Canvas of empathy: Contemporary artists Bharti Kher, Subodh Gupta create signature works to raise funds for COVID relief

The works on sale were shaped during the second lockdown. Gupta was recovering from a bad bout of Covid.
Contemporary artists Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher
Contemporary artists Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher

The artist’s role is to be a witness. We use what we see and observe to create art as we respond to the world around us,” says the celebrated Bharti Kher, who along with her husband Subodh Gupta dedicates the proceeds of their show to Covid relief operations across India. The First Couple of Contemporary Indian Art is known to step up in times of crisis to help distressed Indians. This time, through the platform, the artists sold nine new signature works—the entire proceeds going to Covid relief. 

The works on sale were shaped during the second lockdown. Gupta was recovering from a bad bout of Covid. Kher and he were aware of the collapse of India’s health infrastructure and appreciated the fact that they had the means to access good medical care. Meanwhile, the neverending cries for help on social media disturbed them deeply. “How will the less fortunate among us survive this medical meltdown? Since we couldn’t help anyone physically, we decided to assist affected people financially. Artists are sensitive people and we respond because we choose to,” says Kher. In 2008, when flood ravaged Gupta’s home state Bihar, the couple formed a group of 31 contemporary artists to raise `3.93 crore through an Artists Flood Relief Charity Auction of their works. 

In art, as in every creative form, past muses resurface as markers to interpret the age of anguish. This time, Kher has invoked the inspiration of 1995 when her signature ‘bindi’ made its first appearance on her canvas. The bindi, or bindu, in Indian tradition and culture, is both material and motif. The artist uses it to transform all surfaces in her sculptures and paintings. To Kher, it has cartographic and psychological relevance. While conceiving a series of five paintings named ‘A Small World Together’, she made a collage of bindis of different colours, shapes and sizes placed on a world map. “The maps represent the outer body or the skin, and the bindis form a complex communication system of inner wisdom and the cells of the body. They mark journey, time, place and space. The body travels between them. At this moment in time when travel is not possible, art becomes a psychological map,” reveals Kher. 

Gupta’s works, as usual, use his artistic staples—everyday kitchen utensils—to make a larger point about the familiarity of hope in the middle of trauma. Four art peices titled Langar, A Bouquet of Flowers, My Village I and II, offer a dialogue between the functional and humble elements in domestic life. The kitchen has gained more importance during lockdowns with the centrality of home.

Of the two sculptures, ‘Steel Flowers’ represents empathy, while Langar, says the artist, “is a homage to the spirit of feeding and welfare that Sikhs honour with inclusivity and humanitarian aid.” At the same time, the two paintings are a departure of sorts from his past formal style. “It’s simplified, but with a touch of both celebration and melancholy. Artists are used to working and being alone for long periods of time. It’s how we find our language. The scale perhaps has changed. We’ve become more introspective as we feel the collective grief of fellow Indians. Retrospection teaches us a lot about ourselves,” Gupta believes. 

An artist is a translator of the world he sees with singular imagery. As the bodies burn in nameless, countless crematoriums, ‘The Lonely City’ series by Gupta—shown in 2019—is like a premonition of the pain to one. The series was inspired by painful photographs of the Amazon forest burning. They anguished him so much that he turned to making large landscapes in which the inferno paints the canvas orange and grey as a sooty sky looks down helplessly on trapped trees. 

The show opened online on June 1. The funds collected will be channelled through the Hemkunt Foundation and Goonj to aid Covid relief. There are many things in India that need saving right now and art will survive, too, believe the artists. But they also fear that it will be pushed down on the scale of priority. “I hope people remember that art can heal,” Gupta says, as Kher adds, “Our future generations depend on literature, historical texts, art, design and architecture. These are what we tentatively hold on to.”

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The New Indian Express