by Sunena V MajuMar 22, 2023
‘Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder’ is an expression picked up so frequently that it is done and dusted. But let’s evoke it, once more, for the precise reason that it shifts the meaningful value attached to the beauty from the creator, in this case the artist, to the beholder or the viewer. This nowhere reduces the pertinent role of the creator, after all, beholder would not have an exercise to perceive the beauty if it is not put into place. The multimedia artworks of Probir Gupta, with politically and socially charged themes, are the opportune moment for the audience to responsibly perceive the beauty of the work. Here, the beauty expands its meaning to the “art of psychological repair” as the artist would like to put it.
When the artist without any inhibitions claims that his works are devoted to the issues of human rights – against child labour and human trafficking, child adoption, right to raise an opinion, violence against women, among many other social issues – Gupta traces his proclivity towards socially sensitive issues to the impressionable days spent in Kolkata.
In an interview with STIR, he vividly narrates two incidents that continue to inform his art practice, “My father, a freedom fighter, was rusticated from the prestigious Scottish Church College, University of Calcutta, for delivering a speech, as a general secretary of college student union, on the Quit India Movement, however later he was called back to join the college. He was fighting for independence from British colonialism, to free Indians from the oppression and discrimination. All these years later, as an artist, I am using reference from that era of the British Raj to talk about social exclusion and gender discrimination. It is irony, we think we have evolved over the years, but in reality, we are still bound to the same social prejudices. After the early demise of my father, my mother had a hard time raising three children; I was the youngest of them. A retired teacher rented a place near our house. My mother observed him before engaging him as a home tutor for me. After tutorial lessons in the evening, maa would feed him. He passed away and my mother asked me to mobilise my friends and collect money to perform his last rites. So these kinds of seeds were sown from the childhood days. The visual art is a medium to express social disturbances, even if I had been a filmmaker, a writer, a musician or a lyricist, I would have been an advocator of the same issues.”
Gupta’s last exhibition Family is Plural, at Bikaner House in December 2019, urged the audience to find family beyond the circle of blood relations and define our world as we: the people of a civilised society. The inclusiveness and empathy as the two sides of the same coin are aptly encapsulated with his work The Raft: In Memory of Gericault and Noah (Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa and Noah's Ark). The discerning eye cannot miss the photograph of a white European woman’s head resting on the chest of a woman of African origin. Putting this work into art historical framework, Gupta draws reference to the infamous painting Olympia by the French impressionist painter Edouard Manet, where an African woman offers a bouquet to the reclining nude on a bed. Centuries down the line, The Raft attempts to repair the long-pending racial-sectarian tensions that have crippled our society. If the figures bear a close resemblance to the work of Ernst Neizvestny, a sculptor and printmaker from the USSR, then the yellow hues of acrylic paint over the photographic image carry an influence of German expressionism in art. Like many of his collaborations with the local helpers for his works, a cobbler stitched this photograph onto the raft: the act bespeaks Gupta’s intend to carry metaphorical intervention of repair through his art practice.
Given the multitude of themes running across his long art practice, the curious mind would like to know how does the artist choose between multi-vocal mediums - paintings, sculptures or installation, if the theme overrides his selection of the medium or the other way round. Gupta elucidates on this, “When I have decided to work on a significant subject, I start making notes with basic elementary stuff, what kind of objects would symbolically give meaning to the subject. After jotting down a series of solutions – one, two, three, so on and so forth - I take a break. After the gap, I go back to my notes and take a call, which object would aptly justify the subject and ensure the artwork comes across as clear, crisp and direct to the audience. Once I have finalised these objects, then I mentally visualise it as a 2D or 3D surface. This helps me to make an informed decision on which medium would best suit the work.”
Before the formal borders and boundaries divided the histories of the nations into the binary of us and them, the high walls were erected to separate the physical geographies. A parody on the conventional notions attached to the wall, Gupta’s installation The Wall refrains from pushing distances but stands as a visual manifestation of the emotional upheaval experienced by the women. As a monument, The Wall commemorates the history of emotional struggle and physical violence faced by women: the phenomena perpetuated by the toxic masculinity of patriarchal society and politics. Lending meaning to the ordinary with his work, here Gupta collected electrocardiograms, a test performed to trace any imperceptible perspiration, of the victims of local riots from hospitals and clinics. The ECG on the fibreglass is illuminated from within by a set of LED lights. The upholstered sofa at the top of the fibreglass and the strands of hair hanging from it lead to a hyperreal representation of the wall.
For Gupta, the political discussions are not bound to the drawing discussions among a handful of people. Espousing the archetypical adda culture of Kolkata that deflates the societal egos for dialogue across the political topics, Gupta says, “Tolerance grows from these tea stalls on a pavement, where a community comes together to have tea.” As an act to rewrite the history, the work Indian Tempest after Nirbhaya and the Arab Spring revisits the uprising of the youth to fight social and political atrocities. Gupta saw the protests against the rape of Nirbhaya (the fearless one) and the rise of Arab Spring as a site of the collective voice of, “the people, from all walks of life, pouring out on the streets to demand justice.”
Gupta, the torchbearer of art for social change, says, “I am a global citizen and my work is activism that resonates with people beyond boundaries, to put it pure and straight. Even if an artist is incapable of giving a solution, he can sensitise people towards everyday social issues.” Like one of his visitors who after a conversation with Gupta on The Wall, displayed at the Kochi Biennale 2018, remarked that your work is morbid but it is beautiful; surely, many of art aficionados and critics could agree on this duality underlining his works.