Inside Subodh Gupta’s India

Rife with inner and outer meaning, Subodh Gupta’s work introduces viewers to an India as exotic as a kitchen sink.

In America, India equals spicy food, the sensual red forehead dots known as bindis, and the Taj Mahal. Subodh Gupta’s India, on the other hand, is metal and tin and everything kitchen. More grounded and functional than America’s India, Gupta’s India is beautiful nonetheless.

In America, India equals spicy food, the sensual red forehead dots known as bindis, and the Taj Mahal. Subodh Gupta’s India, on the other hand, is metal and tin and everything kitchen. More grounded and functional than America’s India, Gupta’s India is beautiful nonetheless.

Though Gupta has masterful control of a brush and oil paint and has dabbled in cow dung—the basest of materials used in daily India life—he has made his mark with metals. Gupta frequently uses pots and pans in his work, and is particularly fond of tiffin pots. The shiny vessels are used by the majority of Indians to carry lunch to school or work. While these pots hit a familiar note with Gupta’s Indian cohorts, they would pack a heftier American punch if they had He-Man, G.I. Joe, or Barbie impressed and painted on them. As it is, Gupta’s use of tiffin pots and other kitchen items come across to American viewers as little more than an aesthetically pleasing gathering of kitchen necessities.

After grappling with Gupta’s sculptures and images, America doesn’t gain an immediate appreciation for the Indian culture. America needs some help—a point of reference. In comes the explanation cards found in many museums. Once it’s clear that Gupta didn’t make a huge skull (Very Hungry God) out of nondescript metals but rather with items that are very practical and commonplace in India, it clicks.

Suddenly, waking up, making a cup of coffee, and going to work become art. The placement of pots and pans hanging over the kitchen island begins to matter. Tools that were once thought to serve only their intended purposes are given newfound respect. Unintentionally, Gupta opens the door for Americans to redecorate the green way—with found objects. And when visitors come to these home-cum-museums, the objects are centerpieces. Visitors relate to them. Because at one point they, too, collected Garbage Pail Kids cards, mutilated and burned G.I. Joe characters, switched Barbie heads, were fascinated with antique phones, and had love affairs with copper pots.

So the museums will grow. All the while, Gupta will continue working in India, turning the everyday, the mundane, the useful, and the trite into something familiar and relevant in India. During the sculpting process, he’ll wonder if the new piece will translate to foreigners. He’ll make a guess and tweak the piece to accommodate his speculation. And he’ll be a little bit off, because he will always tell the unromantic story of India in his native tongue. But his growing American audience will be grateful. Not because Gupta unlocked the secrets of ancient Urdu poetry, but for something much simpler.

Gupta’s India will become the American art viewer’s India, and it will infest their lives. In the kitchen, in the subway station, in the computer laboratory—Gupta will be there, toiling long and hard, looking up with a knowing expression. And as long as the significance and usefulness of objects is remembered, Gupta will remain in America’s conscience and will help transform India from foreign to familiar.

Published at scopepress.com.