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Interview with Indian Artist Subodh Gupta

Aired December 23, 2011 - 05:30:00   ET



SARA SIDNER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: (voiceover): Inside this studio in Gurgaon, India, stand some unique pieces of art. Remnants of sculptures that have featured in high-profile galleries and auction houses around the world.

And they all come from the imagination of this man - Subodh Gupta. Born and raised in India's poorest state, Bihar, Gupta is now counted among India's top contemporary artists. Best known for his eclectic style and use of cooking utensils, his work often explores the ride so the Indian middle class.

But it's the wealthier classes that are paying attention, now. His pieces, once worth just a few hundred dollars, and now auctioned for hundreds of thousands.

Even the Bolshoi Ballet has had him design their set and their dancers' headwear for a recent performance.

Despite his current success, it was this painting that would see Gupta cement his place in the international art world. Selling for $1.2 million, the sale saw Gupta become the youngest Indian artist to pass the $1 million sale mark in auction. A sure sign that Gupta and the demand for Indian art were on the rise.

This week on "Talk Asia", we're invited into Subodh Gupta's studio to find out about his meteoric rise and why he turned down work from India's most revered artist, M. F. Husain.


SIDNER: I'd like to welcome you to "Talk Asia".


SIDNER: You have had quite a meteoric rise, compared to what some artists struggle and for how long they, sort of, struggle to become well known, prominent. Why do you think that is?

GUPTA: I will give the credit for my fan. The people whom I work with, you know. And I tell you, first when - I was first time I get invited in Japan, in 1999, the critic came and asked me, so they invited me to the Cannes (ph) Jubinale (ph).

And then I went to Cannes (ph) Jubinale (ph), there was one French critic, while having a dinner together. And he saw my works. He liked my work very much. And he said, "I like to invite you to Rome for my show". And he was Nicola (ph) Boreos (ph), critic from France. And everything start happening. Yes.

SIDNER: Was that, do you feel, your break into the world market? Into the international market?

GUPTA: In Western and European world, yes, that was my break.

SIDNER: You've been called "the Damien Hirst of India".

GUPTA: Yes, I don't know why.

SIDNER: What do you think about that? What do you think about these comparisons?

GUPTA: I respect Damien Hirst as an artist. I respect them all, this genius. And they've done something - wonderful art in their own field. But I have no idea why people comparing with me and him, but, well, one writer wrote it long time ago, and then everybody copy about it. So, OK, let it go. I don't care about it.

SIDNER: I want to ask you about "Very Hungry God", because this piece has really stood out in the world as very unique and amazing when people see it with all sorts of different pieces that you put together. How did you come up with this idea?

GUPTA: When you keep watching TV and you keep watching about war and war and war - as a human being, as an artist, you can't escape that. It stay with you, no matter what you do. And I'm not a political artist, but sometime subconsciously, art also move in that direction. And it's happen to me. And "Very Hungry God" is a result of that.

SIDNER: Damien Hirst's work - because he also has a skull - his work went for a heck of a lot of money. We're talking hundred million. And your work? What do you think about the difference in price between -

GUPTA: We should never comparison to the price, first of all, as an artist. And don't forget, I live in the third world country. And still I live and work in Gurgaon, outside of suburb in Delhi. This man made it for himself and he's - he's a genius, what he does in his own practice. And for that, I have no problem at all. And end of the day, artwork is the most important thing.

SIDNER: What are you trying to say with some of your pieces? I want to ask you, particularly, about this installation, "Pure". Which was pretty risque. You covered yourself in cow dung and then slowly had it washed off you. What were you trying to say with that particular piece?

GUPTA: Well, this is a performance piece. I tried to depict my childhood memory to my other life where I live right now. And what a childhood I grew up with richer life. In Hinduism, there is lots of belief. And how the belief can change the motive of object. Or even - any other things.

How cow (EXPLETIVE) become so ritual and spiritual --

SIDNER: And pure?

GUPTA: -- and pure. So that's only come through belief. And how the belief can change the whole mind and motive. And then even you touching it and covering it, you don't feeling bad, because your mind is more powerful with that belief - combining that. And that's the miracle happen. And that's - I try to depict in that video, basically, about "Pure".

SIDNER: Marcel Duchamp, the French surrealist who really became quite famous when he displayed a public urinal in 1917.

GUPTA: Yes, exactly.

SIDNER: People have compared your work to his work. He was sort of questioning "What is art?". What are you trying to do with yours? And do you appreciate that comparison?

GUPTA: I love that comparison. Because I respect this man, I mean, wow. He's a hero of the art world, who changes the whole thought - whole perspective. If somebody comparison me with that, that will be proud moment for me, you know?

SIDNER: Your art, though, seems to be much more contemplative. I mean, you're putting pieces together. You're not just displaying something singly, by itself, generally speaking.


SIDNER: Tell me about what you use in your art and how much India and Indian-ness plays into the pieces that you do.

GUPTA: Yes, it's a good question. Most of the people ask me about cliche. About my art. But I always say that art is about where you live - where your culture is. Which politics you live in. You're going to influence from there. If Marcel Duchamp put that fountain (ph), he could not - if born in India - or live in this country. Never could (INAUDIBLE) that, because Indian college is not the same.

