Dozens of woollen garments are stitched together into piles and spread across the gallery floor and walls. Stuffed forms are bundled together with ropes that intertwine their fate, like the faceless people, who do everyday work in the periphery. “In an urban space we are all strangers, scared of each other’s strangeness,” says Chintan Upadhyay. These faceless forms seem to suggest a departure from the artist’s trademark sculptures of babies, through whom he addressed multiple concerns, but Upadhyay differs. “These works have a childlike and playful projection, although with a dark shade. The boxes with stuffed garments are like toys. So in a way these metaphors are not divorced from the spirit of my previous works,” says the 42-year-old, who has drawn from his own experiences for the solo titled “Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron-Redux” at Gallery Espace.
The medium is a tribute to childhood memories of his mother selling knitted garments. Living in a one-room home in Jaipur, for the family of five this was a cooperative engagement, where everyone chipped in. “Even guests used to end up winding the yarn ball,” says Upadhyay. He points to a knitted red woollen in the shape of a caterpillar, enclosed in a box. “My sister made this. The box denotes the confined domestic space that could get suffocating,” he says. Another seven-foot sweater Weigh me up Weigh me down, suspended from a weighing scale, has been knitted by his mother and several others with seconds purchased from Delhi’s Sarojini Market.
The solo in India comes after five years, a long hiatus for a mid career artist, who has shifted from Mumbai to Delhi. Last year, he had even proposed using his Green Park home as an exhibition space, but neighbours protested, anticipating crowds. “In some ways you are a mere spectator in your own house,” says the Charles Wallace Foundation Award recipient.
Son of abstract expressionist Vidyasagar Upadhyay, he had seen his father struggle to make ends meet. “I had decided never to take up art as a profession but I think it flourished in my genes,” he says. So even though he enrolled to graduate in science, soon he was assisting his father at the Rajasthan Art College. Followed by art education at MS University of Baroda, Upadhyay was in Mumbai to pursue his artistic dreams.
The big break came in 2002, with the solo “Commemorative Stamps”. Two years later, babies became his leitmotif — from being innocent onlookers (Take Me Home series, 2004) to hybridised products of modern day world (Mutants series, 2006), from Smart Alec babies they became Chintu. Through them he discussed a range of issues, from female infanticide to morality and gender politics. The palette too changed, from miniature paintings on their large heads to Japanese Manga and traditional Shekhawati wall paintings. In 2009, he took the babies for a bath when he dipped them in Mumbai’s effluent-laden Mithi river. “The filth created its own texture. Some works were deformed and there was coating of muck on others,” says Upadhyay.
The outing was described as gimmicky, but Upadhyay is no stranger to criticism. His nude act in 2005 invited considerable wrath. Empathising with the angst of the victims of the 2002 Godhra riots, Upadhyay sat nude at Sarjan Art Gallery in Vadodara. Viewers were invited to daub him with turmeric kept by his side. “During the post-Godhra riots men were stripped to identify which religion they belonged to. I wanted to reconstruct the incident differently,” says the artist.
While several international outings are lined-up for the rest of the year, Upadhyay is also occupied with Sandarbh, his non-profit organisation that brings artists from India and the world to Partapur in Rajasthan. “Our focus will shift from residencies to projects. We will make a sort of network connecting Delhi, Partapur and Mumbai,” he says.
Waiting at the studio are more than a couple of unfinished babies. Upadhyay intends to return to them in a few months. “I like to leave them alone for a bit,” he says. In the spotlight will be one particular baby — a
10-feet Chintu, which will be installed at Nariman Point in Mumbai next month. This, too, will depict personal memories — of Mumbai, which was the artist’s home for more than a decade.
The exhibition is on at Gallery Espace, 16, Community Centre, New Friends Colony until May 31. Contact: 26326267