Subodh Gupta: Still Cooking the World

Rosalyn D’Mello is an art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover
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There’s no dearth of ideas in Subodh Gupta’s studio. There is always activity, a leaping forward in terms of material and scale

IT IS MOSTLY WHEN I meet Subodh Gupta that I feel the greatest regret for never having made enough of an effort to learn Hindi back in school. My mother, who was born and bred in Goa, chose not to speak to us either in Konkani, her native tongue, or Portuguese, the legacy of her colonisers. English was the language of the future, of opportunity, and she wanted us to excel in it. The Devanagiri script was thus fairly alien to my writing hand, as were the tenses and syntax that comprised both languages. Living in Delhi necessitated my re- acquaintance with Hindi, enhancing my vocabulary, though not my grasp of gender. My charm rather than language skills help me get by. I tell my interlocutors I can understand them perfectly, but just can’t reciprocate in the same tongue. My laughable attempts are appreciated nevertheless.

Naturally, I find myself envious of the irrepressible flair with which Gupta speaks Hindi. He picks his words intuitively, rarely ever showing signs of the struggle writers like me experience in translating nuance into speech. His fluency with the verses of the saint poet Kabir is beyond commendable. It is no wonder that they inflect his work through his act of naming his immense sculptures. His upcoming solo Anahad/ Unstruck at Famous Studios in Mumbai is a testament to this proclivity, the title, with ‘Anahad’ written in Devanagari, deriving from a line from a mystical poem by Kabir that uses the vessel—a recurring sculptural motif in Gupta’s work—as a trope for the human body, identifying it as the carrier of everything: the earth, the universe and the divine. (Iss ghat antar anahad garje/iss hi mein urat phoohaara: In this vessel unstruck sound reverberates/In it, too, bursts forth the fountain.)

When I enter his year-old studio in the Industrial Complex in Sector 16 in Gurgaon, I look for the piece to the left wall, the one that always elicits a smile. ‘Ma ki Dal’ reads the neon-lit sign that has occupied that space since he formally unveiled the new studio last year, inviting his artist colleagues and friends to view what were then his latest series of works before they could be shipped off to Hauser & Wirth’s swank new gallery in Somerset for his solo, Invisible Reality. The simplicity behind the piece is disarming. It is one of his most direct works where he elevates a whole sensual universe, the kind that occupies the same notional space as Proust’s Madeleine in Swann’s Way, but where its specificity ensures its untranslatability, its cultural locus being firmly rooted in a distinctively Indian imagination. Were I to visit with an international curator, I know I’d find myself struggling to transcreate this literary gesture. “Mother’s dal,” I’d probably say, before offering a paragraph-long summary of its inherent symbolism. It may as well be a synonym for mother tongue.

As I take the elevator to the first floor where Gupta is waiting for me, I fear he may be disappointed. Since his invitation came at short notice, I wasn’t able to cook him the long-promised pork vindaloo, the one dish I can make that he hasn’t yet succeeded at, despite my giving him the recipe. I’ve brought Goa sausages instead. He says it’s a good thing I didn’t bring too much. The lunch spread is already quite massive. I was in luck, his youngest sister who was visiting Delhi had sent over some Bihari delicacies made by her.

The work tells you, ‘I am complete. Leave me alone’. Sometimes the work says, ‘Don’t touch me right now. You’re not ready for me’

Of late, Gupta has been frequently sampling his older and younger sisters’ sleight of hand in the kitchen as research for his on-going pet project, a recipe book. He’s currently at what he calls the ‘masti’ stage of the process, where he’s simply having fun and churning through a range of ideas. His sisters had come over to his home a few weeks ago upon his request, to ‘revise’ for himself the culinary techniques behind certain dishes, particularly the dal pitha, or what Gupta cheekily calls “Bihari dumplings”.

Gupta documented the process and made photographs, some of which he has begun to incorporate into collages. Excitedly, he walks towards a side table, pulls out the top drawer and takes out a bunch of watercolour sketches that mark the beginning of the draft stage of his book. He hasn’t shown these to too many people, he tells me. “This is my first move, how I start the book, the second will soon happen. When I have all the material, then I’ll create something,” he says. I have no doubt that this intended recipe book would be his most intimate work, given that food and hunger have always been central to Gupta’s practice. I still remember the performance he staged in 2012 that resulted in the video The Spirit Eaters, where he introduced Delhi audiences at KhojLive12 to Kanthababas, a community scattered through Bihar and Uttar Pradesh that eats for a living. As a cultural practice, grieving families seek them out to invite them home and pay them to eat on behalf of the deceased souls. Gupta had a group from this community sit on stage and consume an elaborate feast of dahi-rice, puris, sabji, rasgullas, and jalebis until everything disappeared before an audience of at least 600 people.

Among the contents Gupta has in mind for his recipe book are photographs from dinners he plans to host at his studio for up to 20 people at once; something akin to a six-course meal for which he will ask his guests to don Indian attire. “The way I understand it is that on one level you’re cooking, but you also want the eating to be a performance,” I ask. “And a celebration,” he replies. “Cooking and feeding and eating food is about celebration, it’s the most important part of cooking and that should not go away from my book.” I ask him if he has ever watched Babette’s Feast, a personal favourite, a film about a form of spiritual transcendence affected through the act of cooking and eating, and about the mystical business of creating. Towards the end, Babette—the film’s French protagonist, a refugee, who, unbeknown to her pious, prudent employers, the daughters of the founder of a religious sect, is actually a celebrated chef—makes this insightful remark: “Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me the chance to do my very best.” Gupta isn’t sure if he’s seen it, I promise to send him the trailer, but what he has recently exposed himself to is Salvador Dali’s posthumously published cookbook, Le Diners de Gala. He shows me the second-hand copy he recently bought from the US. I feast on the illustrations, excited to be able to palm through a book I had read so much about, all the more curious to see how Gupta’s own book would turn out, given the diverse nature of his reference points.