SIDNER: Right.

GUPTA: Yes? So he only can do some kind of things where you live and what you see.


SIDNER: The most famous artist in India is M. F. M. F. Husain. You had a chance to work for him. You turned him down. Why?




PETER NAGY, ART CRITIC: Every one of these sort of Indian group shows that's being put together by a museum, or even a gallery - they all want Subodh in it. So he's in a position, now, where he can say "yes" and "no". And, you know, he's working with major galleries all over the world.

What's interesting is there's starting to be more awareness - maybe not his work, but his fame. And his celebrity in India. And that's leading to more possibilities.


SIDNER: What is India's art scene like these days? And how has it changed over the years?

GUPTA: No changing - at the same time, but is a slow pattern. Many galleries is open. Many people is start looking at art. OK, their direction is different, but no doubt, many more and more artists is coming, more and more art lover is coming in. So definitely somewhere we changing and something is happening. No doubt about it.

SIDNER: How do you straddle the art and business? Because many artists don't have that combination.

GUPTA: Honestly, I don't do any business. My gallery does. And that's the good thing about it. And I'm lucky - I work in one of the finest gallery. So that's helped me to focusing in my work, not in my business.

SIDNER: Do you think that it's necessary to have started with painting or be known as a decent painter, before you become a sculptor?

GUPTA: Any skill, if you have it, as an artist - it's very important. Even how to draw, how to water color. And if you have these basic things, it's really help a lot for any artist. But time is changing. I feel I'm a little conservative in that way, to still be doing painting and the sculpture. This new generations completely - now it's a new media, new technology, and lots of computer involvement. And I hardly know how to write my letter in computer. So, it's OK.

SIDNER: Would you say that you're an artist that has thousands of ideas and you just need the time to make something? Or are you someone that struggles to come up with ideas?

GUPTA: Yes. Sometime the idea is there, completely - you know what you're going to make. And some, you have no clue what you're going to do, but it's - while the process happen, things coming, coming, coming.

SIDNER: And you know when you're done?

GUPTA: And you know when you're done, yes.

SIDNER: Tell me the significance of the pots and pans and different materials and utensils that you use in your art.

GUPTA: Well, since I'm using for long times now - it's more than 10 years. And it still is utensil in this country is very - since I work with the day-to-day life, it's very important. 50 percent of population of this country used to eat - still this is still utensil to eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

SIDNER: No matter what socioeconomic background, right? Rich, poor -

GUPTA: Yes. Even poor people have this utensil very standard (ph) utensil. Maybe they don't have food in it. That's - so, ironically, that's why very contrast material for me, you know? Because not only is shining, but is also empty.

SIDNER: How long does it take for you to make one of your pieces?

GUPTA: This particular - this kind of work take a few months, sometime a year - you know, depend on how we working on it - eagerly or slowly and - it's take time.

SIDNER: And are you involved in putting each and every weld together, here?

GUPTA: No. Once we can supervise the work - once everything is ready, then technician able to follow that, and he's the one who - or they are the one who completed the work. Yes. Yes.

SIDNER: The utensils and pots and pans that you use, are they the same ones, for example, that I might eat off in a restaurant?

GUPTA: Look the same, exactly. The grade is different. This is particularly made for me. And this special grade is called "316 grade". And he had - this utensil - I can keep it outside and it won't rust.

SIDNER: Perhaps the most famous artist in India is M. F. Husain, who recently died. You had a chance to work for him. You turned him down, why?

GUPTA: When I came from Bihar, I'm meeting the master. He's like a god figure for me. And, coming from the small town, I was going berserk. I was going, "My God, here are the - here are the genius", whom - I wanted to be one. And he said, "I have my own museum, I wanted to take you there".

And, OK, I love to see Husain museum. Wow. He took me there and then I saw - my God, all the Husain works. And he said, "Why don't you live here and work? And I give you bike, I give you - and you look after this place, too". OK -

SIDNER: Why would you say "no" to M. F. Husain?

GUPTA: But I thought, if I live and work here, I will get influenced with his works. And that's -- I don't want it to happen. I don't want to get so much influence from another artist. And so, I just - only reason I told him, "Sir, I can't work, because I want to do my own work".

SIDNER: Who do you think helped you the most, as you began to grow as an artist? To survive and then, now, to become very successful.

GUPTA: My wife was a big supporter, no doubt about it. Because that's good to meet one artist who know about art so much, and she came from abroad.

SIDNER: And she's a brilliant artist in her own right, isn't she?

GUPTA: Yes. And I do gather lots of information from her - so that was very interesting. And that our strength. And that's - we carry on.


SIDNER: You ended up going to art school. There were no art teachers. You did not learn art history - who taught you? What did you learn?

GUPTA: So, it's a miracle.



SIDNER: Is this something that you're going to be using in your next installation? Or do you know?

GUPTA: I don't know. I don't know. Just going on. I don't know.

SIDNER: That's so much of an artist - "I don't know, perhaps. Maybe".

GUPTA: Yes, because we don't know - we keep doing it, yes.

