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Artist Profile1
How the two top artists of India share life and art together?
Both Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher are among India’s top-selling and internationally renowned contemporary artists. ‘The Skin Speaks a Language Not its Own’ (2006), a monumental work by her, created auction price record at Sotheby’s London. The large sculpture, done to a meticulous detail, portrays a female (Indian) elephant brought to her knees in what seems like an untenable position. It fetched $1,493,947 (around Rs7 crore), then setting a new benchmark for any female contemporary artist from India at auction. It, in fact, surpassed the auction price record for her husband Subodh Gupta, and reaffirmed her growing pre-eminence as a top contemporary practitioner with a unique vision.

Subodh Gupta too belongs to the new generation of artists who study and project the Indian identity on a global level. His wide oeuvre, incorporating paintings, sculptures, performance art and installations, subtly refers Indian tradition and changes taking place in the society. It presents peculiar and humble lifestyle in a recognizable visual idiom. The celebrated artist’s intriguing ideas take shape and materialize in various innovative media like steel, bronze, marble and paint, among others. Different materials and forms are brought into play for their intrinsic aesthetic virtues and as captivating conceptual signifiers, signifying diverse connotations.

He has been greatly fascinated by ubiquitous stainless steel utensils used in Indian kitchens. The mass-produced utensils like Steel lunch boxes or thali pans used in rural parts of India have played a major role in his creative processes. These utility objects project an ambiguous symbolism: whilst they are used in most households daily, they are seen as exotic and representative of the country’s culture in the West. Emblematic of the proletariat’s soaring aspirations, the unique path India has been following towards globalization, and the distinct place it now enjoys in the contemporary world, the ubiquitous items tend to take on a new connation in his canvases. He harnesses these hybrid associations, allowing them to quietly resonate in the viewers’ mind.

Themes, such as economic growth and materialism are intelligently conveyed through these objects that reflect partly his own life and memories, apart from dealing with everyday culture. They represent his concerns with fast-proliferating material culture as well as commoditization, and create quirky commentary on the values of rampant material production and consumption. On the other hand, Bharti Kher’s practice revolves around pangs of dislocation and transience, involving an autobiographical examination of identity. The evocative, deeply personal and layered images explore issues of tradition, identity and multiplicity. Her unique perspective and approach facilitates an outsider’s ethnographic observation of urban India - class and consumerist streaks - adding a new dimension to it.

Part of her immense international appeal is probably the highly developed sense of narrative, she exudes as an artist. While addressing a number of sensitive issues like class and consumerism, she draws on her personal experiences to reflect on these. The artist is known for her appropriation of the motif of bindi, a red dot on the forehead of married women in India, looked at as a curious fashion accessory in the West. Using the bindi as her leitmotif, she spins engaging narratives via the exploration of personal space, identity and consumerism confronting traditional Indian society. The tiny red decorative dot with ritualistic significance serves as a means of transforming surfaces and objects. It brings to her practice a wide range of connotations and meanings in context of both historical and contemporary time frames.

The bindi transcends its peculiar mass-produced diminutiveness to become a powerful symbolic and stylistic device, creating visual richness, leading to a multiplicity of meanings in her work. Bharti Kher is also known for her majestic menagerie of resin-cast animals, covered with it. Born and brought up in Britain, and having studied at Newcastle Polytechnic there, her extensive practice includes sculpture, photography, video, assemblage and collage. The artist has lived and worked in India for close to two decades, since 1993. Though she does not like to call herself a feminist, female identity remains a key element of her work. The truth is, she has stated, there’re fewer successful women artists (in India) who have managed to reach this stage financially.

While on trip to see her extended family, she fell in love with Subodh Gupta. Incidentally, she had been to India only once prior to that visit. The two got married and now have two children. For them, there are seldom any off-topics at home; art and markets are mostly dinner-table talk. Summing up the essence of their fruitful life as artists and as a happily married couple, Gayatri Rangachari Shah of The New York Times narrated in an essay: “When Wallpaper magazine published a limited-edition cover of the two powerhouse artists posing in traditional Indian wear, the photo was, in her words, “so clichéd, I titled it, ‘In another life.”’ The cover was true to form for the both who use traditional references expressly to create works of art that turn conventions upside down. This is where the similarities between the two artists end - the works themselves are wildly different. But they say the fact that they share the same profession fuels their creativity.”

Though the two artists are often invariably compared to each other, both tend to tackle their themes and work differently. If she mulls over and considers her ideas for long periods, he, once inspired, goes about it and works quickly. Though Subodh Gupta and and Bharti Kher tackle their themes and work differently, the fact that they share the same passion spurs their creativity and increases understanding as well.