Interactive and engaging, Shilpa Gupta’s works draw viewers in, provoking them to think, take their experience with them, and act. Each object and installation picks up on thought-provoking issues—political, social, and economic concerns that are part of daily life. Combining everyday, innocuous things—balls of thread and string, microphones, soap, stone slabs, mirrors, and books—Gupta brings out interesting nuances that encourage reflection, reconsideration, and the questioning of assumptions. Gupta says, “I use a combination of light and sound and play with the gallery to create an experience for the viewer.” This emphasis on interaction sometimes transforms the viewer into a sutradhar, or storyteller. Because there are umpteen possible meanings, each viewer is free to interpret the experience with a personal spin. Gupta relies on these myriad interpretations: “I am generally interested in perception and the translation which takes place—basically, the shift of information from one place to another.”
What sets Gupta’s work apart is her use of ordinary, simple materials to create provocative imagery. She strikes this balance by relying on intuition and insight. Sometimes ideas arrive by chance. For instance, in the case of 1:14.9 (2011–12), she explains, “I was in Pakistan for a workshop, and I was being driven back from the border by a friend who recalled the past and how [India and Pakistan] had been one country. It was probably this that sparked off the idea of the ball of thread.” Gupta’s hand-wound ball of thread, measuring just over 79.5 miles, is kept on a pedestal inside a glass vitrine. Multiplied by 14.9, the length of the thread corresponds to the length of the actual border between the two countries. An explanatory plaque inscribed, “1188.5 MILES OF FENCED BORDER—WEST, NORTH-WEST/DATA UPDATE: DEC 31, 2007,” makes the reference clear. The oval-shaped ball, which took over a month to finish, questions the motivations and effects of manmade borders, though the thread itself can take on many possible meanings. As Gupta says, “There is so much hysteria associated with borders, geography, and mapmaking…[in this case], violence and killing, and all the negativity brought about by partition when the borders were redrawn and separate countries demarcated.” When one looks at 1:14.9, it is simply a ball of thread, but on becoming a fence, it takes on many connotations.
Gupta moves with immaculate ease across a wide spectrum of media, including steel and various other metals, flapboards, and fluids. For her, thought and perception are of greater importance than medium. The medium simply happens and is immaterial so long as the thought is conveyed. Speaking of her obsession with materials, she says, “I have used the microphone as a speaker innumerable times. But I strongly feel that when an artist keeps working with one medium, there is a sense of lethargy that sets in. The work tends to become repetitive. So, working with a new medium is more creative and expands your existing repertoire. But then, it is also tough since you have to understand the medium and start working with it from scratch.”
Though Gupta’s work draws from politics, she states categorically that politics per se is not the basis of her work: “It is more everyday objects and how politics affects our daily lives, so it finds an expression…politics is a part of everyday life and we are a part of it.” The cues also come from history: “We construct our past with relevance to the present and construct our present through history.” To illustrate the point, Gupta uses the example of the hostilities between Hindus and Muslims that killed 900 people in Mumbai in 1992: “Everything changed after that. You realized after the riots that a particular classmate was not coming back and that it was religion or personal enmity that cost the life. It shows how politics affects our lives at the end of the day.”
Gupta’s innovative approach to subject matter and viewer engagement makes her work refreshingly different. For one conceptual piece, she mailed 300 watercolor drawings on five-by-five-inch cards, which also contained a message. The recipients were chosen from the mailing list of the Jehangir Art Gallery. The handwritten cards said, “I am mailing so many such cards; yours is this one and there are so many more.” Thinking about how people might react to receiving an artwork in the mail, Gupta says, “When you receive a work of art by post, it is unusual. It raises several questions: How do you consume a work of art? What happens to the art when it enters a domestic space, which is not like a gallery? Putting art in relationship to the domestic sphere gives a different way of looking at it…You get a lot of stuff by post, but a work of art is different.” The arrival of such an unexpected gift prompts the recipient to investigate its circumstances—its sender, other recipients, and, of course, what to do with it. Such a work encompasses a larger community. It also brings together different people using a common thread.
In a recent installation, neon lights spell out the words “hum bhi aap ke asman ke neeche rehte hain,” or “we also live under your sky.” The phrase reiterates the idea that all religions are equal; at the end of the day, the sky is the same roof for everyone. It is a way of acknowledging the diverse population of Mumbai, where people from different regions and religions come together under the same roof to pursue their dreams and livelihoods.
