A slightly-edited version of this piece was first published in GQ India.
Every year, artist Subodh Gupta goes on a family holiday in summer. This year was
different. While his family vacationed, Gupta locked himself up in his studio. Come September, he had a number of major shows coming up, including two in South Korea and Britain, and he needed to get cracking on the set he was designing for Moscow’s famous Bolshoi Ballet. You’d think that the man who has been dubbed the Damien Hirst of Delhi would rest on his accolades. Think again. “The thing is, I’m not a genius,” says Gupta. “Some artists will make ten works and all ten will be amazing. I’m not like that. I make ten works and of them maybe only five or six will be good. I like to explain it with the example of an upset tummy: better you throw up or spend time in the bathroom so that good things can follow.”
Gupta’s dramatic career graph has probably led to many people feeling upset, and not just in their tummies. Until 2006, he was just another promising artist in the Indian art scene. Internationally, he was barely known even though the Swiss gallerist Pierre Huber had been championing Gupta since the late 1990s. In fact, Gupta had initially been rejected by Art Basel in 2006 although he did ultimately show at the fair. Then the French collector Francois Pinault bought Gupta’s “Very Hungry God”, a dramatic sculpture of an oversized skull made of steel kitchen utensils, for an astronomical amount. Suddenly, Gupta had left the Indian contemporary art building and entered the international arena.
The reaction in India to Gupta’s success was at first disbelief, then pride and finally cynicism. Gupta has been accused of banging the same drum (made of steel, perhaps?) and there’s a general belief that anything Gupta makes has a market because of his reputation, rather than the quality of the work. Gupta finds this idea laughable. “My mother, brother, friends, such people might say that whatever I do is genius,” he said. “But the art world is ready to throw me out if I show rubbish.” The difference between Gupta and most other Indian artists is that for the latter, the art world is still primarily an Indian network. Gupta sees his own work alongside the best of contemporary art from around the world. Yet, despite all the exposure he’s had, Gupta retains a charming lack of world weariness. He makes it a point to visit every museum he can and when he talks about his 2009 solo at London’s Hauser and Wirth gallery, you can still hear the excitement in his voice. Although he is happy with how the show turned out, he admitted that he was so excited at having a solo in a London gallery that he got “a little greedy and showed too much”.
There’s a curious mix of humility and self-assuredness in Gupta. While talking about his work, he says quite matter-of-fact-ly that he has created a new visual language in Indian art. “I never lacked confidence,” he said candidly. “Even back in the eighties, I thought, ‘I may not be a genius but I know I’m the best at what I’m doing’.” He is also very certain that his successes have more to do with the uniqueness of his art rather than good timing. “It’s not true that Indian contemporary art has arrived,” said Gupta. “Everyone talks of India, yes, but everyone only talks about the money. No one in India talks about the art. I keep getting asked about how it feels to have works sold at certain price. people only talk about the value in terms of prices, not as art.”
It’s particularly odd to Gupta to be questioned about his financial successes because he’s spent more years as a struggling artist than as a successful one. In fact, one of the curses upon Indian art today, according to Gupta, is the quick success it offers to talented young artists. “If you’re comfortable, you won’t be radical, especially when you’re young because you’re just at the stage when you’re figuring out how to push your boundaries,” he said. It might sound hypocritical coming from someone who in 2008 became the youngest Indian artist to cross the $1 million mark in auctions but Gupta pointed out, “I can say this because we struggled for 20 years to be where I am now.”
Born in 1964 in the railway town of Khagaul, near Patna, Gupta grew up in a modest household where steel utensils were a sign of prosperity. Talking about a show of works by young artists from Bihar that he organised in 2008, Gupta said, “I curated this show because I know where I came from,” he said. “No one, no curator, is going to go there. Bihar, after all, is the third world of the third world in India.” This sentiment gives you some idea of how hard he has had to work to find his way out. Gupta came to Delhi in 1990 and found limited success as a painter. More critically, in 1992 he met his wife (artist Bharti Kher) and by 1996, he was making installations. “For ten years in Delhi, I didn’t sell anything but I still made art,” said Gupta.” There was no money, no support, no galleries, nothing. I tried for residencies abroad, met people, did everything I could do. Then some people abroad started to take notice, they liked what I was doing. But even from that point onwards, it wasn’t as though there wasn’t hard work.”
Today, there’s no shortage of support or praise for Gupta but he is still driven by the need to prove himself. “It isn’t as though everyone is happy that an Indian artist is entering this [international] space,” he said. “People are always looking for the next big thing. They would love to forget me and move on to someone new. I have to be careful that what I’m showing is strong so that I don’t get dismissed.” Considering how highly regarded he is, there seems to be little fear of Gupta being sidelined but on the plus side, this probably means that the solo show he’s planning to have at the end of the year in Delhi will have everyone chattering, about the art as well as the prices. It’s a pity Santa doesn’t do enormous sculptural installations.