A baby boom

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By Artist Chintan Upadhyay lets his babies do the talking for him, says Sushmita Biswas
  • Published 3.08.08

Chintan Upadhyay is obsessed with babies and he has been for a long time. He started out by creating innocent little creatures and moved on quickly to worldly, street-smart little tykes with mischievous eyes. Now, for their sins, he has created four-and-a-half feet giants, put them in cages and painted their tummies with Mughal and Rajasthani-style paintings.

Says Upadhyay: “My obsession with babies has changed. Earlier I depicted them as new-born infants. But with time they have developed a certain body language.”

Inevitably, his distinctive style has earned him a mix of kudos and brickbats. But he isn’t afraid of throwing in the extra gimmick when it’s needed. To publicise his latest exhibition, Pet Shop, he had himself photographed with a few large pillows to look as if he was in the last stages of pregnancy.

“He’s the Pope of pop art,” says Ashish Balram Nagpal, the owner of the eponymous gallery, where the show has just opened.

Call him gimmicky if you like but in May, Upadhyay’s oil and acrylic on canvas Smart Alec went under the hammer for $60,000, at the Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Day in New York. Last year he touched a personal record when his painting Mutants — (Sorry does not matter any more) was auctioned for a sky-high $74,880 at the Christie’s sale of Asian Contemporary Art in Hong Kong. That was several times over the modest reserve price of $19,200-$25,600 it was expected to fetch.

Do the numbers matter? Upadhyay reckons that Indian art is rising astronomically but feels it should be looked at as ‘a mere ripple’. Nevertheless, soaring prices do make a difference in some ways. Says Upadhyay: “Anything on this scale challenges and motivates the artist to do something interesting.”

The booming art world has meant that it has been a busy year for Upadhyay. In May he was on show at Galerie Natalie Seroussie in Paris with his solo exhibition titled New Indians. A few months earlier he put together Metastasis of Signs at Gallery Espace in New Delhi. The show included 18 paintings and a video installation.

Upadhyay says of his style of art: “My ideas are my style. Though critics find these stupid because of my use of fantasy elements, but I ask them to judge my work from my perspective."

Says Geetha Mehra, director, Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai: “I love the amalgam of traditional motifs with the contemporary form in Chintan’s work.”

Upadhyay has metamorphosed more than once during his career. He started as a painter, but he has shifted focus now to sculpture. “I am a painter first, but I like to bring my paintings and sculptures into the installations,” he says.

In his latest exhibition, the Mughal miniatures can be immediately linked to his roots in Rajasthan. “The whole idea of miniatures is to inject identity in them.’’

Upadhyay has been fixated on babies for several years now. He started doing his baby series in 2003 with the show Designer Babies at Mumbai’s Ashish Balram Nagpal Gallery. For his first show, he turned out large paintings of male babies (6ft x 6ft) which addressed the issue of genetic engineering.

From there he moved in different directions. His next series, Mutants – (Sorry does not matter any more), which showed at the Sarjan Art Gallery, Baroda, included two installations — Smart Alecs with six sculptures of male babies placed in a mirrored room and Pink Shop, which had paintings of babies as part of installation.

Upadhyay didn’t always dream of being an artist. He had witnessed the struggles of his father Vidhya Sagar Upadhyay, who was an abstract artist from Jaipur. “I decided never to take up art as a profession but I think it flourished in my genes,” he laughs.

He graduated in science and later he was eager to study architecture. But he was pulled back to the world of art. “After my graduation I started assisting my father at the Rajasthan Art College and got drawn to the endless possibilities of the artistic medium.” Upadhyay quickly grew out of his father’s shadow and went to Baroda to complete his MFA in painting from the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda in 1997.

Though he has been influenced greatly by the Baroda School of Art, he always wanted to carve out his own niche. Chintan stood out because of his unconventional approach and his cutting-edge works.

His first solo show in 1998 called This Has Been Done Before was held in Delhi’s Shahjehan Art Gallery. Here he had a message about piracy.

But it was his solo installation Commemorative Stamps in 2002 at the Ashish Balram Nagpal Gallery that shot him into the limelight. He painted the walls of the gallery with decorative motifs drawn from rural Rajasthan. He then made an installation with used stamps of popular icons like Mahatma Gandhi, Vivekananda, Mother Teresa and even Che Guevara.

Upadhyay is very concerned with female infanticide, which is still rampant in Rajasthan. To highlight this issue he did canvas paintings (acrylic and pastels) and two installations, Tetuaa Dabaa Do, last year at the Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur.

Besides doing solo shows, Upadhyay has also participated in collaborative shows with several contemporary Indian artists. He did a collaborative installation with his wife Hema in 2003 at the Chemould Art Gallery, Mumbai titled Made In China.

“The inspiration to do this show came when we visited Australia a few years ago and were surprised to find an influx of Chinese goods there,’’ he says. Back in India they used Chinese goods — from toys to electronic goods — for the installation which attempted to raise questions about mass production and reproduction.

Upadhyay also feels that it’s helpful that his wife is an artist. “Hema was in my class in Baroda for six years and we share suggestions on projects. The only input she keeps giving me now is to stop my babies and I advise her to be tolerant towards my work,” he says.

A normal working day for Upadhyay — who has a workshop in his house in Mumbai and another in Jaipur — means working in his studio in the mornings and an occasional evening session. When he’s not painting, he’s Net surfing to keep track of the latest in the art world.

Ashish Balram Nagpal says of Upadhyay: “He is one of the talented contemporary artists along with artists including Subodh Gupta and Bose Krishnamachari. He’s always tried to break rules and hates working within set parameters. It’s difficult to predict what he will do next,” he says.

Upadhyay is now gearing up for his next project, India, India, India — Have A Nice Day which will show at the Aicon Gallery, London, in September. He has large-scale plans for this and he aims to do an installation with 250 Nano cars and 250 Ambassadors – highlighting the issue of nuclear versus joint families and of how India is growing as a brand.

Before that he will also be doing a collaborative show with Thai and Indian artists at the Soul Flower Gallery, Bangkok in August. In December, he’ll be showing a sculptural installation at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in New Zealand.

And how does he react to the booming art prices? He philosophises: “As an artist, we cannot get bothered by market factors and must keep on doing our work.”