Subodh Gupta in the living space on the top floor of his Gurgaon studio in January.
All photographs by John Jervis for ArtAsiaPacific.

Subodh Gupta

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

After 25 minutes of fruitless trundling around the lanes of Sushant Lok, asking directions and avoiding wildlife, we bump into Subodh Gupta’s car and tailgate into his studio. A bold modernist structure completed five years ago, it’s an imposing sight amid the neoclassical developments infesting this suburb of Gurgaon, a booming but underregulated city just southwest Delhi. Pigs can be seen foraging for food in scrubland between luxury apartments, “pest control” is whitewashed in capitals across boundary walls, and signposts are, unfortunately, few and far between.

When Gupta was confronted by ambitious early designs for the studio by his friend, Mumbai architect Rajiv Saini, he was left wondering where he would find room to pursue his practice within its dynamic sculptural form. Architect and client came to an understanding—the facade would remain unchanged, but a simple, functional workspace would be created within. “Inside, the studio was the way I wanted it; outside was the way he wanted it,” Gupta recalls. And, on closer inspection, it’s apparent that the bulging exterior of faceted concrete peels apart at the edges to expose a functional box of brick and frosted glass behind.

We park up alongside an old red-brick shed that acts as an additional fabrication studio and is home to squirrels and casts. From the corners of the garden, amid a clutter of rusting iron girders and dusty pot plants, Gupta’s huge clay molds for Gandhi’s Three Monkeys (2008) stare out defiantly, each of the three warlike heads standing well over a meter tall. Just beside the parking spot, side by side, two great, flat-bellied hydras rear up, with a pair of wooden canoes resting incongruously across their midriffs. Nearby, the shape of a Hindustan Ambassador—the iconic 1950s car that has starred in many of Gupta’s works—can be made out beneath a tight canvas cover.

Canvases from the “Note to Self” series (2013– ) stacked up on a filing cabinet.

Bicycle wheels propped up against a basement wall.

Vintage shipping lights awaiting a role in Gupta’s work.

A length of rope coiled amid packing cases and casts.

We bustle quickly inside to escape the heavy, penetrating cold and, after some debate, follow Gupta’s spritely figure upstairs, past a mezzanine that houses an office for his assistants. Reaching his large, top-floor living space, there is a little brushed-steel kitchen in one corner, where a low orange chair sits in front of an easel, surrounded by tubes of paint and brushes on upturned crates. A broad desk takes up much of the opposite wall, covered in an impressive amount of clutter: a leather-bound book alongside its exact replica in white plaster, little bronze casts of cow-dung patties and a rather fetching Vivienne Westwood man bag. Paintings, finished and unfinished, are stacked up against the walls, many from Gupta’s current “Note to Self” series (2013– ). Over the last two years or so he has been celebrating the food that he has just consumed with a quick photograph of the plate, cutlery and leftovers, a ritual that amuses and exasperates Gupta’s wife and professional peer, Bharti Kher. Recently, he has begun to paint the results onto small canvases, many housed in delicate antique frames, creating what he describes as a “small diary” of his life. 

We—a handful of journalists and two gallery representatives—settle into the boldly striped sofas in the middle of the room alongside Gupta and Kher, accept some sweet coffee and catch our breath. “Everything Is Inside,” Gupta’s major midcareer retrospective, opened at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi the previous evening. The generous celebrations continued late into the night and dinner was finally taken in the early hours. Gupta and Kher—herself fresh from the launch of her solo show at Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum—are coming to the end of an extended campaign of production, and relief and exhaustion are mingled amid pleasure. Our question-and-answer session hovers politely around the subject of last night’s opening, with Gupta charming if a little elusive. Eventually, Kher and the others leave to visit her studio, and I get the chance to poke around. 

Though well lit by a little courtyard garden, the basement has the appearance of a large, disordered warehouse. A few old sculptures are propped against walls or packing cases, but the place is dominated by the myriad of vintage objects that Gupta hopes will one day find a role in future works. Half a dozen massive, milky shipping lights sit in a cluster on one area of the floor; a pile of broken chairs with cane seats are wedged next to the stairs; coils of rusting chain and old rope have been pushed into corners; some well-worn bicycle wheels lean on the wall alongside a battered milk urn with its looped handle, all “waiting for their moment to come,” as Gupta puts it. Sourced from junk stores, antique markets and scrapyards in whichever city he happens to be, these objects speak to him of the realities of lives in India, past and present, acting as muses to further creation. Striking among recent finds are three great bronze containers, each coming up to Gupta’s hip, which he found in Kochi. “I was told they were used in the mosques for people donating items or money—they could just throw anything in—and also for making and serving food. I don’t know how to use them in my work yet, or how to make them into art—that is something I’m struggling with, but I am hoping to find the answer.”

The studio’s cluttered basement.

A mold from Gandhi’s Three Monkeys (2008) pushed up against the boundary wall.

The studio’s main entrance.

Moving up to the ground floor, things are more serene. Having acted as a holding bay for works on their way to his retrospective, the hangar-like space is now almost empty, leaving a few works in fortuitous isolation around its sides. A triptych of polished metal plaques, from which bunches of stainless-steel utensils explode, adorns one wall. A little farther down, a fully encumbered kitchen rack hangs, every slot jammed with shining steel plates, but with a few enamel pans dangling from its edges, adding a rare splash of warm color. Opposite, dozens more pieces of this alluring enamelware are suspended on lengths of rope from a tall wooden cupboard. Unlike most of the utensils in Gupta’s work, their connotations are more romantic than utilitarian: “They come from south India, around Chennai, but weren’t made in India: some come from Switzerland, some from England—all across Europe. When I saw them in the shop and asked why they had not been used, it turned out that, in the 1950s, families in the area used them as the dowry at weddings. They remained pristine, and now, finally, those families are selling them in the markets.”

Slotted into pockets of space throughout the studio are casts and molds used in the production of past work. To Gupta, such mementos are like the sketches for a painting: “When the process is good, and it is something I like, with good memories, I like to keep the ingredients.” Perhaps most poignant is a waxy yellow fiberglass cast of a carefully bound suitcase, a relic of his work Kuwait to Delhi (2006), which memorializes and interrogates the act of migration. “I was always very curious when I saw people arriving back from the Gulf at Delhi airport, all with these beautifully tight, beautifully knotted bundles. I thought, what are they carrying inside? They are workers, tailors, laborers; they have spent two or three years abroad, and finally have come home, and even a small toy, or perhaps some lipstick, or another gift for their family, becomes so prestigious, so important, that they have tied their belongings up, so that everything is inside. That’s how the title of my show came about.”

In a few months, a new, larger studio will be ready ten minutes away. While his current quarters will retain a role in his painting practice, this additional space will allow him “to make a noise and create bigger, smaller, whatever.” For Gupta, space equals freedom. But, despite this apparent lack of nostalgia for the building that has nurtured his career over the last few years, the diverse histories of its accumulated pots and pans are savored, the various relics scattered around us from past works are treasured, and tales of haggling at a Madrid flea market for an old velvet-bound album are recounted with obvious pleasure. It is perhaps this eloquent tally of objects, rather than any physical location, that provides the genuine context to Gupta’s work.

Colorful enamel kitchenware dangles from a long wooden cupboard on the ground floor.