As the food coma sets in, both Gupta and I slump back into our chairs. I fix my gaze on a large painting currently suspended against the wall ahead of me. In front of it is a sofa with the same patchwork pattern as the ones we're plonked on

After Prithvi, his helper, has laid out the stainless steel cutlery and laid the table, I notice the half-moon shaped dumplings Gupta had referred to earlier. “My younger sister just arrived two days ago from Bihar. She’s a great cook,” he says. “This dumpling is really very old tradition. I’ve been eating it since childhood.” He then proceeds to show me how it must be eaten, spooning a serving of a mustard-oil infused “garlicky” chutney. “You dip it like this and eat it,” he says. I obey and am amazed at the perfection of each bite, particularly how the bright yellow of the dal mixture within contrasts against the fleshy rice flour casing.

“Bharti, she’s so angrez, she only eats chicken and salad,” he cribs, part of his entreaty to get me to eat more because should he take the leftovers back home, he’ll have to eat it alone. I tell him that when I recently met his wife, Bharti Kher, at her studio she served me Indian food. He tells me that must have been an exception. Sated, as I devour the last bite of the meeta pitha, he recounts a childhood memory. “Roti ka parthan hota hai… When you take the atta and you belo it, you have to put water. That atta that sticks is kept separately, baar baar usko collect karte hain and they make roti out of this,” he says. Men are not supposed to eat this roti. It’s eaten mainly by women in Bihar, with leftover vegetable, onion, pickle. “Even just sukha roti, it’s so tasty,” he says. Gupta’s three older sisters used to sit him down with them while they would partake of this roti. “Main chhota bachcha thha, they used to love me, all three of them. My nickname was Bitthan, it means ‘tiny’ in Bihari.”

As the food coma sets in, both Gupta and I slump back into our chairs. I fix my gaze on a large painting currently suspended against the wall ahead of me. In front of it is a sofa with the same patchwork pattern as the ones we’re plonked on. I can see three strokes of neon light come aglow, then fade momentarily until it is lit up once again. They sit across the three vertical regions of the painting of an empty vessel that Gupta has had coated in resin. From afar, I see the work the way I was meant to, through its association with the cosmos. In a few days, this work, ‘In this vessel lie the seven seas, in it too, the nine hundred thousand stars’, will be crated and will make its journey to Mumbai, along with a bevy of other large scale works, many of which were already being packed on the day of my visit. Gupta has been approaching the upcoming solo at Famous Studios as if it were a show at the Turbine Hall in London. He has been ecstatic about how most of the work has evolved. The last time we spoke was at a spontaneous after-party at artist GR Iranna’s house following Manisha Parekh’s opening at Nature Morte. Two days later, he was leaving for a lecture at Savannah, part of the outreach for ‘Guests, Strangers and Interlopers’, his ongoing show at SCAD Museum of Art. This after barely having returned from the opening of the Singapore Biennale, where his massive installation, Cooking the World, was prominently displayed at the National Museum.

“What made you want to incorporate light into your work?” I ask. “Was this a recent intervention?” Gupta unearths from a pile of catalogues one dating back to 1995, published alongside his show ‘Grey Zones’ at the Academy of Fine Arts and Literature, New Delhi, which travelled the following year to Mumbai’s Jehangir Art Gallery. He points to page seven, ‘Confession with Light’, and then, laughing, shows me the catalogue essay. “It’s the first and last time Bharti wrote about my work,” he says. I tell him that’s factually incorrect, that she’d also written the piece, ‘When Soak Becomes Spill’ that was published in the monograph Everything is Inside, produced by Penguin in January 2015. He was sure it was the same essay, I reconfirm it wasn’t, and so he re-reads the piece and finally agrees. When he hands it to me, I too am struck by the intensity of the first few lines: ‘A man tumbles, arms outstretched towards a beam of light, like Icarus nearing the sun—A Confession with Light, 1995. Our knowledge that this encounter can only result in failure and imminent death, accelerates the fall, like lightening before the storm. He wants to reach nirvana and the neon suggests the light that precedes darkness, but ‘it is caught and held like a genie in a jar. The energy is trapped forever, concentrated, unable to disperse’. He has been made immortal. We are unsure of the outcome but search for certainties even if they are contradictory. We want answers when we know the questions are infinite.’

Each time I’ve visited Gupta’s studio, a different work has occupied centerstage in this room. Most of it is shipped off, some of it gets shunned away to the fringes of his vast studio. “Some work I’ll never finish,” he says, when I ask about a set of fiberglass sculptures that I have witnessed him sideline. “It’s not complete work. It’s just object right now,” he explains. “When do you know something gets complete?” I ask. “We don’t know. The work tells you, ‘I am complete, Leave me alone’. Sometimes the work says, ‘Don’t touch me right now. You’re not ready for me!’ Once you’re ready, you go close to them. That piece, I’m not ready for that piece yet.”

There’s no dearth of ideas in Gupta’s studio. There is always activity, always a leaping forward in terms of material and scale. The trick, he believes, is to stay focused, to edit down the ideas and decide what to proceed with. And to make less work.