Totally unconventional

Totally unconventional

A few months ago, Wallpaper magazine published a limited-edition cover of the powerhouse artists Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher posing in traditional Indian wear. The photo was, in Kher’s words, “so cliched, I titled it, ‘In another life’.” The cover was true to form for the husband and wife, who both use traditional references expressly to create works of art that turn conventions upside down. This is where the similarities between the two artists end — the works themselves are wildly different. But they say the fact that they share the same profession fuels their creativity.

Gupta and Kher are not the only couple to figure prominently in India’s robust contemporary art scene. In fact, a triumvirate of married couples are among the country’s top artists, including Atul and Anju Dodiya and Jitish and Reena Kallat. Four of them – Dodiya, Kallat, Kher and Gupta – are consistently ranked in the top 10 of India’s contemporary artists by ArtTactic, an art specialist research firm.

Though they are married, each of these artists maintains an independent studio, exhibiting separately. All six use their work to mark the evolution of Indian society. They are represented by some of the top art galleries and are included in institutional and private art collections at home and abroad. They were all featured in recent overseas exhibitions like the travelling show “Indian Highway”, now in Rome; “Maximum India” at the Kennedy Center in Washington last spring; and “The Empire Strikes Back” at the Saatchi Gallery in London last year.

“There are Indian artists and then there are international artists who happen to be Indian,” said Robert Goff, the New York-based director at Haunch of Venison gallery. “These are some of the latter group, and that is why they have a market and a curatorial appeal that’s not only active but developing.”

The market for Indian art has suffered large-scale price corrections following the 2008 global financial crisis, and many buyers focus on modern masters rather than the less safe contemporary art. But several of these artists still fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction.

Successful artist couples are not new to India, yet few have ignited popular imagination in quite the same way as these couples. Some of this is a sign of the times. Rooted in solid middle class values, these marriages are inherently modern, informed by urban influences.

The wives are as opinionated and strong as their husbands and are reluctant to be compartmentalised. In Anju Dodiya’s words, “I hate the label of a woman painter.” All of the couples have children as well.

“In spite of being married, the beauty about all of them is that they have pretty individual voices,” said Mallika Advani, an independent art consultant based in Mumbai.

Aside from their obvious talent, these artists had the benefit of building their careers in the 1990s, during a period of loosening economic strictures and significant political changes. India’s ascent on the world stage and the proliferation of art biennales, fairs and group shows have also helped these artists gain international recognition.

Atul Dodiya, 52, has been practicing the longest and is the most prolific of these artists. He mines a wide array of references, from the works of Mondrian, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns to Bollywood to the cacophony of the eastern Mumbai suburb of Ghatkopar, where he lives. Dodiya has a particular affinity to Mohandas K Gandhi, and a current exhibition in Mumbai involves a dialogue between a young boy, Bako, and Gandhi, captured on canvas as a conversation on chalkboard.

Dodiya’s paintings on metal shutter store fronts put him on the global art map, especially after one of the works realised his auction record of $601,000 in September 2007. With his shutter works, Dodiya took something seemingly pedestrian in Indian society and elevated it to the status of high art. In doing so, he seized upon a tool that has found resonance among his other contemporaries, many of whom have used the mundane to contextualise a society in flux.

His wife, Anju, 46, an accomplished watercolourist, is the most publicly reticent artist of the group. But she is by no means a wallflower. Her art, which she describes as coming from “an intense inner world, celebrating the tragic,” follows a more prescribed practice than the others. Her references spring from the worlds of literature, art, cinema and fashion, but often with the strong undercurrent of self reference. Her auction record is $267,375 for an acrylic on mattress work titled “The Site,” in the autumn of 2008 at Saffronart, an online auction house.

Like Atul Dodiya, Gupta, 47, offers a commentary on the vernacular, colliding with the accepted. His sculptures of stainless steel kitchen utensils, found in most Indian homes, represent the strains of rural India clashing with an urban sensibility. Gupta is among the top-selling contemporary artists in India, and his “Untitled” oil on canvas of kitchen utensils sold for $1.43 million in 2008 at Saffronart. He counts among his fans the French art collector Francois Pinault, who acquired and displayed his “Very Hungry God” (2006) sculpture in Venice four years ago.

Gupta’s wife, Kher, 42, born and raised in London but based in Delhi since 1993, is India’s most celebrated female contemporary artist. Using the bindi (the dot that adorns foreheads and symbolises the third eye) as her leitmotif, Kher spins narratives via the exploration of identity, personal space, and consumerism confronting Indian society.
Last year, Kher’s most iconic work, “The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own,” an enormous fiberglass-and-bindi-covered elephant, sold at Sotheby’s for a record $1.49 million, the highest price at auction fetched by a contemporary Indian artist. Kher called the sculpture a symbol for the great, lumbering India desperate to get off its feet.

Jitish Kallat, 37, is as informed by his Mumbai city environment as he is by the broader sociopolitical changes taking place in India and elsewhere. Works like “Baggage Claim” (2010), inspired by a newspaper clip, evoke a “peoplescape” of individuals carrying the reality of city living on their heads.

“Public Notice 3,” his recently concluded installation at the Art Institute of Chicago, was the first time his work was shown in a US museum, and it was extended to a yearlong run. Linking the first World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago on September 11, 1893, with the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, Kallat used the text of a speech on religious tolerance, delivered by Swami Vivekananda at the Parliament, to light up the museum’s staircase.

Kallat’s wife, Reena, 38, is known for incorporating multiple mediums in a single work, and her signature involves using the rubber stamp, a symbol of Indian officialdom. Maps are also a recurrent theme in her work, as she explores the dichotomy between increased globalisation and stricter border controls between nations.

While Jitish and Reena Kallat and Anju and Atul Dodiya met at Mumbai’s JJ School of Art, Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher met in their 20s in New Delhi. Yet, despite sharing most of their adult lives, their artistic approaches vary. In general, the women are more deliberate and slow, the couples suggest, while the men are more prolific “doers.” All of the artists say that they generate ideas and create works independent of each other.
“There’s certainly a lot of convergence of interests in terms of how Reena and I pursue our art, but we work in methodologies that are diametrically opposite to each other,” Jitish said. While he said he was constantly using drawing to flesh out his thoughts, Reena said, “Between us, I need to close in, shut things out till I’ve articulated my own idea.”

Though they are often compared to each other, Gupta and Kher also tackle their work differently. Kher said that she considers her ideas for long periods, struggling to make decisions, whereas her spouse, once inspired, works quickly. The case of Anju and Atul Dodiya is similar; Anju has a focused and linear creative process, whereas Atul bundles myriad references in quick bursts of energy.

All say criticism and feedback from their spouses is vital to their practices. Or, as Atul says, “'In the final analysis, we are lucky because artists want to talk, with total understanding, strong support at home – and who better than your spouse as your first trustworthy viewer?”