In a few hours from now, you will hear Mumbai's joint commissioner of police for crime, Deven Bharti, addressing the press to inform them that 44-year-old contemporary artist Hema Upadhyay and her lawyer, Harish Bhambhani, were found murdered, their plastic-wrapped bodies retrieved from cardboard boxes in a sewer in Kandivali. By Monday morning, you will hear that Hema's body was so mutilated, her brother could only recognise her by a surgical scar, that her mother had been searching for her since Friday night, when she didn’t come home after a dinner, that she had teased her about being non-vegetarian, Hema assuring her it was pure vegetarian, it being at a Gujarati household, and that friends like Jitish and Reena Kallat, Shireen Gandhi and husband Kurush and others didn't sleep a wink all night wondering if she was okay.
Then you will hear the mess of her divorce. Her passionate and messy divorce with ex-husband Chintan Upadhyay will be dug up and splattered across every tabloid. Because this is what the news cycle feasts on. And then it will be inescapable that this will be how we remember her. Hema the murdered. Hema the wronged. Hema the missing.
I thought I would intervene to put the Hema I knew as a person and artist out there before she is lost.
Hema was soulful, she was gentle, she was warm and with a vibrant sense of humour. She, by far, the better artist of the couple she formed with Chintan Upadhyay, was capable of putting others first, allowing Chintan to climb to fame, success and money well before she burst on to the scene.
Diminutive as she may have been, she was equally fiercely independent. She was a far more contextualised artist, aware of her surroundings, constantly reading her milieu. When I met her in 2014 for her "Fish in a Dead Landscape", a solo coming after almost a decade, she was excited to show me one work in particular. She took me by the hand to the swirling birds’ nest made up of news clippings that symbolised the trauma of the expanding metropolis.
She had studied news reports for months to create a physical and metaphoric cloud of what we stood for as a city. I was jealous that the most visible amongst the news reports pasted in to form a physical text to the work displayed the Tehelka black crow, and not India Today. She swore India Today (and The Indian Express) informed her more than anyone else did. I was petulant and she indulgent. She swore she was working on another one and would periodically pop up with proof that she was following our work as keenly as we followed hers. I was still waiting to see it when the news of her passing came in.
This happy banter apart, this I knew of her, that she read voraciously. Stories of the city, of its people, of migration and hardship, of fitting in and belonging. Her way of belonging had shifted, from that of an outsider to that of an insider. “I approached reality through a process of time. The evolution I feel now is that Mumbai has now become an ‘object’ for me. Where I am encountering it with an authority of an insider,” she wrote to me of this shift a while ago. In this, along with Reena and Jitish Kallat, Shilpa Gupta, Atul Dodiya and others within the group of Mumbai artists, Hema was not content to simply feel and create. She needed to know. She needed to inform herself. She needed to fit herself into the pieces of the puzzle she was painting. She used the tarpaulin, the asbestos, the rice grain, the plastic, bottles, chips, broken scraps, fragments of news that become the humbler elements of city life. Her detailing was painstaking and disruptive.
When news of her death and where she was found trickled in, I naively assumed she had been scoping some shady neighbourhood to inform her work more and for a second my heart sank that she had not called me to go along. Alas the truth is far worse. But Hema was such she used scale to explain what texture could not alone achieve. All this, she seemed to say, is in the aid of belonging.
It was not always easy. Belonging in this age, she explained to me, was realising that we all borrow from each other to sustain. “My works contain a lot of readymade imagery, not necessarily painted by me, but referred, in this age of image and information metaphors are easy. Because their belonging has become so universal so the work does allow this metaphysical reading, the back and forth, accepting or rejection of an idea in the mind of the viewer.”
Though Mumbai was her adoptive home, the Baroda-born artist that she was, pairing up with Chintan in 1992 and migrating to Mumbai in 1998, she began to belong her fragments co-opting the fragments of this city. Seeking that sense of belonging informed her first show "Sweet Sweat Memories" in 2001. It was also the year of her first international solo, "The Nymph and the Adult". In 2006, she collaborated with her mother Bina Hirani, in a quirky work called "Mummy". She had a sense of the quixotic. Her exhibit in Rome in 2009, for the opening of the MACRO museum was entitled "Where the Bees Suck, There Suck I". By 2012, her works, then tinged with the trauma of a messy divorce, were more difficult.
If "Mute Migration" was bleak and choiceless, her 2014 solo "Fish in a Dead Landscape" was an apportioning of blame. We did this, she seemed to want to say. We are creating this swirling mass of evolutionary urbanism in which the birds and the fish are more alive than we allow them to be.
The birds at least were free to flit, and she seemed to long for their freedoms while fearing for their loss. “The birds signify a role of a migrant in my works, they symbolise the migration that takes place in season, I draw a parallel to the human migration which takes place within the cities and the kind of changes they bring with them, to the etiquette, social fabric, and the landscape of the city. The kind of changes that come with the human migration are very drastic, and the humans make a life possible in the most extreme living conditions. Whereas, on the other hand, the birds cannot and thy probably will be extinct from that area. Or the face of the earth. The bell jar signifies taxidermy birds one finds in natural history museum,” she wrote to me a year ago.
Her pain was open. The property dispute, the messy accusations, the dissolution of any passionate relationship was not easy, and Chintan and she did to each other through anger, what they could no longer do to each other through love: my belief and those of several of the couple’s friends is that irrespective of what surfaces this evening on, the passion that ran between them went both ways. Caricaturing herself as an empty chest of dressing table drawers in her last solo and him as a box of monkeys, she washed over it all with her gentle sense of humour and her abiding sense of aesthetics.