Satish Gupta’s mid-career experimentation as a sculptor has found him a following
By now, many of you would have used T3, New Delhi’s new international airport, and may have caught at least a glimpse of Satish Gupta’s iconic Surya sculpture that has tourists posing against it for photographs. It is somewhat inelegantly placed, but its sheer extravagance makes you gasp. It is not a difficult piece of sculpture to understand – indeed, if anything, it could be part of the country’s uninterrupted tradition of crafting gods and goddesses – but for the size, and its choice of medium: bronze.
You could be forgiven for doing a double take, for isn’t Satish Gupta supposed to be a painter? He was, or rather, is, and with enough commissions to keep him busy and away from planning his next solo exhibition. But the sculptor part of his persona seems to be overtaking the painting aspect at brisk pace. What makes it even more interesting is that Gupta’s mid-career switchover seems to have been guided on a whim and a lark. What started as a project for the Jindals’ office in New Delhi – using, naturally, steel – turned into a lesson that taught him two things. One, that sculpture was a slow-moving concept for Indian collectors unless you changed their perceptions by making it monumental; and two, that abstract sculpture would continue to retain its alien identity, but there was a market for anything that was recognisably spiritual — a more artful version of the kitschy but popular concrete statues of Hanuman and Shiva that increasingly seem to be springing up in our urban environments.
Even so, the first Shiva head, 12-feet high in its glory, melded together using bronze pieces and meticulously recorded in a hugely expensive book, was still experimental. It had taken a long time, it required Gupta to work in a foundry, with assistants who had to be constantly supervised (thus interrupting his painting schedule) and it needed a buyer. The last proved the easiest, the single piece of sculpture that was shown at Delhi’s Habitat Centre was whisked off by a Mumbai-based industrialist for a sum allegedly in excess of Rs 1 crore – a talking point at the time – and Gupta announced that he was ready to work on his next piece: a sculpture of Vishnu’s head.
But now events started overtaking Gupta. Before he could complete his Vishnu – it is now in the collection of Nita and Mukesh Ambani and part of the garden of their Mumbai residence – he was commissioned to make yet another Shiva. Having made Shiva and Vishnu, he was all set to execute a Brahma head as part of the trinity when the T3 commission came his way. But because the management preferred the work to have less religious connotations and was short on time, Gupta used his cast to turn the sculpture into that of Surya: the elemental Sun God that does not require ritualistic prayer. Interestingly, because his representations trace their inspiration to the temple complex of Angkor Wat and have a Buddha-like benignity, they represent a style that is more Asian than Indian.
It is fitting, therefore, that his latest commission should be an 11-foot high Devi that has been brilliantly displayed in the garden of the Leela Palace in New Delhi. It is of a piece with his earlier sculptures, but more refined, almost as if Gupta has got into his stride. Already, he’s begun to prepare for another sculpture all of 50-feet tall, that is intended for installation in Goa, and “another large work” in Mumbai. (Far from subverting all his attention, the sculptures seem to have galvanised Gupta — at the Leela Palace, he has painted several wall panels and has supervised the execution of a thousand stone lotuses in stone relief).
As recent works that have not yet made it to the secondary domain – and it’s unlikely that they will – it’s difficult to speculate on their primary market prices. Costs, and expectations, have gone up considerably since Gupta’s first Shiva sculpture. On average, each takes six months of work. At most, one can speculate that they must cost the buyer nothing less than a couple of crore rupees each in material, manpower, labour and artistic vision. Anything beyond that is the artist’s – and, indeed, the collector’s – prerogative.
These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which the writer is associated.