Artists

Among the myriad things that are inextricably linked to the Indian culture, steel utensils are one such collective commodity ubiquitously entrenched in the Indian social fabric. In India, utensils form an integral part of a common man’s daily life not only in the kitchen but other spaces as well. Easily relatable to the average Indian, these utensils have an intriguing history, symbolic significance in mythologies and rituals and carry varied connotations for different economic classes.

S. Kalidas writes that in the Indian milieu, these utensils possess “a secret, sacred life of their own.” He elaborates that, “these objects - the baalti (bucket), the lotaa (squat pitcher), the kumbhaa (pot-bellied pitcher) the kalasham or the gharaa (large pot-bellied pitcher), the pateela (pan), the thaali (plate) and the chimta (tongs)-are also signifiers of widespread cultural, mystical and religious practices in rural and urban class India even today.” [1]

In India, stainless steel utensils first gained popularity in Gujarat and South India because the local cuisine of these areas used a high amount of tamarind which would corrode the ordinary steel utensils but stainless steel, as the name suggests, possessed the quality of staining less. [2] However, it was not easy to procure these utensils since there were very limited productions units in India. The inaccessibility invariably increased the charm of these objects. The unavailability of the steel utensils produced an interesting paradigm of barter system where sellers with baskets full of shiny utensils would go from door to door to exchange them for old clothes. By 1976-77, manufacturing units like Bihar Alloys made their presence felt in the market.

The infiltration of the steel utensils in the Indian markets marked a period of technological advancement and industrial growth. They were signifiers of privilege and prestige. The open shelves in the Indian kitchens would be adorned with neatly arranged steel utensils as markers of proud display of these coveted possessions. However, the liberalization of the Indian economy resulted in an accelerated inflow of imported goods which enabled the Indians to access different kinds of utensils and crockery popular internationally. “Stainless steel lost some of its allure as it became increasingly common.” [3] Fine ceramic and china ware and high quality plastic goods flooded the market and fiercely competed with the steel utensils.

The history of steel utensils highlights the inherent dichotomy within the Indian milieu. The objects that once signified aspirations, prestige and progress are today largely perceived as mere utilitarian entities. However, its everlasting gleam and shine is regarded as luxurious and exotic to the curious international eye which is conditioned to seeing and using ceramic and glass ware.

Hailing from the small town of Khagaul in the eastern state of Bihar, Subodh Gupta carved his path to recognition and worldwide fame through his signature steel utensil artworks. This paper discusses select works comprising steel utensils from Gupta’s oeuvre. The artist recalls having every meal of his day - breakfast, lunch and dinner in these steel utensils. Utensils have often been regarded as his signature artistic medium. A bulk of his oeuvre consists of utensils including plates, vessels, serving spoons, pots, glasses, cups, cutlery and the like. They are amassed and welded together in composite forms or amplified into monumental scales or form huge uncontrollable deluges. These works evoke grandeur and awe with their multiplication and magnification.

Steel utensils appear in Gupta’s works in numerous ways. They appear in their solitary humble form performing their utilitarian function (A Glass of Water), enlarged to a monumental size (Bucket), amassed into huge composite sculptures (Very Hungry God) and arranged like in a regular kitchen (Curry, Take Off Your Shoes and Wash Your Hands, Family Portrait, Jutha). Tension between accumulation and deprivation is escalated in the conglomerations of the shiny steel utensils which are always empty from within. There are also works comprised of worn out and battered utensils that narrate anecdotes of repeated usage through their scratches and evoke a feeling of pathos (This is Not a Fountain).

The idea of employing steel utensils in his artistic expression came to him organically. In an interview of 2009, when the art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist asked Gupta whether he remembers the day he made the decision to use utensils in his art, the artist replied, “It was in 1996, when I started changing my work. I was looking for what material to use, something that is close to me. The kitchen is very important to me, since I love food and cook a lot myself. One day, while I was standing in the kitchen, I was looking at this rack, with stainless steel utensils - plates and cups. I kept looking at it and I was thinking, what am I going to do with this material. I looked at it… and looked at it and suddenly, I saw it in front of me, and that was it. That was the very first piece. The first time I exhibited it was in 1999 in Bombay at Chemould Gallery. The piece was called The Way Home I. But I was playing with this material even before that.” That moment of epiphany initiated an intriguing trajectory which has evolved over the years in terms of his comprehensive understanding of the utensils as an art medium.

