girl and I did not know Chintan was in love with her until I was officially told by Chintan himself at the terrace of the painting department. Hema spoke fluent English and Chintan ‘secretly’ attended all the other departments seminars and lectures in order to gain ‘some’ understanding of English. And he did become a very good speaker in English. In Bollywood, heroes wooed girls by cutting wrists and singing songs; Chintan proved his worth by learning English and later by becoming a very celebrated artist.
Rare are such artist pairs who claim the same space both in the public and private domain. Most often if the husband is a celebrity artist, even if the wife has the same status, she would be a bit less than her spouse and vice versa. Take anyone from our art scene, you would find my observation true. In the case of Hema and Chintan both of them had their space and fame, literally. Chintan worked from a different studio and Hema worked from another. They met in their Juhu Apartment and were happy. What went wrong, I do not know. Hema invited me to her studio in 2008 just before she had her solo in Bodhi, Singapore. I was to write her catalogue and I went to her studio and she spoke at length about her works. I did write the catalogue. I never found any interference from Chintan or from her in Chintan’s life or work. I do not know how and why they were falling apart. I used to stay at their Juhu apartment, mostly when Hema travelled. Once we all were together, we went out, had dinner, went for a movie and came home. Everything was normal. It was in 2009. And I remember Hema pulling my leg for being a ‘gay’ as she walked into one of the rooms in her home and found another friend of mine giving me a shoulder massage.
('the' Hema Upadhyay, I knew)
Death is an occasion that makes people remember the best qualities of the deceased. Recounting memories pertaining to the departed one not only makes the living easier and comfortable but also it helps us to be better people. Nothing stays and nobody is indispensible. In the social media, when the friends share the tragic news of Hema’s death, with the same vigor I could see other people sharing their art works and exhibition information. May be they are not friends of Hema and we are. In the final count, nothing matters. The dead is gone and the secret behind the violent death that has befallen on Hema should be unraveled by the Police. She and her legal counsel should get justice. Hema’s death is another reminder that human life is a fleeting illusion. Egos have to be curbed and annihilated. Each time we celebrate our success or mourn our failures, remember there is nothing to be elated or to be sad. ‘All the pleasures are as fleeting as lightning/And remember, longevity of life is fast eroding’- with those lines from Adhythma Ramayana, I pay my tributes to Hema Upadhyaya, who was my friend and will remain in my heart.