Among the works that sold out at the India Art Fair (IAF), the country’s largest exhibition-cum-sale of art held annually in Delhi, was an eccentric series with portraits of Marilyn Monroe, an unknown Indian boy, and the artist herself painted on layers of cigarettes. “Step closer, there’s something more beneath the obvious,” says Vinita Dasgupta, 30. On a second look, the “cigarettes” turn out to be canvas strips rolled into hollow pipes of various sizes. They are pasted together to create an undulating surface, giving Dasgupta’s paintings a three-dimensional appearance.
Dasgupta has been selling out since she was a student at College of Art, New Delhi, in the early 2000s and the red dots at IAF have only sealed her place among the promising names of her generation. Relaxing in her studio, she looks less arty and more airy. No intellectual handlooms or ethnic jewellery; instead, she is a Delhi girl with straightened and streaked hair, a nose ring and four tattoos.
“I like to show the invisible in my works,” says Dasgupta. Each roll of canvas, she points out, contains icons or scenes from mythology — Rama and Krishna, Radha and the gopis — and Sanskrit shlokas, so that a painting is made up of many other rolled-up miniatures. “I was looking for a new style when a friend gifted me earrings made from bits of Coke cans twisted together,” she says.
Into this pop inspiration, Dasgupta fused images from Indian spirituality. “I am a seeker of spiritual truths. I travel to Dharamsala and Varanasi regularly to meditate. And I travel alone,” she says. Even the tattoo on her thumb has spiritual significance. “It’s the female moon sign in Chinese and is shaped like an Om,” she says.
As a child — when her first name was still Dipannita, which she changed in school without telling her parents — Dasgupta learnt Kathak, classical music, cooking and painting, participated in almost every activity in school and won lots of prizes, had friends but also spent a lot of time by herself. Consequently, her artwork looks inwards. Almost every series Dasgupta has produced since she turned professional in 2008 include reflections of herself.
Of these, My Window Shut to Open (2010) comprise acrylics, digital and mixed media juxtaposing a world as of candy coloured consumerism — through motifs such as lipsticks, multiple telephones, stilettos, shorts and sleeveless tops — with symbols such as the Taj Mahal (“my ode to builders who build great cities but go unnoticed”) and traffic signals (“It is only at red lights that we get a chance to look at people who live on the streets”). “When I was working on this series, I was always deep in thought. I would watch TV and talk to people, but when that external conversation stopped, the inner conversation would begin,” she explains.
Dasgupta was among the toppers in the entrance exam at College of Art and she proceeded to spend her four undergraduate years metaphorically colouring outside the lines. “I would sit in the postgraduate class and hang out with seniors. I was constantly learning from those above me,” she says. Professors began to teach the new students on smaller canvases but Dasgupta regularly turned in large-scale works with strong, almost masculine, brush strokes. She also holds the distinction of winning the Women’s Athlete award four years in a row.
Dasgupta’s first solo, in 2009, was titled “Fashion and Attitude: Womanhood under Scanner”. Befitting a post-liberalisation youngster, she tackled a different kind of existentialism from those of an earlier generation of artists. One of her works revolved around wardrobe malfunctions, with a traffic signal of the left glowing red. In another, Dasgupta contrasts the sashay of a model to the steady steps of women labourers carrying construction material on their heads. The exhibition sold out, which still surprises Dasgupta. “Maybe the buyers shared my vision,” she says.
Since then, she has held four more solos as well as 200 group shows in India and internationally, with Delhi-based Art Konsult representing her since 2009. This year’s IAF was the first time that Galleria Art Lounge from Lisbon displayed her works, with successful results. The gallery has planned a solo of her works in Lisbon this autumn.