The Way Home (I) (2000-2006) is an installation of various stainless steel utensils strewn on the floor in no particular order, perhaps for a ritualised banquet, but contained within the parameters of a sheet glued to the floor. Along with the utensils that mark the regular domestic vicinity, are placed the casts of kattas or the country made guns. Gupta depicts violence nestled within the daily life of Bihar. In his installation, the guns lie casually within and outside the plates, as if the guns are a part of the normal culinary fare. The casual juxtaposition of the domestic and the violent in the sphere of one’s home indicates that even the space that is supposed to be a space of safety and love is not guarded from violence. Amidst the chaos of the utensils and guns, lies a beautiful lotus, the national flower of India. It evokes a feeling of serenity and peace with its blooming petals, perhaps, a symbol of hope within the chaos.

Gupta adopts the idea of displacement of the readymade popularised by the artist Marcel Duchamp in the early 20th century. Gupta’s artworks often comprise objects displaced from their original context and functional use and displayed in a different context. This reorganization of the perception and projection of mundane material is what Gupta’s art thrives on.

He has used the regular steel kitchen rack as an integral component in the following works. His2006installation Curry comprised five steel kitchen racks laden with meticulously arranged cooking, eating and storage steel utensils. The kitchen racks contain all the utensils needed to prepare a curry, the most commonly known dish from the Indian cuisine. The open large cabinets contain utensils displayed in an extremely meticulous fashion. The cautious clinical arrangement of the utensils and the grand scale of the installation elevate the ordinary to the extraordinary.

Take off Your Shoes and Wash Your Hands (2008) is an installation of a multitude of kitchen racks. They are all uniform in dimensions and material, mass produced and store bought. Close scrutiny reveals variations in the way the utensils are arranged. The permutation and combinations of the utensils conceal a nuanced pattern, suggesting a rhythmic continuity.

Family Nest No. 2 (2012) is an installation of a kitchen rack supporting unreasonably large number of utensils. Unlike Curry and Take Off Your Shoes and Wash Your Hands, Family Nest No. 2 comprises a single kitchen rack which is overflowing with the stainless steel utensils, found aluminium and brass utensils and enamel coated steel utensils. The crowded installation appears to have horror vacui or the fear of empty space. Utensils of different metals and colours are arranged in the cabinet shelves, while others unrealistically hang on the periphery of the rack. Gupta portrays the growth of a family in terms of its increasing number of members across generations. The heterogeneous manner in which a family spreads is portrayed through this crowded assemblage of different kinds of utensils. The work is an attempt to trace stories through utensils that are possessed by families through generations and the manner in which each one has a special anecdote attached with a particular member of the family.

Gupta’s My Family Portrait (2013) is an installation of three kitchen racks collected from his cousins’ households, arranged in a cluster against the wall. Unlike Curry and Take Off Your Shoes and Wash Your Hands, the arrangement of utensils and the scale of this installation are extremely humble. Steel utensils are mixed with plastic and ceramic utensils. Dispensable plastic containers of take-out food and cleaning brushes feature on the racks as well. The arrangement of the objects is not as calculated as in the case of Curry and Take Off Your Shoes and Wash Your Hands but appears to be based on their quotidian usage pattern. The contents of each rack and their callous arrangement cite a personal touch of their original owner. Each rack references to the kind of food and methods of cooking adopted by its owner. The piece resonates with familiarity, domestic convenience and personal choices. Gupta brings the racks from the private realm of his cousins’ homes into the public realm of the elitist white cube space where the objects engage in a dialogue with each other. The work exemplifies the idea of personal histories, decisions and lived experiences through variations and characteristics of each rack and its contents. He addresses aspects of identity and connects familial relations through the humble kitchen racks.

Notions of purity are deeply intertwined with food in the Indian context. In India, a great degree of veneration is accorded to food right from the time of production to consumption but the remnants of the same are neglected and shunned as jutha or impure because of the oral contact.

The installation of 2005 entitled Jutha comprises of used utensils chaotically piled up in successive kitchen sinks lined in a row. An audio track of water rinsing these utensils accompanies the work which is audible as one advances towards the sinks. The concept of jutha or the contaminated and impure implies oral contact with the food or the utensils. The work alludes to ideas of impurity, purity and exclusion that exist in the Indian tradition. Gupta also references the act of reflection and rumination that the person washing the dishes undergoes while performing the mundane task. The person doing the dishes is usually alone while doing the task and has considerable amount of time to reflect on the prior events of the day or on any particular memories. The artist alludes to one’s wandering thoughts while performing mundane and repetitive tasks.

