Material world: Subodh Gupta at Hauser & Wirth

The first time I met Subodh Gupta was the day before the opening of India’s first Biennale, in Kochi, Kerala. The city was melting in humidity and Gupta’s work, like many, was not ready.

Filling the air with the smell of the hemp stitches that hold its hull together, his piece consisted of a vast fishing boat, sprawled on the floor of the cavernous colonial-era warehouse. Crammed with the detritus of migrancy – suitcases, chairs, blankets, kitchen utensils, a bicycle – it was a Leviathan memento mori to the hopes, fears and uncertainties of lives in transit.

Gupta, a wiry figure in T-shirt and dusty jeans, was perched on the hull, speaking into a cellphone as workmen swarmed around the prow. The plan was to hoist the 4-tonne boat upwards; no crane was available.

I whispered to the PR official that perhaps we should come back another time. Gupta is an art-world superstar, best-known for installations assembled from mirror-shiny, stainless-steel pots, pans and tiffin-boxes, such as “Line of Control” (2008), a mushroom-cloud of utensils that is a metaphor for the conflict between India and Pakistan, which was bought by Indian collector Kiran Nadar, and “A Very Hungry God” (2006), a vast skull acquired by François Pinault to stand outside the French tycoon’s Venetian museum on the Grand Canal.

Yet the artist turned out to be as grounded as his boat, chatting easily and treating his assistants with delicate courtesy. But when I said that the boat looked sufficiently breathtaking as it was, he looked aghast. “No, no, when you see it up there, you will understand.”

Gupta's 'A Very Hungry God' (2006) at Frieze in London, 2008

Gupta was right to insist on his crane. The following day the boat loomed above us as if it were riding the wave of emotion intrinsic to exile and return. Although inspired by Kochi’s centuries-old history of transient peoples – the boat was found in a local dockyard – Gupta’s feeling for scale and material had turned it into something universal.

It is a measure of his talent that the work retains its punch in London W1. It now rears up in the pristine, post-industrial space that is Hauser and Wirth’s Savile Row gallery but even here its physical presence – that sawdust sharp smell, the sea-stained wood, the pathos of its cargo – is potent. It acts as a reminder that behind London’s cosmopolitan fandango whirl a myriad human stories of departure and arrival. And since leaving India it has acquired a title: “What does the vessel contain, that the river does not.”

“I don’t study books so much,” Gupta tells me as we drink coffee in the gallery’s meeting room. “But I like to read poetry, and that line is from a poem by Rumi [the 13th-century Sufi mystic]. It means the whole world is there. The whole life is there.”

Listening to him, it is not difficult to see why Rumi resonates. Gupta’s own sentences are graceful but elliptical peregrinations that, like a successful poem, somehow resolve into sentiments of insight and clarity.

“I belong to everyday life; to normal life,” is how he responds when I ask how the piece came into being. “The material is so common; it is all mine. The material belongs to my family. This is where I come from.”

Gupta does not mean that he came from a marine background. He grew up in Khagaul, in the northern Indian state of Bihar, a place where, like his own family, “99 per cent of people worked on the railways”. Instead, he is gesturing at the intimate connection he feels with items – from tiffin-boxes to mattresses and bicycles – that are the anonymous, essential actors in daily life. His irony-free intensity marks him out from other titans of the ready-made such as Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, whose works often seem to scoff at our ingenuousness for taking them seriously.

Although he shies away when I ask him to elaborate on his childhood – “I will get trapped in my family” – soon he is describing his early life with lyrical candour. “Everything comes back to my mother ... She had something. She was a wonderful cook. She was very good at sewing.”

Her influence was all the stronger because his father, a railway worker, died when Gupta was only 12. “She used to take me to the theatre,” he remembers. “I wanted to be an actor.”

And, he says, “ceremony was [our] culture”. Every event was marked by rituals enacted through objects as much as language. “Every time there was a ceremony my mother would tell me to bring three things: milky grass, a mango leaf and cow dung.”

The kitchen felt like sacred territory: a place where hands must be clean; feet must be bare; certain items were reserved for special occasions. “My mother taught me to cook but I was [rarely] allowed in the kitchen,” he remembers, although today friends attest that he is a magnificent chef.

Jump forward 30 years and Gupta was a struggling painter in Delhi, having put himself through art college thanks to a job as an illustrator, and married to the artist Bharti Kher, who today is also extremely successful. “Bharti looked at my paintings and said, ‘What are you doing? ... It’s not good.’ But I was good at cooking,” he continues. “I looked at the pots and pans in the kitchen and I brought everything, ev-er-y-thing,” – he draws out the syllables to express the chaos he caused – “into the studio, which was also our sitting-room. And I said, ‘There is something happening here.’ ”

That ability to intuit where the real drama lies, and then translate his perception into work that shines, both literally and metaphorically, with triumphant formalism has been Gupta’s great gift. Yet “What does the vessel” possesses a sombre, interior melancholy that suggests it is a departure. Both vessel and cargo are devoid of his trademark gleam. (“Shiny and empty” is his pithy explanation for the symbolism of those spotless pans.) Asked about the change, Gupta says: “You’re looking all the time for something. And achieving something new, yet going in the same direction.”

He says the timeworn essence of “What does the vessel” was inspired by the unusual backdrop of that Kochi warehouse. “I am always good in an unconventional space. The material tells a story. If it is broken, it comes from the reality of life.”

Like his boat, Gupta has travelled far from his birthplace. Does its poignance spring from his own nostalgia? “I still go to my home town,” he says quietly. “My heart runs with them, no matter which palace I live in.”

To July 27,

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