The Metaphysics of Nostalgia

Artist Subodh Gupta’s new solo exhibition in Delhi is a walk down memory lane, through railway patris to the ubiquitous steel dabbas 

Published: 20th March 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 19th March 2022 02:59 PM   |  A+A-

At display, Mushroom cloud made with steel utensils. ( Photo | EPS)

At display, Mushroom cloud made with steel utensils. ( Photo | EPS)

Subodh Gupta calls himself the ‘railway boy’. As someone who was raised in a railway colony in Bihar’s Khagaul district, his growing-up years were spent quite literally next to the railway tracks. And so decades later, when this globally acclaimed artist decides to use railway tracks in his works, it feels like the most natural thing to do.

The railway patri features in his works for the first time at his latest art exhibition in Delhi titled Cosmic Battle. “Each time I would travel by train, I always wanted to recreate the steel patri or the railway track. After some research, I was able to source it and use it in this piece as a means of speaking to my earliest visual memories,” says the 57-year-old artist.

But at the latest show in Delhi’s Nature Morte Gallery at the Dhan Mill Compound, the artist has taken his love for steel dabbas several notches higher with his piece de résistance—the gigantic work titled ‘Cosmic Battle (II)’. Occupying the centre space is Gupta’s rendition of the cosmos—a treat to the visual senses with three large pots made of brass and steel, suspended from the ceiling, revolving and illuminating the space with its own light. 

Subodh Gupta 

Gupta and his group of six craftsmen have been working on his installation for almost eight years in his studio in Gurugram. Mentioning that he’s used principles of metaphysics while working on this piece, he says, “While making this work, I would often wonder that countless planets, numbers of moons are out there that exist unbeknownst to us. And yet, I always found myself returning to that Stephen Hawking quote, or at least the way I remember it, that whatever we have to find here. The interior layers of the found and scratched utensils appear to me as images from the cosmos.” 

In many ways, the exhibition Cosmic Battle feels like a journey into his own self and roots. As is evident from the work titled ‘Self Portrait’, a kinetic work which is a motley group of household utensils welded together on a raised platform. Even though there are a whole lot of steel and aluminum utensils piled up on an elevated platform, yet, there’s a method to the madness in Gupta’s creation.

There are rice grains strewn around the piece, bricks, and the railway tracks appear once again here. It could just pass off as the possessions of any quintessential Indian household.

At the ongoing Cosmic Battle, Gupta has cast his own body in bronze in a work of art titled ‘Torso’. The inspiration for this, he says, came from his trips to museums across the world. He says, “My work ‘Torso’ is a historical work. I’ve seen marble carved sculptures of chopped body parts exhibited at museums in different countries.

But I was particularly fascinated with the famous torso sculpture at the Vatican in Rome. I am also quite inspired by the famous sculptor Auguste Rodin who made the sculpture called ‘The Walking Man’.”

Be it the steel dabbas, the mushroom cloud made with steel utensils or the latest Cosmic Battle, Gupta is arguably one of India’s most celebrated artists whose seemingly complex work manages to speak to the common man. Perhaps because of his humble upbringing in Khagaul, Bihar. “After pursuing my Bachelor of Fine Arts in the College of Arts & Crafts, Patna, in 1988, I had to choose between Delhi and Kolkata for my next career move.

I chose Delhi simply because I could speak Hindi,” says the artist who became the first in 2008 to cross the million-dollar mark for his artwork ‘Saat Samundar Paar’ at a Sotheby’s auction. His journey from Khagaul to Delhi’s art circles has been a remarkable one, the stuff rags-to-riches stories are made of. After being denied admission to Delhi College of Art in 1990, Gupta took up a research scholarship from Lalit Kala Akademi which paid him `1,000 and allowed him to work out of Garhi studios.

That was roughly the time when MF Husain offered Gupta to apprentice under him in his studio in Faridabad. The offer included a space to stay besides working with the maestro. It was an attractive offer but Gupta politely denied saying, “If I am surrounded with such fantastic art, how will I create my own?.” Husain saab just patted his back. The late artist would surely be proud of this ‘railway boy’ from Patna who was referred to as the Damien Hirst of New Delhi in 2007 by The Guardian.

In the Limelight
Subodh Gupta’s solo shows 
International: 2018, Adda/Rendezvous, Monnaie de Paris, Paris, France
India: 2016, Anahad/Unstruck, Famous Studio, Mumbai,  (presented by Nature Morte)


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