(an enduring image: Chintan and Hema Upadhyay)
Last year this time she was alive. She would meet with her violent death a few hours later. Nobody can predict when death knocks on the door. Some of us walk into it. Perhaps, each day and each moment we are walking into it. Hema Upadhyay (1972-2015) was not expecting her death that day. She was there at the villain’s den, a fabricating unit in Mumbai, with her advocate, Harish Bhambani, a fatherly figure for her, and was planning to get some documents from Vidyadhar Rajbhar, the killer who has been absconding since then, to move against her estranged husband Chintan Upadhyay, who is currently in jail for the alleged conspiracy that led to the artist’s and her advocate’s tragic deaths. On 22nd of this month, Chintan Updhyay completes one year in a jail in Thane, Maharashtra. As a friend of both Hema and Chintan, I miss them. People say, Chintan would bounce back and I hope he could after clearing all the doubts if not from the minds of the people, at least from his own conscience. However, Hema wouldn’t come back. But who knows she has already been reborn in another form, in another place, with another destiny completely oblivious of what she had undergone in her previous birth.
I am no judge of people. None is a judge of none. Hence, it is futile to think about the deeds that both Hema and Chintan had done during their lives together. A cursory look at their lives together is fascinating for many because any couple who have fallen in love with each other during their student days and have decided to live together thinking that they are made for each other must find their life and the apparent success that they reaped together and separately in the material world as well as in the Indian art scene have to do something with their own lives then and now. Hema was a Baroda girl, urbane, suave, outgoing, intelligent, good looking, English speaking and caring. Chintan was the quintessential village teenager (in their courting days in the college), uncouth, stranger to urban ways, non-English speaking and a sort of loner. The same old story, of all those young couples who fall in love when they are students. We do not hear an urbane boy falling in love with an unrefined girl in a college. If at all that happens, the setting should not be a college, instead a village where the boy reaches there as a city bred and English educated youngster in the role of a doctor or a saviour of some sort; a reformer in denim clothes.
After their education, both Hema and Chintan moved to Mumbai to find a foothold in the art scene. Hema was not that ‘pallu’ pulling and ‘roti’ making type of girl who would sit at home and let her man to toil all day to bring food to the family table. For some time, in the beginning, Chintan worked as a gallery assistant and Hema too might have done something to make their life worthwhile together. Much before Chintan could make it in the art scene, Hema, by becoming the ‘bahu’ of the Upadhyay family and changing her name from Hema Hirani to Hema Upadhyay, found her success in the art scene in 2000 (just within two years after they moved to Mumbai) as she was declared the Triennale Award Winner. Allegations of favouritism were thick in the air but the work that Hema had presented was impressive, perhaps for the Indian standards of art practice, and could show the possibilities of her pursuing an international art language and predictably she was picked up by the major galleries like Bodhi (now defunct) and later by Chemould Prescott Gallery in Mumbai.
Though comparisons between the growth rates of couple artists anywhere in the world would starkly reveal some sort of imbalance not only because of familial gender disparities that operate within the domestic front but also because of the patronage that one of the couple gets from the galleries. Take any artist couple in India, the balance always tilted; when the tilt is accepted or rather maintained for the perpetuation of the families that they have created together they remain as a couple. The case of Hema and Chintan was not different. While Hema’s break came through the Triennale and then via reputed galleries, Chintan got his break in the Ashish Balram Nagpal Gallery in Mumbai in 2003 with his exhibition, ‘Commemorative Stamps’. What we see is a huge tussle between the artist-couple for social acceptance. Hema was a natural swimmer in the safe waters of the art market ocean while Chintan remained a ‘trouble kid’ constantly searching for not only aesthetic acceptance but also intellectual acceptance by the elite academic section of the art market.
(an image one does not want to remember)
Once again I draw a comparison between Hema and Chintan though I do not like any kind of comparisons between people because I deem them as unique and incomparable. Hema’s art had taken an international turn with the Triennale and the after going through a series of art projects, she could establish herself as a name to be reckoned with in the South East Asian art scene, through her easy (and troubled at a later stage) flirtations with environmental, feministic, hyper-real, existential issues. From her ‘Chandelier’ with match sticks to the site specific seed planting in Bangalore to the assemblage paintings to the last solo exhibition with rice grains, Hema maintained a steady pace almost guarding her personal troubles in the domestic front without it getting reflected in her works of art. During the boom days, like any other couple in the art scene both Hema and Chintan were living a life in suitcases, hotel rooms, airport transit lounges, residencies, party hopping, socializing and so on. Nature was being drained from their life together. It became an arrangement of convenience with two people sharing a surname out of wedlock and trying their best to keep it like that as is being done by several couples in the art scene.
