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Two ways of Seeing Jootha.
1. The first morsel is to cut all delusions. The second morsel is to maintain our clear mind. The third morsel is to save all sentient beings. May we awaken together with all beings. - Buddhist meal chant
2. “Haa vu! Haa vu! Haa vu! Aham annam aham annam aham annam! Aham annado’ham annado’ham annadah! Aha’m slokakrt aha’m slokakrt aha’m slokakrt!
I am the food, I am the food, I am the food! I am the eater of the food, I am the eater of the food, I am the eater of the food! I am the maker of verse, I am the maker of verse, I am the maker of verse!
-From the Taittiriya Upanishad
There is something strikingly reflective and meditative about Subodh Gupta’s new work .The paintings depict the quiet end to a meal or coffee with used cups and plates and rumpled napkins against a stark background. But the meal has been had in solitude, and bears no trace of excess. That which is left over is spare, unadorned and scant. The overwhelming sense of impermanence through the crumbling of materiality suffuses the work. Eating is more than simply a vehicle for nourishment. Rather, in a more nuanced religious view it is a primal interaction with the entire phenomenal universe. It is not of surprise that there is something sacred about the process that is codified in many major religions. Gupta takes this on and slows down the process by being attentive to that part of the meal that is usually unremarked upon.
In sharp contrast to the sparkle and spectacle of his iconic stainless steel works, the paintings that comprise a large part of the show suggest a much more muted, restrained and discreet engagement. It is direct and sincere. Not so much work that easily lends itself to political or social metaphor, but rather a candid and self-revealing plain-spokenness which is also central to the personality. The Bihari is here, but as the individual. Not the bearer of second tier town personality, not the bearer of the memory of the import-substitution past, not the commenter on materialist India, but rather the reflective and mindful artist who wishes to slow the world down and to achieve some sort of stillness in the midst of a chaotic life.
Subodh Gupta’s emblematic stainless steel works have been, like Sylvia Plath’s mirror, “silver and exact’. Also, like Plath’s mirror, they have tended to “swallow everything whole”, pushing any gaze backwards, and never revealing anything internal. The paintings reverse this. We are provided a rare glimpse at the interiority of the artist. The work provides a strong sense of the artist’s own body and saliva. There is the sense of a deeply felt enjoyment, of the moment of self-constitution and regeneration implicit in the act of eating.
And yet, despite the seemingly straightforward nature of the work, the paintings also afford some wry hints at the artist’s own public persona. In many, the stainless steel provides a sharp glint, reminiscent of his more iconic works. In another, an iPhone or a wine glass is apparent and off center—a sharp reminder of the concerns with materialism and indulgence that pervade his earlier work.
The sculptures that comprise part of the show are more vintage Gupta. An oversized chandelier created of stainless steel buckets and tube-lights sparkles and reflects in a noisy and tumultuous display and provides a humorous and brio reminder of the artist’s unique ability to represent middle India’s simultaneous impulses towards tradition and new materialism. In other sculptures however, the same quietude, humor and self-possession of the paintings remain. A miniature stainless steel kitchen does away with the demonstration of size and instead allows for a less grandiloquent meditation on the centrality of the kitchen and eating. Two metallic spoons stand by themselves and hold somewhat hideous treats- a set of miniature skulls and the leaden grey weight of cement, speaking to the transformative power of digestion and of the inevitably destructive nature of eating.
2. It is also possible to read Jootha as providing a somewhat wry social commentary and an indication of the distance between the self and the other as well as of the continued differences in cultural understandings of the place of the kitchen and of cooking and eating in the Hindu context. The notion of cross contamination of utensils or food through oral contact (or Jootha) is a pan Indian concept and represents perhaps one of the strongest Hindu food taboos. At the most fundamental level it denotes a critical cultural understanding of the barrier between self and the other.
The significance of the Shabari story in the Ramayana is that it explodes this distinction precisely through the shattering of the taboo. The barriers between caste and gender are removed by the sharing of impure and half eaten fruits. The ambiguous rendering of this story in different versions of the Ramayana speak to the ways in which the taboo, even if shattered by a god, continues to haunt us.
While everyone has their own story of cultural discomforts that come about when Hindus interact with other cultures, Jootha brings to memory my own.
In the early years of liberalization, a visiting American family enrolled their daughter in my high school. Bright, loud and funny, E. was well-liked by everyone. One day, when returning home on the school bus, she turned around and offered me some chewing gum that she had brought. And then, realizing that the packet was empty she simply took out the piece that she was chewing and offered it to me instead. In that fragile and liminal stage of adolescence, the horrors of social shame become greatly amplified. I felt an instantaneous combination of panic, bafflement and disgust meant that I could not speak to her for a bit after that without feeling uncomfortable.
Recently, prompted by the demons of the mind when one is awake at 4 AM, I googled her after not hearing from her in about fifteen years. The one link that showed up was her obituary at the age of 33.
Among the very first memories that rushed up in the early morning was of that long forgotten afternoon all those thirsty years ago, when a young girl broke a taboo that she did not sense and lost, at least, temporarily, a well-wisher. And the reaction this time within me, was a deep regret and not being able to share in the act of friendship. The barriers we construct so carelessly, starting with our bodies, are our own bonds against fulfillment and plenitude.
Arjun Jayadev is an associate professor of economics at the University Of Massachusetts, Boston. His research focuses on the ways in which policy shifts that have occurred globally over the last three decades have impacted distributional outcomes (measured in terms of income, wealth and power). He has been a fellow at Columbia University’s Committee on Global Thought and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute in New York.