Chintan Upadhyay, the provocateur and rebel

Relying on the sensational but only to strike a dialogue, Chintan Upadhyay, say his contemporaries, wanted the viewer to sit up and take notice

In Baar Baar Kitni Baar, Chintan Upadhyay displayed petrol-blasted canvases, video projections of fire and drawings — all as a response to the Godhra carnage of 2002. The year was 2005 and the place was Sarjan Art Gallery, Baroda, when Upadhyay nude, eyes closed in a meditative stance, permitted viewers to smear haldi on him.

A work from Chintan Upadhyay’s latest exhibit, Gandi Baat
A work from Chintan Upadhyay’s latest exhibit, Gandi Baat

The ritual was meant to be empathetic; the exhibition, of the works and of the masculine body, was shocking.

However, to sum up Chintan Upadhyay, accused in the double murder of his estranged artist-wife Hema Upadhyay and her lawyer Haresh Bhambhani, as a master of sensation would be reductive. Born in 1972 in Partapur in Rajasthan and graduating from Baroda’s Maharaja Sayajirao University in 1997 with an MFA, the artist has delved into a range of media — from drawings on paper to massive fiberglass sculptures.

“He is one of our most important contemporary artists, someone who always sought out the humanist side to life, whether love or passion,” says visual artist Sanjeev Khandekar.

On Tuesday afternoon, Khandekar stood outside Borivli court to offer his support to Upadhyay, who he has known since 1997. Having authored a catalogue essay this year for Upadhyay’s first exhibition in Istanbul, Khandekar says he prefers Upadhyay’s drawings to his sculptural works. “There is more life in his drawings,” he says.

Upadhyay’s ongoing exhibit in New Delhi, where he settled while undergoing a messy divorce, is called Gandi Baat. This in fact, marks his partial return to drawings with a comment on sexuality and the male gaze. The images are stark and the text is unbridled. A bosomy woman shoos away men who stare at her with the help of expletives. Manhood is compared to popcorn. “For Chintan, art means debate. He sought out those discussions with the space that art offered,” says Ashish Balram Nagpal, gallerist and art dealer, at whose Juhu space Upadhyay has exhibited at time and again.

It was for reasons of dialogue again that he, along with artist Anish Ahluwalia, protested when the police asked a plastic cow floating 50 feet off the ground to be dismantled at the Third Jaipur Art Summit this November. On the behest of right-wing groups, Upadhyay was detained for three hours at the local police station.

A very close associate, Nagpal says of Upadhyay, “Since our association in 1998, I have seen him evolve tremendously as an artist. His early exhibition at my gallery, Commemorative Stamps, was of famous people in 3 x 4 feet stamps. My favourite was one of James Dean. From there, he moved on to creating babies.”

The infant, a leitmotif in Upadhyay’s works, is a trait he is most renowned for, right from his 2008 exhibition, Pet Shop, which saw baby sculptures in cages, to the gigantic baby head in Nariman Point, titled City of Dreams.

The latter, a public art piece unveiled last year, met with mixed reactions — some found it making a case for public art, while others found it plain grotesque.

Bose Krishnamachari, director of the Kochi Biennale, has an Upadhyay sculpture in his personal collection, and speaks of the artist’s connect with rural India. Sandarbh, a platform for rural artists in his hometown Partapur, “is an important organization for the local community and the village. It shows Chintan’s generosity to the public, and a lot of young artists have benefited from that,” says Krishnamachari, also present in court today.

The art community, making a case for his uprightness and innocence, waits for news about Upadhyay, the artist, art lover and estranged husband.

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