Gupta first used her signature microphone as speaker in the installation Tryst with Destiny (2007–08), another work inspired by the history of India and Pakistan. A wall-hung piece of paper reproduces the text of an iconic speech delivered by Jawaharlal Nehru at the declaration of Indian Independence in 1947. Three days later, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the All-India Muslim League, made his own speech as Pakistan’s first Governor-General. For Gupta, these statements by Hindu and Muslim leaders were revelatory: “It was amazing, I was shocked by the similarities between the two. By how two leaders who were opposites, or contrary to each other, could have a similar vision for their two countries.” Nehru’s text, which outlines a dream of equality, secularism, and a nation free of corruption, also underscores the irony of partition: despite a shared vision, the creation of two separate countries resulted in hardline religious divisions, mass exoduses, and an ensuing bloodbath.
In Tryst with Destiny, the text of Nehru’s speech starts at the top of a sheet of A4 paper in 10-point type and slowly diminishes in size until it becomes almost illegible at four-point type. A way of showing how beliefs change over time, the disappearing letters indicate how temporal distance can erase values that were once very apparent and real. The work makes loss palpable through sight and sound. The microphone, a means of disseminating information, stands alone, broadcasting to two empty chairs. The voice is Gupta’s, singing the words of Nehru’s speech, her tone subtly inflected, moving from passion and hope to doubt and despair. The microphone takes a stand, making a symbolic statement of value while also showing the futility of words and reason when people cease to listen. Gupta says that it also “represents our hyperactive state in the Internet era, how no one has the time and how everything has changed.” A vintage microphone also forms the centerpiece of Rabindra Sangeet, an audio installation whose title is the Bengali term for songs written and composed by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Gupta heard the music in Kolkata (Tagore’s native city), where it is played by the regional government at traffic signals. She recorded the song along with all the ambient, chaotic noise of the street—horns blaring, engines roaring, people talking. Gupta explains that “the microphone as speaker blares all the sounds, and it recalls how the songs are used as propaganda by the ruling party, the way the situation has changed from what the songs once meant to what they are today. The microphone stands for the identity, voice, and strength of the people. It is the tense relationship between what was once and what it is today.” In Someone Else (2011–12), Gupta explores questions of identity by re-creating the covers of books originally published anonymously or under a pseudonym. The inspiration came from brass name plates hung at the doors of homes and offices, which serve to assert identity and ownership. Now realized in metal, the 100 books in Gupta’s library continue to hide their authorship. The reasons range from fear of persecution to a desire to be taken seriously: “Some wrote women’s novels and did not want to be caught, others were women who wrote under a man’s name.” For Gupta, the pseudonym is subversive and empowering; it allows ideas that might otherwise be suppressed to reach an audience. When Someone Else was installed at the Arnolfini Gallery, the Bristol Central Library hosted a companion collection consisting of the books themselves, which could be borrowed and read.
The question of Kashmir has also inspired several works. In 1278 unmarked, 28 hours by foot on National Highway No 1, east of the Line of Control (2013), marble slabs represent gravestones for Kashmir’s unacknowledged dead and disappeared, numbering over 8,000 people. Instead of bearing names, the slabs are inscribed with numbers like government forms. Visitors to Mumbai’s Gallery Chemould could take home a slab after agreeing to be its caretaker and completing a form with contact information. This contract not only permits Gupta to contact a caretaker in the future, it also makes that individual responsible for his or her slab. Beyond calling attention to the violence in Kashmir, 1278 unmarked explores the question of accountability and complicity. Gupta will be able to explore the relationship between caretaker and object, tracing what the slabs have meant to different people over the course of time.
Gupta has also made works from soap, created a mirror that reflects “who I am or what one sees,” distributed bottles of “Blame” filled with simulated blood, stained cloth with menstrual blood, and twisted the function of flapboards to convey the rise and fall of civilizations. Reflecting on her beginnings in art, she says, “I was a hardworking student who had taken the science stream. But I chose to move to the arts. It caused a lot of problems at home, a lot of questions, discipline.” She studied sculpture at the JJ School of Fine Arts between 1992 and 1997. In conversation, as well as in her work, Gupta does not contrive or consciously portray a thought. Hers is an instinctual and process-based approach based on exchange and dialogue, which may come from her past experience. Based on thorough research, Gupta’s objects and installations are not only highly critical, but also allusive and very human. Her works find their form through intuition—an unconscious, but essential part in their development that softens their conceptual edge and allows them to touch a variety of lives.
Chitra Balasubramaniam is a writer living in New Delhi.