List: 10 Unexpectedly Arty Raw Materials

This piece was first published in India Today.

While its appeal may not be quite as widespread as that of Bollywood, contemporary Indian art has its fans all over the world. Indian artists have been our cultural ambassadors, showcasing realities and fantasies of modern India in their works. As a toast to their inventiveness, here are 10 commonplace items that became fine art when they caught the attention of our finest artists.

1980s Enamel paint

Ask about the medium of most paintings, and you’ll be told oils or watercolours. If you’re looking atPrabhakar Barwe‘s paintings from the 1980s, however, there’s a good chance that you’re looking at synthetic enamel paint on canvas. Yes, the stuff that’s generally used on walls. Barwe thinned the gloopy enamel paint using turpentine and kerosene to make beautiful, delicate paintings in muted shades.

1995 Bindis

Indian women have adorned themselves with these cheap little stickies for decades but when Bharti Kher stuck the bindi on her sculptures and paintings, their value multiplied million-fold. Kher’s interest in the fashion accessory began in the mid-1990s. She was at a market when she noticed a stranger wearing a black bindi that reminded her of a sperm. Kher asked the woman where she’d bought the bindi, then went to that shop and bought its entire supply of serpentine bindis. It was, as Kher put it, her “supernova moment”. This year Kher became India’s top-selling female artist when one of her bindi works was sold for $1.5 million.

1996 Fake Eyes

You’ve seen them on statues of Hindu deities, looking kindly or angry, depending upon the deity in question and how the eyelashes and eyelids have been painted. Manufactured eyes have also been a regular feature in Anita Dube‘s art since 1996. A cluster of these unblinking synthetic eyes would spread over a wall in the gallery or encrust the surface of objects, like in the photograph C-Creature that shows hands covered with these fake eyes. Their unblinking gaze is tremendously unnerving and yet, it’s impossible to take one’s eyes off them.

1999 Bottle Caps

Does Coca-Cola remind you of saris? If yes, then you’ve probably seen Sharmila Samant‘s “Handmade Saree”, a gorgeous, unwearable creation made entirely of Coca-Cola bottle caps. Samant made the first Handmade Saree out of 1,800 bottle caps during a year-long residency. It cleverly talks about globalisation, exploitation of labour, commodification, notions of waste and value, the opposition between readymade and custom-made, threats to handicraft traditions and homogeneity, but without getting burdened by the gravitas of polysyllabic words.

2000 Metal Shutters

Generally when shutters come clanking down, it means the shop’s shut. Unless Atul Dodiya has painted on them. Then they become fine art. Dodiya first painted shutters in 2000 when he was asked to participate in an exhibition called Century City at London’s Tate Modern. He chose shutters as his canvas because he wanted to use something that was emblematic of Mumbai’s streets but would also communicate a sense of anxiety. The shutters were perfect because they’re fixtures in shops and the sound of them coming down was one of Dodiya’s sharpest memories from the 1992 Mumbai riots. Dodiya had an entire show of his shutter paintings earlier this year.

2003 Blessings from God

Many temples, churches and mosques have websites but only at Blessed-Bandwidth.net could you download a blessing that was less divine and more fine art. In 2003, Shilpa Gupta created the website Blessed-Bandwidth.net. Visitors were invited to log in, choose a religion and then get blessings from the relevant religious authority. They could also download a certificate to prove they’d been blessed. The website was commissioned by Tate Online, the digital arm of London’s Tate Galleries, and was Gupta’s meditation upon religion and the divisive role it often plays in society.

2005 Mattresses

In 2005, Anju Dodiya exhibited her first series of paintings made on mattresses. The show was called “The Cloud Hunt”, which sounds like an aggressive form of daydreaming and explains where the mattresses fitted into Dodiya’s scheme of things. One would think the bulkiness of a mattress would make it an inelegant starting point for a painting but Dodiya transformed this sleeping apparatus into a wonderful canvas. Mattresses added a hint of three-dimensionality to the two-dimensional medium and were strangely perfect for Dodiya’s works, particularly when they explored themes of fantasy, sleep and night.

2006 Hawker Stalls and Sofas

This one’s a double whammy. In 2006, Tushar Joag came up with a brilliant contraption for hawkers being harassed into shutting shop by officials of the Brihanmumbai Municipality Corporation (BMC): theShanghai Couch. (The BMC had banned hawkers as part of its master plan to give Mumbai a makeover and turn it into Shanghai; hence the name.) The Shanghai Couch was a hawker stall that in a few swift, nifty moves could turn into a bright red couch. Because, as Joag pointed out, there wasn’t any law banning couches on Mumbai’s pavements.

2007 Rubberstamp

It’s impossible to find an Indian office that doesn’t have at least one person rubberstamping away. In Reena Saini Kallat‘s art, however, the rubberstamp is a sign of her disapproval of the state of affairs. Kallat first used rubberstamps to create portraits of missing persons in 2007. The custom-made stamps had names from missing persons written in 14 languages. Two years later, she used rubberstamps again in a series inspired by the Taj Mahal. Contrary to popular belief, there is a record of the names of the artists who worked on the monument, which Kallat discovered in an archive. She recreated some of the motifs of the Taj Mahal using rubberstamps that had the artists’ names on them.

2007 Steel Utensils

There are two places where you will almost always find steel utensils: in Indian kitchens and Subodh Gupta‘s art. Even as a moderately-successful painter, Gupta’s muse was steel kitchenware but it’s when he turned to installations that he became Indian art’s brightest star. His works have used tiffin-carriers, plates, glasses, serving spoons, bowls and every other stainless steel item you would expect to see in a middle-class Indian kitchen. Among the other items he’s turned into fine art are petroleum jelly, cowdung and the Ambassador taxi.

Profile: Subodh Gupta

A slightly-edited version of this piece was first published in GQ India.

Subodh Gupta, with his GQ Man of the Year award

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.