He was the enfant terrible of Indian art, its Damien Hirst, she was his muse and mentor and co-artist; he came from the dark heartland of deprivation in Bihar, she was a Briton who returned to her roots in India; they’d had a difficult time trying to establish a toehold in the tradition-bound Indian market till Dame Fortune, Swiss gallery owner Pierre Huber and London promoter Charles Saatchi winked at them. In no time, Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher had become the darlings of the contemporary art world, more likely to be spotted in Venice or Basel than in downtown New Delhi or the local supermarket in Gurgaon.
Gupta and Kher (never Kher and Gupta in the patriarchal society of Indian art) made a formidable couple. He spoke — and speaks — terrible English in a society sensitive about such things; she was opinionated, had an accent and looked down her patrician nose when she bothered to address the local press. India’s rising art power had grabbed world attention and they were interviewed for papers and magazines all the way from New York to New Delhi, but back home the references to their art were mostly snide, about exoticisation and playing to a Western mindset.
Gupta was quickly paralleled with Marcel Duchamp for working with readymade objects that formed his art — tonnes and truckloads of steel utensils that he admitted to buying wholesale — while Kher (no one called her a female Duchamp) assumed the same role with her leitmotif bindis. He became a voice for India’s poverty and hunger and migration; she represented the sham and injustice and hypocrisy of gender and fertility and all things female.
And, oh, how we wanted them to trip and fall, these Johnny (and Jane)-come-latelys, making India Shining look bad with their posturing (and double standards) about an Indian reality distanced from the cities, for wasn’t it the same cities that were home to their buyers? Kher, went the whispers, had taken a backseat to her husband’s success – his A Very Hungry God had been acquired by French billionaire Francois Pinault; another German collector had bought his Across Seven Seas installation for Rs 4.5 crore, while another version of the series sold for just under Rs 6 crore the same year. By 2008, his works (and they were mostly huge) had an asking price of Rs 9 lakh per square foot, beating the modern masters and causing severe heartburn among artists, but also among collectors who remained unsure about the edgy statements this art communicated. Did Anupam Poddar really, really pay to have Gupta’s cow-pats (made from, yes, cow excreta) in his dining room?
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The crash came in 2009, when the contemporary art market slid dizzyingly. Prices that had scalded the media took a topple, buyers disappeared, galleries promoting the contemporaries shut down permanently, the collectors turned back to reviewing the moderns, and all was well with the world — almost. It was deemed the comeuppance for the likes of Gupta and Kher (and their many, many peers), and certainly we saw them a little more often in India. Gupta’s square foot average was down to an abysmal Rs 2.5 lakh, echoing what many were saying about a 70 per cent decline in prices. Kher’s value, never quite close to Gupta’s, took a beating too, but nowhere as close.
So busy had we been celebrating their downfall that most missed the signs of a gradual comeback. Gupta and Kher, now frequent at openings, were a recurring feature at the India Art Fair, at ease in the audience rather than awkward as panelists, and both had turned in works for the iconic art series promoted by vodka brand Absolut. Subodh Gupta’s last show for Peter Nagy’s Nature Morte gallery was a departure from his usual work, showing that he had put the leisure away from the pressure of back-to-back shows to use. And Bharti Kher had come out of Gupta’s shadow to top his Rs 4 crore and Rs 5 crore prices from the Noughties with a gavel fall at close to Rs 7 crore for her fiberglass sculpture of a fallen elephant covered with her trademark bindis in whorls that spoke of ten months of hard labour that went into its making. Kiran Nadar, who bid for the work for her museum, also bought a Subodh Gupta installation from Tate Britain for an undisclosed but openly discussed figure of Rs 14 crore.
The market hasn’t revived — not by far — but the India hunger is back. One might say, uncharitably of course, that galleries, fairs and biennales that require art from one of the world’s fastest growing economies have no one else to fall back on. Gupta and Kher (and Atul and Anju Dodiya, Jitish Kallat, Surendran Nair, G R Iranna and Co) are at least familiar names in a market where no new ones have emerged to take their place, and so they are back in circulation. The Qatar Museums Authority recently bought Gupta’s Gandhi’s Three Monkeys as “a strong statement of peace”. The Serpentine Gallery’s Indian Highway which has toured continents and is currently in China, has brought eyeballs and footfalls back to India’s contemporary art initiative, and, expectedly, it is Gupta and Kher (though perhaps it’s time, now, to change it to Kher and Gupta) who are the stars of the show.
Even so, and given the reticent nature of most artists, the power couple’s astonishing buy of an 865 square yard bungalow in New Delhi’s tony Sunder Nagar for an alleged Rs 100 crore (or, arguably, at least a starting price of Rs 70 crore) is a seismic signal of their longevity and significance. As a floundering economy, civic unrest and crimes against women tarnish the Indian image, it becomes apparent that while we were busy ridiculing them, Kher and Gupta were holding up a mirror — reflecting Subodh’s bartans and adorned with Bharti’s bindis — to us, a mirror they will now carry to their Rs 100 crore address. As to the question that everyone is asking — Can they afford it? — the answer, well, it’s there, innit?