Gupta’s fascination with the theme of cleansing of dishes as seen in Jutha is revisited in This is Not a Fountain (2011-2013). It is a massive accumulation of approximately five thousand old and worn out aluminium vessels interspersed with faucets rising vertically amidst the utensils recycling a pool of water. The piece depicts washing of the utensils that once contained food. It refers to the common water faucets in villages and slums where women wash the utensils of their respective households. It highlights the class inequalities that exist in India where a large number of people still do not have access to adequate amount of water and proper sanitation.

Unlike the shiny steel utensils, these used objects, marked with visible wear and tear were obtained by the artist from junkyards and shops where such objects are melted into a unified mass of aluminium for reuse. These battered utensils entail their own respective stories visible in their characteristic scratches and dents. They appear to have belonged to their respective households for a considerable period of time before they got damaged enough to be discarded and replaced by new ones. The condition of the utensils and the underlying intention behind the installation evokes a feeling of pathos.

Certain works refer to the ritual of offerings to gods and the state of deprivation and hunger. Owing to his extremely religious family, as a child, Gupta had an intensive foundation in religious rituals. Even though he does not practice any religion, his orientation with religious beliefs seeps into his art profoundly.

Five Offerings to the Greedy Gods (2006) is a heap of stainless steel utensils. Gupta references the five elements or panchabhuta, namely, Earth (prithvi), Water (jal), Fire (agni), Air (vayu) and Ether (akasha), as offerings to placate the hungry gods. These five fundamental elements possess their own characteristics and celestial elements according to the Hindu mythology. The utensils function as receptacles of cosmic power and signify the five fundamental elements.

God Hungry (2006) is an installation of an accumulation of shiny steel utensils which seems to flow uncontrollably from the arches inside the Church of Saint Marie-Madeleine in Lille, France. The agglomeration of buckets, glasses, ladles, pots, pans and other stainless steel utensils appear to flow out like a liquid.

Poverty and starvation is an unfortunate reality of mostdevelopingcountries. The artist plays on the contrast of the utensils that are bright and shiny but empty inside. Many people possess these commonplace utensils but do not have access to basic daily meals to fill their utensils with.

Very Hungry God (2006) is a gigantic human skull conceived by Gupta using pots, pans, glasses and buckets for Le Nuit Blanche or the White Night in Paris. It was also displayed at the Venice Biennale in 2006 where it was installed on a platform erected on the Grand Canal outside Palazzo Grassi, after which it was bought by the eminent art collector, Francois Pinnault. The highly polished surfaces of the utensils form a bright and dazzling spectacle that reflect any form of light falling on them and the surroundings. It is noteworthy that the same theme of hungry gods executed with the same material of steel utensils assumes a recognizable figurative form in this piece.

Gupta’s idea behind this work was inspired from the idea that people usually remember and recall god with great frustration, anger and sadness in times of natural or manmade calamities. The customary call to god in crisis associated with loss of human life was interpreted by Gupta in an ontological way of god devouring human beings to satisfy his hunger. He stated that absence of food leads to hunger which leads to death and inversely, food leads to life, so in that sense, his art deals with issues of life and death. [4]

There have been ample references of skull imagery in international and Indian art history. The Renaissance period saw the origin of Vanitas paintings - still life paintings which contained symbols of death like skulls, decaying fruit and hourglasses. These symbols served as reminders for the impermanence of physical life and thus, to encourage people to ensure a good life after death by observing good virtues and deeds. The European audience was thus familiar with the portrayal of skull imagery in art but perhaps, did not expect it to be depicted in the unfamiliar material and by an Indian artist. The artist shares that the European people were surprised that an Indian depicted a symbol of Vanitas in his works. He says that, “when I made my skull and many people asked me ki you Indian, how come you made the vanity, European vanity, how come you are making our sculpture? I said it’s our sculpture too. Chamunda, the Aghori babas, even the Kali necklace, no? Even we have many things in our life. So I was like, hello! Many people don’t know many things about us, no?” [5]

