Hema Upadhyay’s death is a cautionary tale for the Indian art world.

Hema Upadhyay: Sifting through the tragedy to remember a special person
Photo Credit: Peirre Verdy/AFP
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Robust and vulnerable by turns, artist Hema Upadhyay was a special person and a very thoughtful artist. Her tragic end is a cautionary tale for our art world – about the Balzacian turn that we took during the art boom of roughly a decade ago, and which continues to be one of the troubling legacies of that period.

I do not wish to speak here about the sad and troubled personal relationship that forms one of the narratives surrounding Hema’s death. Instead, I wish to speak briefly about another narrative that informs this tragedy and its dramatis personae. It’s an equally troubled narrative about class relations, about the relationship between artists and their collaborators or colleagues, about resentments that build up over the years around questions of authorship and crises that explode from a lack of equity.

As someone who was trained first in the social sciences and then in film-making, I cannot but view our art world in terms of its material basis. When we look at the gallas andkarkhanas where so many installations, assemblages and sculptures are made – many of us have long been familiar with these sites – we see a classic case of an informal industrial economy of production that is not secured by the customary guarantees that define and regulate industrial relations. This is one of the factors that cost us the life of one who was so dear to us.

Intriguing artist

But let these issues, serious as they undoubtedly are, not take us away from a focus on Hema’s practice, which evolved consistently and innovatively over the last two decades. I would like to remember Hema as an artist who in the early 2000s, reflected on urban entropy through a feminist reconfiguration of the genre of self-portraiture. In her paintings of that period, you could see her as part-Zorro, part-Fearless Nadia, part-vulnerable girl-boy, scaling the skyscrapers of a metropolis that is known to devour its denizens if they are not careful about where they step.

It is also intriguing that her performance in her paintings was staged through tiny Thumbelina-size self-portraits. Could this choice of scale have articulated her need for egoless programming? Could it have been a device that signalled her fragility, her precarious state of mind?

The central concern of Hema’s art was a metaphysical play of scales – an enactment of the tension between maximalist visual abundance and the minimalist elaboration of the elusive, fugitive detail.

Always thoughtful

We all have our favourite Hema story. When I wrote the wall text for her last show – “Scales of Attention” – at the Chemould Gallery in Mumbai, she appeared at my doorstep one day with a large magnifying glass and an eclectic bunch of stamps. While discussing her show, I had en passant mentioned my ongoing research on the inventive ethos of expos during the Cold War era and the role of art in them.

Hema remembered this small detail in a long conversation and gave me her stamp collection, which she had used in her show “Fish In A Dead Landscape”. She said to me: “You can use these stamps in your lecture if you like.” I have been going through Hema’s stamps during the last few days, especially the ones showing the 1970s expo of Yemen with its stately, quirky pavilions. I will always remember Hema through her stamps.

I was surprised, and deeply moved, that Hema had remembered something that was important to my research but unrelated to our collaboration – in the midst of her own various projects and preoccupations – and that she dropped by just to give me her stamp collection.

Hema truly cared a great deal about research – her own and that of others. A detail in newspaper reports regarding the investigation of her murder caught my eye. I almost cried while reading the list of her personal effects, and found mention of a library card. Hema was always eager to learn and know more, to expand her imagination, to make the next leap of discovery. That is how I shall always remember her.