SIDNER: Are you a work-a-holic? Because we hear you are.

GUPTA: That's what I believe so far. You have no choice except keep working. Because what you will do - no - yes, I come to the studio every single day, almost - except Sunday.

SIDNER: And your wife as well?

GUPTA: Ah, yes, she does go to the studio every day, too.

SIDNER: Is it difficult, living in coupledom where you're both artists and you're both doing quite well - do you compete with each other? Or do you complement each other?

GUPTA: In the beginning, was romantic. Now is not easy.

SIDNER: Not easy - what's difficult?

GUPTA: Not easy because we both an artist - we're both professional artists. We both have individual idea. We both have a - living in the same apartment, as an artist, that's difficult, yes.

SIDNER: Do you influence each other, you think, at all? In the art that you do?

GUPTA: I think we do talk about art - used to talk about art, lot.

SIDNER: Is that outlawed in the house, now? "No more talking about art between us".

GUPTA: Yes, but you can't help it, you know? It's just - you can't help it. You will keep quiet for two days, maximum, you know? But it will come out, because that's what we do. And that's - we love to talk about it. And if you don't talk about, who else will talk about art who understand so deeply about art, no? So, no doubt about it, yes.

SIDNER: How did a boy from Bihar, one of India's poorest, least- educated states, end up as India's number one contemporary artist?

GUPTA: Well, I have no idea. Sometimes, I surprise myself. But, definitely, family - although none of my family member come from the art world - my whole family belong to the railway. And my father was in railway. My - still two brother in the railway. My brother-in-law in the railway. So, basically, I'm railway boy.

And coming out of that, I must give credit to my mother. Who, in childhood, she to take me, watch theater and see - was very craft person herself.

SIDNER: So, your family was in government work - the railway - you know, a very good job here in India. In Bihar, a lot of people would say a government job is the highest thing they can imagine aspiring to. How is it that you chose art?

GUPTA: I always wanted to be different, since childhood. I never knew I wanted to become an artist, but I knew I was not doing the regular job, that for sure.

SIDNER: What did your family say about that?

GUPTA: Well, when I was 13-years-old, my father passed away. So my 16-year-old elder brother, who had to take the responsibility of the family.

SIDNER: Because there were six children and your mom.

GUPTA: Yes, my mom. And, since I was youngest in the family - so I have opportunity to sneak away. And I was doing theater in my small town.

SIDNER: So that was your first love?

GUPTA: That was my first love. And making theater posters. Some friends ask me, "Hey, you make poster very nicely, why not go art school?" That time, I never heard of an art school. But I thought, in five years course, I will have enough time to do theater. And that's why - nobody can tell me I'm not doing anything, so I thought, OK, let's go art school, where I will have lots of time to do other things.

SIDNER: What did you learn in art school, when you got there?

GUPTA: In the beginning, first I didn't get admission, first time. The second time, when I got the admission, I was basically still - my involvement was with the theater. So I escape the school and that's to go to do theater and rehearsal and do other things.

SIDNER: So you would skip art classes?

GUPTA: Because is a kind of so-called college, but in Bihar, there was no teacher. So, including principal, there were two or three teacher.

SIDNER: So you ended up - you ended up going to art school, there were no art teachers, you did not learn art history - who taught you? What did you learn?

GUPTA: It's a miracle. There were art history classes, but there were no art history classes - in seven years, not a single art class would have it. So, basically, we can say, we are self-taught artist. Yes.

SIDNER: So you're self-taught.

GUPTA: Yes. Self-taught artist. And I learn my art through my colleagues. Like, watercolor, landscape, drawing - and that taught me more than the teacher. The student taught me. And that was it, basically. But one thing was very interesting - within a few students, we were intent to work. And we thought, OK, let's make it art. And we were just putting our hands here and there and tried to do something. What we got and what we know about it.

SIDNER: I want to ask you about coming to Delhi. Because at some point you decided to enter a master's program in art. And the school here turned you down. What was that experience like?

GUPTA: Look, nothing surprise you when you come from Bihar. Nothing surprise you in life. So, used to, like, somebody saying, "No". OK, no.

SIDNER: You're used to disappointment.

GUPTA: Yes. Coming from Bihar - then who am I? I can't just speak English and my history is not good. I tried to get in (INAUDIBLE). I didn't get it. So I thought, OK, done. My education is done. I don't want to study anymore. I have to just do. But one thing was - we always worked. We always worked - whatever we can do. And that's keep making painting. I train as a painter. I was doing only painting for 10 years.

SIDNER: Do you remember the first piece of art you sold?

GUPTA: When I was in college, yes. I do.

SIDNER: What was it like to sell a piece? Your own piece?

GUPTA: I never thought, "I'm selling the art". At that time, only I felt is like surviving. I never thought, "OK, I'm selling a piece of artwork". If somebody bought my art and gave me money - that's the good thing.

SIDNER: So, you're thinking, "I can eat with this, I can buy paint with this".

GUPTA: "I can eat with this, I can buy paint with this, I have a little bit of freedom within me". Yes? I struggle a lot.

SIDNER: You feel like you're in a completely different -

GUPTA: It's other life. Is complete other life.