Durgamata Chawl in Mumbai’s Kandivali is as far as it gets from the world of roomy art galleries and soft, hushed discussions on tones and hues. Here, leaning against a wall in one of the four lanes leading into a cramped courtyard is a work of art — a black fibre canvas left out in the sun that has an image of a Maratha warrior in Shivaji Maharaj’s army, his sword drawn, towering over the army of Bijapur ruler Afzal Khan. The incomplete canvas, whose base is now littered with packets of potato chips, rests against the very wall behind which Vidyadhar Rajbhar is alleged to have killed artist Hema Upadhyay and her lawyer Harish Bambani. Vidyadhar, 27, now on the run and the prime accused in the killings, never got to finish the mural. If it wasn’t for this double murder, its creator would have never been in the spotlight he now finds himself in. The spotlight is not what Vidyadhar, a fabrication artist who was part of the support staff of both Hema and her estranged husband Chintan, is used to.
Since Sunday morning, fellow artists and friends of Hema and Chintan Upadhyay have been camping at the Kandivali police station, seeking answers to questions that have bothered them since the murders. Why was Hema killed? And could Vidyadhar have got Hema killed for the Rs 5 lakh that she allegedly owed him?
“When the media started reporting about the possible involvement of Vidyadhar in Hema’s murder, it shocked us all. He was always soft-spoken, never looked up while speaking to us, never made eye contact. It’s hard to think of him as someone who could have killed,” says an artist who has employed Vidyadhar for several of her works.
Renowned artist Sanjeev Khandekar says it was Vidyadhar’s father Vanshraj who introduced him to metal fabrication and to the world of Mumbai’s artists. Vanshraj, who arrived in Mumbai in the mid 80s from his village in Varanasi, was sought after by the city’s artists for his skills with metal fibre. In the mid 2000s, a teenaged Vidyadhar joined his father at his workshop in Kandivali.
“Metal fibre artists play a pivotal role in our lives, especially in paintings, sculptures or any other art installation where we want to use metal fibre. We brief these artists and they deliver according to our specifications. Their skill lies in heating, melting and moulding the metal to the exact degree and removing it diligently so that the metal doesn’t get disfigured. Vanshraj was very good at his art and we respected him tremendously,” says Khandekar.
When Vanshraj died of brain hemorrhage around five years ago, Vidyadhar stepped into his father’s shoes. The responsibility of his ailing mother and two younger sisters, who stay with him in Mumbai, fell on him. The art world stood by him — all the artists for whom Vanshraj once worked employed Vidyadhar.
“Vidyadhar isn’t as talented as his father but he made up for his lack of finesse with his ability to patiently hear out the artist he would be working for. Even when we scolded him, he would stand there with a smile and say, ‘theek kar doonga, ghabaraiye mat (I will fix it, don’t worry),” recalls an artist who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“When Vanshraj died, we helped him set up his studio. Hema spearheaded it. She once told me that Vidyadhar was our responsibility and we should help him get a sound start,” says Khandekar. It was in this Kandivali studio that Hema and her lawyer were allegedly killed by Vidyadhar and his associates.
The workshop, ‘Vidyadhar Arts’, with his name hidden behind a coat of black paint, occupies two sides of an impossibly narrow lane. Like every other house around the small courtyard where four lanes meet, Vidyadhar’s house too has a black metal ladder leading to the first floor but a trapdoor that opens to the first floor has been sealed from inside. The windows are almost always shut and there’s no way of looking in, say neighbours.
“They took care to keep the windows shut because they worked with paint. The smell would otherwise have been unbearable, not to mention the dust,” says Surendra Prata Chauhan, a building contractor who occupies a first-floor home opposite Vidyadhar’s workshop.
On Sunday morning, the chawl woke up to find policemen everywhere and the doors to the studio open. “Taajub ki baat hai (It’s an astonishing development),” says Chauhan, leaning onto a bicycle below the workshop’s first-floor windows, one of which is open and reveals a half open bottle of glue and blocks of wood.
The only other time they remember the windows open, says Sanjay Maurya, another first floor resident, is when Shivkumar Rajbhar, one of the workers at Vidyadhar’s workshop and who was the first to be arrested in the case, occasionally threw them open. “Sadhu (as Shivkumar was known) was the only one who would sometimes call and wave when he saw someone he knew,” says Maurya.
That the fabrication artists kept to themselves was the most common thing neighbours had to say about the five to six young men Vidyadhar employed at his studio. “Vidyadhar himself was almost always on the phone? Woh banda busy tha (He was a busy man),” says Chauhan.
Vidyadhar inhabited twin worlds, both far removed from each other. He had some of the biggest names in the art world visiting him at his studio. They would park their cars at the entrance of the chawl, like Upadhyay and Bambani did on the night they were killed and like she had done countless times before that, and walk down a kilometre or two to his workshop.
