The Times October 10, 2009
- Ginny Dougary

His swaggering, exuberant work has made him India’s most talked-about artist, and the paintings of his wife, Bharti Kher, are also winning wide acclaim

India’s hottest contemporary artist, Subodh Gupta, dubbed the “Damien Hirst of Delhi” — they share an interest in skulls — is telling me that he likes his wife and fellow artist, Bharti Kher, as a friend. Sorry, could you repeat that? “I like Bharti more like my friend than my wife . . .” Kher, who is sitting with us in her husband’s newly built concrete and glass ultra-modern studio, nods her head. Hang on a minute, when you say that you like Bharti more as a friend than you do as a wife . . . ? “Revelation!” Kher cocks her head. “No! No!” Gupta (whose English is a little approximate) exclaims. “You’ve made me confused now. When we talk about art, it’s like a friendship, no? And then domestic work is completely different, and that’s irritating sometimes . . .” OK, but let’s get this straight: you are pleased you married each other? Gupta: “Yeah.” Kher: “Oh, yeah.” Whew, just checking. “Talk about Lost in Translation,” Kher whoops. “Good job I’m here, really!”

This conversation took place during a long, sweltering day in Gurgaon — an hour’s drive southwest of Delhi — where the couple work and live with their two children, Omi, 12, and Lola, 6. Since General Electric opened its call centre there in 1997, shiny high-rise buildings have been sprouting one after the other, transforming what was once a small farming village into one of the most prominent outsourcing hubs. En route to Kher’s studio, we drove past a building site advertising a new five-star Westin; across the way a couple of pigs snuffled in a mound of rubbish, and a cow moseyed past.

While Gupta is the couple’s undoubted superstar — last year his London gallery, Hauser & Wirth, sold two versions of his Mind Shut Down for €1 million each and, as his wife says, there hasn’t been a recent Biennale that hasn’t featured him — Kher’s work is also commanding attention. She was one of the artists featured in the Serpentine Gallery’s recent Indian Highway (along with Gupta) — India having replaced China as the global art flavour of the month, with Charles Saatchi’s forthcoming contemporary Indian show (featuring Gupta again) — and has her own solo debut with Hauser & Wirth in 2010.

Gupta’s work displays a swaggering, rock’n’roll exuberance: his towering mushroom cloud, constructed from his trademark stainless steel pots and pans, at Tate Britain’s Altermodern certainly made an impact. As did his huge skull, Very Hungry God, bought by François Pinault and displayed outside the French billionaire’s Palazzo Grassi, at the 2007 Venice Biennale. This was the same month, June, that Damien Hirst showed his diamond-encrusted, deity-invoking human skull — For the Love of God — at White Cube.

When I ask the Indian artist whose skull was conceived of first, he says that he started work on his project the previous year (where it was exhibited in Paris). Aha, so should we be calling Hirst the Subodh Gupta of England? “I have a lot of respect for him,” he laughs. “Art is in the air. Theme, subject, everything is in the air. It’s just a matter of time who begins first.”

His work, like Kher’s, can be delicate and beautiful, too, but despite its authentic Indian flavour — or occasionally stinging subversion of what we, Westerners, consider to be “authentic Indian” — the effect is sometimes a bit obvious. In his new show, the referential nods are overt: a black bronze bust of Duchamp’s moustachioed Mona Lisa; the stack of Puppy boxes, emblazoned with the name Jeff Koons.

Just as Gupta’s staples are the stainless steel tiffin sets, cow dung and milk pails; Kher’s Indian trademark is the bindi, the women’s forehead decoration. She leads me into a room where one of her assistants, a slight woman in a sari, starts to peel away a plastic sheet protecting a huge canvas, every surface covered in brightly coloured swirls of what look like felt spermatozoa. The effect is dazzlingly gorgeous but also odd; like something scientific, maybe sinister, the origins of a mutating virus, perhaps, picked up under the microscope.

On the top floor, there’s a work in progress: a cascade of chairs, some stacked, others fallen; a chintzy tea cup in broken shards, a scattering of pearly teeth, a pair of high-heeled shoes; the sense of a genteel occasion that has gone awry. On a shelf, protected by a glass box, is a tarantula that I last saw resting on the hand of one of Kher’s horn-headed, fibreglass models. She strokes its furry legs and tells me how beautiful she finds it, partly, I suspect, because of its poisonous reputation.

Her parents came to England in 1967, two years after they married. Kher’s mother was 23 when she arrived, pregnant with her first child — and able to speak only Punjabi. Bharti, the middle child, made the reverse trajectory at the same age, barely able to speak a word of Indian, and says it was only then that she realised “what courage it took to just get up and leave everything to start your life again. It made me understand my parents a lot better.”

When Kher was 6, her parents separated amicably and remarried English people: “So we have this quirky, nutty family where we all meet and holiday together.” She recalls loving the flocked wallpaper in her childhood home — “I used to sit there and stroke it” — and her mother’s sari shop in Streatham, South London, where Bharti and her elder sister, Mona, would help every Saturday. The girls would take down roll after roll of material and Kher can still recall the precise sound of the fabric when it was unfurled, and the whip-like rip as they would cut it.