In the meanwhile, Chintan was looking for his honour. His works changed from their initial arrogant and erotic expressionism to somewhat suave market friendly populism; I could clearly see him moving from William De Cooning to Andy Warhol. The ‘Commemorative Stamps’ had established the shift. But Chintan was gunning for more. Hungry for fame and acceptance, Chintan subconsciously competed with Hema, his wife, and went on experimenting with his art language to find acceptance in the international art scene. In retrospect we could see Chintan was desperately showcasing his talents not only in his paintings which were lapped up by the market but also by portraying himself as a perpetual rebel. His full page advertisement in the Times of India newspaper as a pregnant man was one such effort to tell the ‘non-art’ world about his ‘pregnancy’, a metaphor that would establish his counter-womanhood vis-a-vis Hema Upadhyay, who was said to have refused a baby to Chintan. Also this advertisement said loud and clear to the world that he was about to ‘deliver’ the best. The initial success of the couple brought them together to do a collaborative work titled ‘Made in China’ (2004) in the Viart in Delhi. An impressive show however did not have the heat to fuse them together for future projects. They again separated their ways. Chintan had already forayed into performance art with his ‘Bar Bar Har Bar Kitni Bar’ in Baroda. He had created a rural art residency program, Sandarbh in 2006 and also had addressed crucial issues of female foeticide in his home state Rajasthan and legitimacy of piracy in the market of ideas.
Towards the end of the first decade of the new millennium the separation between Hema and Chitan had become a public with their divorce case and property feuds between them. The Mumbai tabloids always hungry for juicy and spicy stories in regular intervals published the micro details of their marital dispute as if the whole world was keen to know about it. In fact the constituency that was interested in their dispute was so small and was confined to Mumbai and scattered in small little gossip pockets elsewhere in the country. I am sure that these news items might have given them a sort of temporal high because only the rich and affluent got print space when they fought each other in the bedroom as well as in the court. In that sense, this couple too had reached that level of socio-economic affluence as their private life was out there for others weave yarns of their own. However, this high was not going to last. The ugly turn of events forced them to take drastic decisions that led Hema’s health going haywire adding a lot of weight, almost making her an unfamiliar person even within the art scene, and Chintan moving out of Mumbai that had brought him fame, name, richness, success and friends and settling down in Delhi.
What made this couple a wonderful one was their effort to keep their necks out of the troubled waters even when they confronted the worst things in life, obviously created all by themselves. Both Hema and Chintan worked hard and created works of art and exhibited all over the world. Chintan took a sabbatical and went abroad, doing itinerant projects in Mexico, Germany, Hungary and so on. He took a lot of pleasure in ideating visually and verbally through his facebook page as if nothing had gone wrong with his life. This was a commendable step from both of them. But none knew that things were degenerating from within. They were in fight even after living separately. He had to face another case for allegedly painting pornographic pictures on the walls of their Juhu house in order to disturb Hema. Things were losing their sanctified tragedy and were going to a sort of comedy. People, as always were interested in taking sides and slamming the other. Personally I was out of all these. I hardly visited Chintan in Delhi. He too had collected friends who could give him temporal highs. I was a misfit there. I met Hema in the Chemould in one of those days and I could not recognize her. She had put on a lot of weight and the dimpled smile had gone and in its space there was suspicious smirk that often women give to their estranged partners’ friends.
We are nobody to reverse the chain of events. The tragedy could have been averted. But the tragedy happens. That’s how the world works. I look at the pictures of both Hema and Chintan everyday as I have kept it right in front of me; the catalogue of their one and only show together, ‘Made in China’. Hema stands in the forefront. Chintan stands behind with his hands folded across his chest. The pair of glasses that he wears is normal and the shirt less flowery. He was yet to make a sartorial reinvention for himself. Hema too stands looking intently at the camera, smiling. She has a U cut white top which shows her collar bones and neck. Both of them look so simple and straight. They are there to welcome the world into their lives. Their eyes are not cunning. They have not yet learned the tricks of the world. Greed, avarice and ego have not changed their facial contours. Like Keats I too wish they remained the same forever , forever young and innocent. That’s only a wish. But the apparent reality is that Hema is no more and Chintan is in jail. Shall we learn something from this? Yes, we have a great lesson. Nothing matters for we do not exist. We are just a part of the universe, the immense and the indestructible. But we make ourselves so fragile.