Gupta has made a few editions of a work that primarily involve tiffin boxes stationed on a moving conveyor. At a glance, the works appear similar but differ in their titles and the shapes, sizes and material of the tiffin boxes. All the works incorporate kinetic movement. The tiffin boxes are empty inside and lead to nowhere but circulate on the same closed circuit. The works explore the effects and influences of globalization. The tall tiffin boxes bear resemblance to sky scrapers of Mumbai, Delhi and other megalopolises of the world. "I love food and I cook it too...in a manner of speaking I use utensils as a metaphor for food and the way it has travelled across cultures and countries in my work," says Gupta. [6] The work references the cross-cultural exchange and availability of multiple cuisines worldwide. In Sushi Belt, the title reiterates the role of a conveyor belt in Japanese restaurants where sushi is continually served on a moving belt. On this sushi belt, Gupta places the tiffin boxes that are ubiquitously seen in India, in which millions of people carry their lunch to work. In Mumbai, the dabbawallas, commute with thousands of such tiffins ensuring that people working in different parts of the city get their home cooked or tiffin centre meal on time. The artist directly references the age old silk route used for trade exchange across India and Asia in Silk Route (2007) made with rustproof stainless steel tiffin boxes. Because of this widely used trade route, spices integral to Indian cuisine were enabled to travel across geographical barriers and reach far off lands. This route aided in the economic development and exchange of ideas and information. Faith Matters (2007) incorporates steel, aluminium, copper and brass containers. The boxes also vary in terms of their size and type. The three works are based on the same concept but differ slightly in terms of their medium and scale.

On a metaphorical level, these works allude to the movement of food, cuisines, people, ideas, flavours and cultures in a larger sense from one place to another in today’s globalized world where geographical barriers are immaterial in terms of transmission and exchange of any kind of information. The tiffin boxes may be seen as people belonging to different countries, as tall buildings or simply as containers of different foodstuffs. Perhaps, the different metals, alloys, sizes of the tiffin boxes signify various races and nationalities that co-exist, cross paths and intermingle.

Gupta’s most simple work is entitled A Glass of Water (2011). The title plainly and directly describes the work. Stationed on a wooden table, the steel glass is filled to the brim with water. The marvellous simplicity of this work compels one to question if the glass actually contains just water as the title claims. The un-spilled water makes one doubt the very nature of the liquid. The work forces one to ruminate, speculate and investigate. This work is an outstanding exception from Gupta’s popular large scale works.

It is observed that utensils became a leitmotif in Gupta’s artistic vocabulary after the mid-nineties. Today, his name is literally synonymous with steel utensils. Apart from their formal and aesthetic appeal, steel utensils have immense significance in his personal life. In the past, he has shared on record that he ate all three meals of his day in steel utensils. In that manner, his day began and ended with those utensils.

The fact that the utensils are found in every Indian kitchen enables greater relatibility and easier comprehension of Gupta’s art language. His art appeals to the lay man as well as the art connoisseur. The aesthetic quality of his art has transcended cultural and regional boundaries and has made an indelible mark in the international space.

The artist’s process of procuring the utensils and making the artworks has evolved over the years. Initially he would buy the utensils form the market but over the years his works require a specific grade of rustproof utensils which are unavailable in the market. His newer works utilise magnified versions of the usual utensils. To meet these demands, the artist procures custom made utensils from various foundries all over the world. Engineers and technicians are deeply involved in the planning, structuring and physical building of the artwork.

Eventhough Gupta has explored diverse mediums and forms like paintings, video art, performance art, installations of cow dung, patlas, caste works in different metals like bronze and gold, he continues to employ steel utensils in his works which dominate his oeuvre.

After decades of working with the material, Gupta perceives the universe within these receptacles. For him, they allude to the cosmos. He knows how to appropriate and mould them into any form as he works on their soul.

Notes

[1] S Kalidas, “Of Capacities and Containment: Poetry and politics in the art of Subodh Gupta,” in Subodh Gupta: Gandhi’s Three Monkeys (New York: Jack Shainman Gallery, 2008), 84.

[2] Vikram Doctor, “A Stainless Steel Centenary in India,” Economic Times (blog), September 6, 2013, http://blogs.economictimes.indiatimes.com/onmyplate/a-stainless-steel-centenary-in-india/.

[3] Ibid

[4] Subodh Gupta, “Subodh Gupta and Hans Ulrich Obrist in Conversation,” in Subodh Gupta: The Common Man, ed. Sara Harrison (Zurich: JRP Ringier, 2010), 14.

[5] Subodh Gupta, in discussion with the researcher, 28 April, 2015
Published in the National Museum Institute Journal (ICON) in 2015.
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