Subodh Gupta: Everyday Divine is an exhibition at NGV International of works by one of India’s pre-eminent contemporary artists, drawn from the private collection of Larry Warsh, New York. Subodh Gupta was born in 1964 in the Indian province of Bihar, which has remained the poorest and least developed area of India since independence. From this humble beginning he has become the most iconic contemporary artist in India today, renowned for his ambitious works of art.
Elevating objects found in the everyday domestic and street life of many Indians to a position of spiritual worship has been at the heart of Gupta’s practice. Hungry God, 2005, a central work in the NGV exhibition, is characteristic of the ambition that has led to the artist’s great international acclaim. It is made up of a vast number of stainless-steel kitchen utensils stacked in a mound, at an awe-inspiring scale, as a quasi-religious offering. Gupta likens the modern-day kitchen to that of a secular temple and its implements to idols. With this major work he offers a multitude of tiffin-pots, and the food they might produce or carry on a daily basis, to satisfy a ‘hungry god’.
Cultural references resonate within the make-up of this piece: the use of stainless steel in bowls, plates and cups is synonymous with the modernisation and economic development of India in the twentieth century. Replacing kansa (or bell metal; a brittle bronze containing a high proportion of tin), stainless steel came to transform the kitchen and eating utensils used in India in the 1950s and 1960s. Being more durable than copper, brass and kansa, resistant to tarnishing and not needing to be coated to be used with food, stainless steel was an object of desire for people in an increasingly modern and more time-pressured society.
Jawaharlal Nehru became the first prime minister in the newly independent India, and in his first five-year plan laid the groundwork for transforming the country’s primary sector, infrastructure, industry and economy. His plan, modelled on the approach taken by the Soviet Union to organising their national economy, was designed to improve living conditions across the country. Nehru brought steel under state control and set up the first public sector steel mills in the late 1950s, referring to them as ‘temples of modernity’. At the heart of the new India ‒ economically, politically, and in the kitchens and dining rooms of its multitude of subjects ‒ steel’s shiny, nearly mirrored surface was intertwined with the identity of the country, and even more so as India continued its rapid development and its middle class grew dramatically. A nod is made to the multitudes of India in many of Gupta’s large works, where straightforward, comparatively small individual elements are brought together on such a scale that they transcend their everyday nature. The works parallel iconic images of the busy urban public spheres of New Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata: India’s ‘mega-cities’.
Gupta draws on the concept of the readymade, inaugurated by French artist Marcel Duchamp, whereby an everyday object becomes art through the act of placing it in an art gallery context. A key part of this operation is the object’s original ‘use value’; that is, its previous function and link to the everyday must remain recognisable for it to be understood as a readymade. Duchamp’s Bottle rack, 1914, loses its radical conceptual edge without its previous status as a useful object and becomes an abstract formalist sculpture; however, the artist’s descriptive title for the work ensures that this doesn’t happen. Often an object’s original function or use value can form part of the content of a readymade, as it does, obliquely, in Duchamp’s In advance of a broken arm, 1915 (his snow shovel), and, more apparently, in Gupta’s works, despite their inscrutable steel surfaces. While they are certainly everyday objects, the utensils in Gupta’s works are not only defined by their use value, as S. Kalidas has pointed out, but can also read in relation to their symbolic meaning:
Many Indians, though, might find the word ‘utensil’ too coldly clinical a term for the objects sought to be described in Subodh Gupta’s art … What is often overlooked is that in the Indian space these utensils have a secret, sacred life of their own. These objects – the baalti (bucket), the lotaa (squat pitcher), the kumbhaa, the kalasham or the gharaa (large pot-bellied pitcher), the pateelaa (pan), the thaali (plate) and the chimtaa (tongs) – are also signifiers of widespread cultural, mystical and religious practices in rural and urban middle class Indians even today.1
For instance, the archetypal paatram (vessel), a kalasham (or pot-bellied pitcher), whose form has remained unchanged for three to four thousand years, appears in Hindu mythology as the vessel carrying the nectar of the gods, over which they fought.2 Seen in this light, Gupta’s works can be read as an accumulation of references that create an allegorical constellation of secular, mythological, banal, sacred, economic and historical meanings.
While the vessel and utensil works can be read as quintessential Indian readymades, key cast works from the artist’s oeuvre speak to everyday lived experiences. Cow, 2003, a bronze and aluminium sculpture of a life-sized bicycle and milk pails, represents the travels and travails of everyday village life. ‘The bicycle is like a mechanised cow in the city’, explains Gupta. ‘In the country if I wanted milk, I would go to the cows to get it; in the city it is delivered to you by bicycle’.3 The casting of the modest mode of transport in bronze not only reveres it, in the tradition of historical sculpture, but also transforms it into a material synonymous with idols worshipped in temples across India.
This artistic intervention is mirrored in the works This side is the other side, 2001, a motor scooter again replete with milk pails; Magic wands, 2002, a phalanx of leaning bamboo poles; and, perhaps more inextricably for an audience unfamiliar with India, Gober Ganesha, 2004, which comprises a vessel of bronze-cast cow patties. With Gober Ganesha the artist again points to the vestiges of village life, elevating the dried cow pat to further consider its symbolic and practical value in that context. Cow dung is symbolic in terms of its sacred nature – on account of Hindu reverence of the cow – and practical in terms of its potent medicinal qualities and, when dried as a patty, use as fuel on a fire for heat and cooking.
Gupta’s Fly with me, 2006, featuring shelves of aluminium luggage pieces, suitcases, rolled bedding and doctor’s bags stacked as if in a train carriage, cloak room or, perhaps, lost property division, relates to the act of travelling. The work also relates to the formation of independent India and the seismic lived experience of partition in 1947, when a mass movement of people took place across the new country along religious and political lines, resulting in the displacement of between 14 and 15 million people. This mass migration, which took place less than twenty years before Gupta was born, was the largest in world history.4 As with most of his works, in Fly with me Gupta balances the everyday with something larger: a significant event that affected many lives, a hidden force or the dream of something new and elsewhere. The work references the formation of India and the recent increase in Indians travelling overseas for study or work; dreaming in entrepreneurial ways; and how to transcend one’s economic situation, caste or place, just as the successful Gupta has done.
Subodh Gupta grew up in a devout Hindu household – a religion that considers everything around us, and everywhere, to be imbued with the divine. Through his art, visitors have the opportunity to appreciate, relish and celebrate the truly humble, and to reflect upon our place in the world.
S. Kalidas, ‘Of capacities and containment: poetry and politics in the art of Subodh Gupta’, Subodh Gupta, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, 2008, p. 84.
ibid., pp. 84–5.
Pernilla Holmes, ‘Subodh Gupta: cow dung, curry pots, and a hungry god’, 1 Sep. 2007, ARTnews, <http://www.artnews.com/2007/09/01/subodh-gupta-cow-dung-curry-pots-and-a-hungry-god>, accessed 22 March 2016.
For further, detailed information see Nisid Hajari, Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2015.