India 2008: Power Couple

Bharti Kher’s studio in suburban Delhi is filled with a large and curious object. From different angles it looks vaguely like the base of an uprooted tree or perhaps a giant mango plucked off with the branch or, very possibly, a pair of inflated testicles. At 10 feet long and 5 1/2 feet high, the sculpture is roughly the size of a car. In fact, it’s a life-size fiberglass replica of a blue whale’s heart, the largest on earth. Two women in saris, one bent low, the other on a stool, are busy sticking thousands of gray, green, red, and black felt dots called bindis across nearly every inch of its surface. The sculpture is the last in an edition of three, one of which was snapped up by a collector at this summer’s Art Basel fair.

A couple of blocks away, Kher’s husband, Subodh Gupta, has a studio stacked with shiny stainless-steel and brass utensils—the pots, pans, pails, “tiffin carriers,” and votive vessels that are staples of Indian kitchens and temples. These are the everyday ready-made objects he uses in monumental sculptures that have earned him comparisons to Marcel Duchamp and the catchy, if ill-suited, sobriquet the Damien Hirst of Delhi. Gupta is feverishly working on sculptures and paintings for a show at the Arario gallery in Beijing this fall as well as a major piece for next year’s Tate Triennial, in Britain.

It’s mid-June and the two artists have just returned from a five-week trip in Europe with their two children—a busman’s holiday that took in Kher’s show at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, England, and Gupta’s at Galleria Continua in San Gimignano, Italy. Breaking for lunch at their apartment, which is equidistant from their studios, Kher frets over five-year-old Lola’s bout of Delhi belly; their son, Omi, who is 11, is out with friends. Both parents have the look of relief that comes just before school opens after a long summer break.

This has been a big year for the pair. Already represented by top galleries in Paris, New York, Delhi, and Mumbai, both artists were signed by Hauser & Wirth, the influential dealership with branches in London and Zürich. Their work, showcased at fairs, auctions, and exhibitions from Miami to Dubai to Hong Kong, is coveted by important collectors such as François Pinault, Charles Saatchi, and Frank Cohen. In 2006 Pinault installed Gupta’s 12-foot-high skull composed of welded utensils outside his Palazzo Grassi in Venice. Both Kher and Gupta have seen their auction records more than double in the past year, with his reaching $1.4 million. In the Subcontinent’s exploding art scene they are, without question, the leading power couple.

Gupta, 44, and Kher, 39, literally bumped into each other at an artists’ commune in Delhi in 1992. It’s a story straight out of a Bollywood blockbuster: London-born Indian chick falls for a yokel. “I could barely understand a word of what he was saying,” Kher says, laughing. “He took me to Old Delhi to buy art supplies and pursued me without pause.”

“I had never met anyone like her. But I think she was more impressed by my art than by me,” says Gupta.

A compact man who speaks English haltingly, Gupta fixes you with an intense gaze. Kher, ponytailed and ebullient, speaks in a clipped British accent. Raised in London, the daughter of a self-made immigrant businessman, she moved to India 16 years ago. Gupta was the son of a railway guard and went to a village school in the poor state of Bihar, in northeastern India. “I was only good at cheating on exams,” he says.

Working his way up from small-time jobs at provincial theaters and newspapers, he arrived in Delhi in 1988, penniless but determined to make it in the art world. Gupta’s breakthrough came only after a long period of experimentation and frustration. He turned to his roots, making art from cow-dung patties (used as cheap fuel in village homes), ritual vessels offered in prayers to the dead, everyday pots and pans. His work today—which ranges from sculpture and painting to video and performance—speaks of dislocation, globalization, aspiration, and reinvention.

Kher, whose art touches on similar themes, adopted her signature motif, the bindi, after being captivated by a snakelike one she saw on the forehead of a vegetable vendor. For millions of Indian women the bindi is a symbol of marriage and fertility or piety or the final touch when dressing up. In Kher’s hands bindis—often applied in brightly colored concentric circles on painted board or in swirls on aluminium panels—can be meditative or optically electric.

They can also be haunting. The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own, her well-known sculpture of a dying elephant, is covered in sperm-shaped bindis, denoting their procreative power. “The bindis make its skin come alive, and they make the figure float visually,” says Kher, adding, “I must have been an elephant in my last life.”

Sunil Sethi is a senior editor at NDTV in Delhi. He hosts the show Just Books.