The privately educated Kher sisters were taught by an inspirational art teacher, Martin Shaw, at Greenacre School for Girls in Epsom, Surrey, and both went on to art college: a foundation course at Middlesex, followed by St Martins for Mona and Newcastle for Bharti. What was that like? “Very tough the first year. Newcastle [like Surrey] is also very white. I lived in a small house in Gateshead and on my first night I thought I was going to get mugged on my way home. I have never been so terrified in my life.”

After leaving college, Kher moved in with her father in Hampstead and painted in a studio that he organised for her, next door to his textile-importing office in the West End. But unsatisfied and restless, Kher decided to take off travelling: “I hadn’t been to India since a visit when I was 4, so I thought I should see my grandmother.”

Her plan was to spend some time with her family, meet some artists in Delhi, and return to England when her six-month visa ran out: “But within two weeks of being here, I’d bumped into Subodh.” They fell in love and that was that.

But it wasn’t that straightforward, as Gupta explains when we move from Kher’s workspace to her husband’s impressive studio. We break for a basic but delicious lunch: beetroot and spinach-stained chapatis to dip into bowls of yoghurt and vegetable curry, washed down with a sulphurous-tasting black-salt lime soda.

Kher takes off and her husband resumes their story. Her father, perturbed by the news that his daughter had taken up with “some kind of criminal”, flew in to Delhi and demanded to see him. Gupta recalls: “So he sits down and says, ‘My daughter wears Coco perfume which cost three and a half thousand rupees, so where can you give it to her? It’s unrealistic.’ Then he said, ‘Can you paint?’ I say, ‘Of course I can paint.’ He said, ‘Do you paint very closely or do you go distance sometimes?’ I say, ‘Of course I go distance sometimes.’ He says, ‘Well, you see my daughter very closely and now I am taking her … so you see her from a distance. And if you still like her from a distance, I will bring her back.’ So he just took her and I was suffering with shock, and she was not happy either.”

Fortunately, his beloved’s mother took pity on her pining daughter and paid for her ticket back to India. Years later, Kher had told me, her father turned to her and said, ‘Sometimes, you know, you just meet your soulmate’ and that’s what happened. But then because we were so different, it was: ‘Where is this connection?’, ‘How are you communicating?’ ”

They may both be Indian, but their backgrounds, it is true, could scarcely be more different. Gupta’s tales of his childhood and teenage years are wonderfully rich. He was born (one of six children) in the northeastern state of Bihar, which he describes as the Wild West of India. His father, a railway guard, was a drinker and died in his early forties, when Gupta was 12. His mother, who came from a farming family, sent him off to live with her brother for a few years in a remote village — “Not a single school kid wore shoes, and there is no road to go to school. Sometimes we stop in the field and we sit down and eat green chickpea before we go to school — it comes in my memory like a movie. Fantastic! My kids, when I tell them, will not believe it because they live a very urban lifestyle.”

At night, villagers would water the huge communal roof to cool it down before placing their mattresses. “So all the families, after eating their dinner, would meet on the roof and go to bed. It was good fun — fantastic! — a great memory to have.”

After leaving school, Gupta joined one of the four small theatre groups in Khagaul and worked as an actor for five years. He also designed posters to advertise the plays, which is when it was first suggested that he go to art college. He ended up working as a part-time newspaper designer and illustrator while studying at the College of Art, Patna. The day he was offered a permanent job by the newspaper, he packed it in to try his luck in Delhi, where he was awarded a scholarship by a government-run initiative, and a space to work in the Ghari Studios.

This is where Kher met Gupta, who explains that “most of the artists in India in the generation above us have been through those studios”.

At that time, Gupta was painting typical Indian scenes, but it wasn’t until 1996, and his first residency, that he came into his own. “It was a very peaceful place and I collected my childhood memory to do what I wanted to do. My first installation was called 29 Mornings,” Gupta says. “With 29 stools, where I would eat my breakfast, lunch and dinner, and in one corner of the room there was a bulb and a black wire hanging, and some of that what the spider makes … web.”

Since then, Gupta’s career hasn’t looked back, sparked as it was by that single act of looking backwards. Part of his education was a stint in England in 1999 when, after another residency in the Gasworks Gallery, South London, Gupta was offered four months in a brewery in Kendal: “A fantastic place to be! Countryside, rain, pub, beer — I love it.”

Gupta is at his most fluent when he talks about the rationale behind his art, The relevance of the skull in Indian culture, with the sadhus who “sometimes eat the flesh of the burning human to make them powerful and carry the human skull. You don’t see that anymore so much.” Why he uses the stainless steel utensils, again and again: “The poor, the middle class and the rich use it at home. In this country, how many people have the utensils but they starve because there is no food?”

Kher returns, and I ask her why she thinks there is such interest in India. “In the way that China [was picked up on], people felt that India is a country one needs to look at … The thing is that although these shows are very useful, at the same time, you know, you shoot yourself in the foot.”

Could she explain? “It’s fantastic but no artist is ‘overall’ or ‘generic’. One wants people to go in deeper. You don’t want them to read the synopsis of the book, and then not read the actual book.”

* * *

Common Man, Subodh Gupta at Hauser & Wirth, London W1 (hauserwirth.com), until October 31

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