“Many of us have visited his studio at odd hours. The maze of bylanes in the Kandivali slum made it difficult for us to locate Vidyadhar’s studio but every time we had to visit him, he would pick us up and also drop us to our cars. He would carry a torch to show us the way so that we do not slip into the gutters that line the lanes,” says an artist who doesn’t want to be named.
Just like he had his mentors, Vidyadhar made sure he mentored his staff who worked with him and stayed on the ground floor of the two buildings. Shivkumar Rajbhar, 20, is said to be among his favourite workers. Shivkumar, who allegedly gagged the two victims, was the first to be arrested and it was his statement that set the police on Vidhyadhar’s trail.
“I had visited Vidyadhar’s studio around four months ago and he had assigned Shivkumar to assist me. Like Vidhyadhar, he too never made eye contact. And just like Vidyadhar, he never answered back if we ever pulled him up,” says an artist who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Vidyadhar and Shivkumar belong to the same village, Kavirampur, 25 km from Varanasi in eastern Uttar Pradesh, their homes about 100 metres apart. At his semi-pucca home, Shivkumar’s mother Chamela struggles to make sense of his arrest. “He had returned home on the morning of December 14 and had just begun brushing his teeth when those men (Special Task Force personnel) came and took him away. His father was away at work,” she says, as other villagers crowd around her. “He was a simpleton and never showed any wayward tendency,” says Pradeep Verma, a neighbour.
But Shivkumar did do something unusual on December 14. He came home without informing his family beforehand. Says his father Shivraj Rajbhar, a daily-wage labourer, “Shivkumar (alias Sadhu) had a mobile phone, and would often call us to inquire about our well-being. He would also call us before coming home. But this time he paid a surprise visit.”
The father is more worried about whether his son is “taking medicines for pain in the waist”. “There was some problem in his spine, and he was on treatment since August. I had sent him medicines worth Rs 1,200 a few months ago,” he says.
Kavirampur is dominated by Patels and Rajbhars, an OBC community that is mostly employed as semi-skilled labour in textile embroidery and carpet-making units. With local industry in shambles, most Rajbhars have migrated to Surat to work in the textile or diamond industry. Shivraj’s elder son Ravi works in an embroidery unit in Surat. But Shivkumar, says his father, went to work in Mumbai “on the insistence of Vidyadhar”. “He first went to Mumbai in early 2013 to work with Vidyadhar. He quit about six months ago and joined his brother Ravi in Surat, because he was more interested in embroidery. There is also a sizeable Rajbhar community from Varanasi living there. But he quit again, and returned to the village, due to the pain in his waist and my ill health,” he says.
Two-and-a-half months ago, Vidhyadhar, says Shivraj, visited the village, “and insisted Shivkumar work with him in Mumbai again”. “It was on his insistence that I allowed Sadhu to return to Mumbai,” he continues.
He has not tried to get in touch with Vidyadhar’s family in the village. “Hum mazdoor hain, woh maalik hain, woh hamari kya madad karenge? (We are labourers, they are our employers, why will they help us?),” says Shivraj.
Vidyadhar’s ancestral home in the village, also a semi-pucca structure, is much larger than that of Shivkumar. His father Vanshraj, says his uncle Radhey Shyam Rajbhar, “left for Mumbai several years ago, when Vidya was just a kid”. “He was an artist and began working on his own. He never took any of his brothers or our sons there. Vidya too was in Mumbai since a very early age. The last he came home was for his marriage, nearly three-four years ago. In any case, they never stayed here for long,” he says.
Though Vanshraj move with his wife and children to Mumbai, and Vidyadhar also stayed with his wife and six-month-old daughter in the city, they never cut off contact with their village. They still own land there, and earn rent from a few rooms they let out to a two-wheeler agency, says Radhey Shyam.
It was apparently to collect rent that Savitra Devi, Vidyadhar’s mother, had visited the village from Mumbai a few days before December 11, the day of the double murder, says Radhey Shyam.
Says Asha Devi, a neighbour, “Vidya’s mother had come here nearly 10 days ago. She was his guardian. I am sure, if she was in Mumbai, whatever is being said would not have happened. She left two days ago, even though she did not have any ticket,” she says.
Rajendra Prasad Chaurasiya, who owns a cigarette shop at the entrance of the chawl, says Vijay Rajbhar, the tempo driver who allegedly drove the bodies of Upadhyay and Bambani to a drain nearby, also kept his vehicle parked outside Chaurasiya’s shop on the night of the murder.
Vijay’s home is in one of the four lanes that converge into the courtyard. Inside, his wife Saroj and son Vipin are watching a Hindi movie while curious neighbours peek in every few minutes. Saroj says Vijay never spoke to her about who he drove and where he drove them. All she remembers is that on Friday night, when Upadhyay was killed, her husband returned home at 9 pm and ate his dinner. “He was sleeping when the police came in the morning and took him away. I don’t know anything about his activities outside of home,” she says, turning back to watch the movie that’s playing on her TV.