In this show Chintan Upadhyay revives his stuffed toys, making them less erotic and more poignant

In this show Chintan Upadhyay revives his stuffed toys, making them less erotic and more poignant
Gallery Espace In this show Chintan Upadhyay revives his stuffed toys, making them less erotic and more poignant
In this show Chintan Upadhyay revives his stuffed toys, making them less erotic and more poignant
Gallery Espace In this show Chintan Upadhyay revives his stuffed toys, making them less erotic and more poignant
Chintan Upadhyay’s latest woollen installations highlight his politics and idiosyncrasies

At first glance, the tony Gallery Espace in New Friends Colony appears to be hosting a sale of second-hand woollens. However, on closer inspection, one realises this is not a random collection, but a serious statement on the plight of India’s marginalised by artist Chintan Upadhyay (42), whose solo Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron — Redux recently opened at the Delhi gallery.

Woollen sweaters, cardigans and sweatshirts lie stuffed to resemble portly bodies scattered across the gallery floor. Is it an eerie reconstruction of second-class sleeper coaches that rattle through Uttar Pradesh and Bihar on their way to the metros, filled with India’s working class travelling in the hope of finding jobs? The brutality of the situation is heightened when the viewer is encouraged by the artist to view a video work that is playing in the far-left corner of the gallery — one is forced then to walk over the ‘bodies’.

“I love that my works are interactive and open to interpretation. These ‘bodies’ lying on the floor could be asleep, or dead, they could be at the train station or at a riot scene… I want to accentuate the sense of abandonment and their denigrated status,” says Upadhyay, who is based in Delhi but hails from Partapur, a small town in Rajasthan. “I also want to explore the complexities of names given to these trains, like ‘Shramjeevi Express’ or ‘Garib Rath’. It is a convenient way to label the proletariat so we can distinguish them from the Rajdhani Express travellers,” adds Upadhyay.

No stranger to controversy

The word used often to describe Upadhyay is ‘idiosyncratic’. He has previously courted controversy with his works. He made headlines when he sat in the buff and asked people to smear him with saffron, thus reclaiming the colour in a ritualistic manner at the height of the Gujarat riots. Another time he made news for impersonating a pregnant woman and dressing up in a house-dress. He has even reclaimed old cars, set them on fire and turned that space into a garden.

While his performance pieces are unconventional he has kept afloat with work that pleases the commercial market as well — some may argue that he is best known for his paintings and sculptures of glitzy, larger-than-life genetically modified babies that come in all shapes and sizes, with multiple arms, heads and legs. For these works Upadhyay collaborated with artist Manish Sharma, a Rajasthani miniatures painter, who covered the babies with his interpretations of Indian miniatures. The babies gained a traditional layer to their global, hybrid appearance.

For this solo he has chosen to revive a genre of work that he first created in 1996, during his final year Master’s exhibition at Maharaja Sayajirao University’s Faculty of Fine Arts, Vadodara. Upadhyay created large phallus-shaped ‘soft toys’ that produced quite a stir among his more conservative colleagues and the staff, who left his show with their cheeks burning. He revisited the erotic stuffed toys again in 1999, during a show at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, where he added a little surprise feature — those who secretly tried to touch the ‘toys’ were embarrassed by a loud rendition of some slightly risqué Bollywood number that went off from the portable record player hidden inside the toy.

For this solo at Gallery Espace, Upadhyay has revived the stuffed toys by making them less erotic and more poignant. Another work at the show comprises woollen school uniforms, which have been cut and stuffed till they appear to resemble meat, which dangle off swords and send shivers down the viewer’s spine. The school uniforms tell of the systemic violence that is often embedded in our education system. “Besides, the uniforms are machine-made, and it marks the transition of the child, from the world of home to the outside world,” he explains.

In yet another part of the gallery we encounter pretty boxes showcasing hand-knitted woollens that seem to have started off as a cardigan or cap for a child but have turned into some fantasy form like a creature with large ears or a doll-like figure. “In these works I wanted to explore the idea of love, which is often shown by the knitting of woollens in India. It has all but disappeared among our middle class. For the fantasy forms I approached people I knew to knit something that captured their fantasy. Soon I was flooded with strange forms — I picked the best of the lot,” he says. These sculptural works are punctuated by a series of performance photographs where people attempt to wear some of these fantastically shaped woollens. “These act as fillers, almost like process drawings,” says Upadhyay of the work.

One question that may pop into everyone’s mind is who will buy and collect these works that consist mainly of second-hand woollens. “I think there is a market. There are intrepid collectors, not just from abroad but also in India. We must believe in our own collectors and our own art markets; while international exposure is good, it does not bode well that we only lap up what comes with a ‘foreign returned’ stamp. It is one of the many disquieting aspects of our globalised world,” says Upadhyay.

(The exhibition runs till May 31 at Gallery Espace, Delhi.)

(Georgina Maddox is a Delhi-based art writer.)


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