art focus – fish in a dead landscape – hema upadhyay


As I push open the massive doors of Chemould Prescott Road, a colossal installation titled ‘Moderniznation’ depicting an aerial view of Bombay greets me. Pieces of car-scrap, aluminum sheets and found objects – materials used in the real built elements – spill over the gallery’s walls and floors. Miniaturized green mosque minarets, white church steeples and orange temple sikharas poke their way out of the sea of trampoline and tin squares. I look a little carefully and a cut out of the cricketer Sachin Tendulkar peeps out.

In stark contrast, yet in the same vein are a series of field-scapes, where the artist has painstakingly created panels from thousands of grains of rice, inscribing some with writings, minuscule to the naked eye.

An immigrant to the city like millions of others, including myself, Hema Upadhyay’s art grieves the death of her muse, Bombay.

Urbanization, migration and the city’s disintegrating landscape are recurring themes which she twines and intertwines on her expansive installations and mixed media works. Text from The World Encyclopedia, variously interpreting the quintessence of ‘landscape’ is meticulously arranged to create textures and collages on painted backgrounds. At times Upadhyay flies over the city, at others, observes and still at others becomes part of it, accompanied with migratory birds, monkeys, guns, rare stamps or caricatures of her own self.

Her works, whether monumental or miniscule, can be best described as “storied landscapes”, terrains sullied by pollution, consumerism and mass migration. What further weaves together these apparently disparate artworks is – text. The textual insertions juxtapose into crashing waves, bird feed, and nests, gently permeating the viewer’s mind with almost poker faced wisdom.

While most of her work explores the physical landscape, some delve into that of her mind, no less prone to sullying. A series of open drawers with scattered personal belongings amidst caricatures of herself, and monkeys gamboling over a wooden crate marked “frigile” with her Bombay address, stand testimony to a painful personal period when she felt herself being reduced to a distorted version of herself.

Originally from Baroda, Upadhyay has been part of some of the most important exhibitions globally. Her works, unabashedly autobiographical, are portrayals of her divorce, her feeling of displacement in a new city, and understanding of the Bombay landscape as she perceives it.

The title for her current exhibition, Fish in a Dead Landscape, “incarnating a city that is the shifting summation of expulsions and displacements, but also of acts of miraculous resistance,” almost perfectly captures Upadhyay’s stance on the battered city. It is derived from an evening she spent at Carter Road, Bandra, where fisherfolk were drying dead fish against the landscape; the landscape was made so “filthy” by civilization that the dead fish seemed alive in comparison to the rotting land. Yet, she explains, any disintegration comes with the hope of regeneration, making the former thus beautiful and giving the city its hope.

– – –

Fish in a Dead Landscape is on display at the Chemould Prescott Road art gallery, Fort, Mumbai, 23 September to 7 November, from 11 am to 7 pm.

Moderniznation: Modernize-Nation, 2010
Field-scape, seen through a magnifying glass “… something around it becomes a different tableau …”

Birds flying away from their nests, taking strands with them to make new homes
“… for everything you have missed, you have gained something else …”

Mind landscapes: “Frigile” and thoughts in drawers
Images (top left and above) courtesy Chemould Prescott Road

Detail: The thought, Try and Try

Detail: Frigile

Hema Upadhyay’s interpretation of the 18th Century Japanese artist Hokusai’s The Great Wave uses texts on migration to create the crashing waves at Marine Drive, Bombay, reminiscent of the countless migrants coming to the city everyday
All in a life’s journey 🙂


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