(Today’s Mumbai Mirror carried a front page story on how artist Chintan Upadhyay, languishing behind bars for almost 15 months now, is going through clinical depression, and that the Thane jail superintendent is now allowing him to paint to counter the same. Chintan has been in prison in connection with the murder of his wife Hema and her lawyer Harish Bhambhani in 2015. Nothing has been proved so far, the main culprit is still at large, the case drags on… and an artist remains in jail since forever. Because he is guilty unless proven innocent.
I have grown up with Chintan Upadhyay. He is my friend. And my friend is not a murderer.)
The year was 1998. Mumbai was still a little bit of Bombay, the fair-haired megapolis accepting us migrant cousins, the mofussil India denizens, with open arms. Chintan Upadhyay and I were amongst the very many who had come to the city to make her our home. Mumbai was beautiful and affectionate, inspiring and challenging. The taller-than-tall apartments wowed us, the shimmering lights of the Crossroads mall and the display windows of Rupam and VAMA showrooms aroused us. We were romancing with the local trains and rented homes in decrepit lower middle class societies, savouring our starvation in late night road side bhurji-pavs amidst the golden-brown haze of the sleeping city, revisiting our tangential dreams. And we knew we were growing up in an environment that we would romanticise about some day.
But I am digressing.
Chintan and I were together at the Faculty of Fine Arts, the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. (I was ragged by him the day I had joined college!) He wanted to become a painter. I wanted to be an Art Critic. Neither of us could take the isms and theories that we thought the world, the art world in particular, was drugged with. We wanted to create our own idiom, our own language, our own movement. We did our bit in college, questioning everything around us, celebrating the yellow and the red cards thrown at us. We wanted to change the world. We were rebels without a pause, our shabby kurtas spearheading the mutiny. Baroda gave us the freedom to be. We revelled in it, especially Chintan. Little had I ever imagined that his freedom would be abruptly curtailed some day.
But I am digressing again.
The Faculty taught us to think differently, humouring our attempts to create the revolution. Revolution of another kind was getting simultaneously created by one Dr. Manmohan Singh. The wise man sure was doing his bit to prod and perturb us lesser mortals. While Ganesha was drinking milk straight from the carton, McDonald’s was about to get launched in India. While masjids were getting demolished, what once were the goodies in the foreign-returned-suitcases were now being seen at the local stores. Liberalisation and Globalisation were ceasing to be mere buzz words. We could see the results in the hostel common room with MTV’s funky graphics and Malaika Arora’s legs staring at us, as we discovered a whole new universe, all bright and beautiful.
Before we could realise it, we were in a strange, uncomfortable place. We could no longer figure who or what were we rebelling against. It was an odd conflict brewing in our hearts and our heads. This dispute wasn’t just between ideas and ideals. The fight was amongst our sanskaari past, our hum-le-ke-rahenge-azaadi present and our shiny-disco-ball future. And it was a very very tough fight. Our middleclass idealism was being hit on its backside by this new India we did not know much about. But we realised we wanted to embrace this India. Despite the guilt.
The pride in penury was stupid.
We were the gareeb consumerists, sold to the idea of consumerism, though not having the means to live it. It was during these days in Mumbai that I curated what was Chintan’s first independent exhibition. Titled This Has Been Done Before, the exhibition was our tribute to the Turkish artist Bedri Baykam, making a point against what we thought were the prejudiced norms, aesthetics and points of view in the world of Indian art. The catalogue was complete with a “Common Minimum Programme” for young artists. We had heated debates on what should the communication be. Chintan wanted to be loud and vociferous. I was recommending a more subdued approach. We ended up calling Picasso and Gauguin ‘derivative artists’, and talked against the “biased and old fashioned attitude of the artists and art historians of the present century”.
This Has Been Done Before catalogue | 1998
This is how my piece began: “What, exactly, is Chintan Upadhyay? A frustrated phallicentric nerd out to prove the sexual connotations and escapades of everything surrounding him? Or a confused, overgrown kid, still in an animated awe of his trinkets and toys, but whispering voices of discontent against the system promoting their production? Is he just another faceless addition to a metropolis, coming to terms with the various layers of personae being gifted to him by the assemblage of cultures in a big city? Or is he simply an artist, sensitive to all things red, blue and green, exploring for an order in disorder despite his own sarcastic sneers against this search?”
Multicultural face in a cosmopolitan city (Mumbai) | Acrylic on canvas | 10’ x 6’ | 1998
The exhibition was a failure.
Not Chintan, though. He was sharp enough to realise that all the personas that I had spoken about had to be a subset of this overarching singular persona that he had to become. The Common Minimum Programme was, therefore, out of his life. As were the thoughts of creating an artists’ collective. He had to get there first himself. He had to be in a space where he would be self explanatory and nobody would have to elaborate on “What is Chintan Upadhyay”. He latched on to the right people, allowing them to manufacture him. He figured the importance of marketing, of full page ads in Bombay Times pushing his works. Commemorative Stamps, his 2002 exhibition, flaunting the presence of filmstars and other pretty people at the opening, and a completely new artistic language, was a super hit. A brand was born.
There was no looking back after that. Chintan was always the supremely talented one. He realised it in time that it was not about being just an artist. It was about being a popular and successful artist. The kind that sells. It was about earning and spending and earning some more to spend some more. The Raphaels and Van Goghs and Manets and Monets were meant to be seen in person. The fancy perfumes were meant to be sprayed on. The aircrafts were meant to be flown in. The conflict that was, soon ceased to be. It had been dissolved and resolved.
In the quest to become a consumerist, he became a heavily marketed consumable product himself over the next ten years. We continued to play conscience keepers to each other, although I now suspect our chats, infrequent and few, were more to flaunt and justify our acts and actions than question them. I don’t know how convinced I was of the transformation of the Multicultural face in a cosmopolitan city to the mass produced Chintu, and also those performance art sessions to shock and awe, but I guess he knew what he was doing. Chintan and Hema – another friend from the Faculty of Fine Arts – became the ‘it couple’ of the Mumbai art scene. His ganda bachchas were all over. She was kicking some serious ass as an artist of repute in various exhibitions across the globe. Chintan’s compromises – artistic and otherwise – were worth the heartburn. He had become famous. He had arrived. He had become one with Mumbai.
But then again, success and fame have their own trappings. The couple learnt it the hard way. After some very petty fights and a very public spat over their divorce proceedings, their love story came to a tragic and abrupt end. Hema was murdered. What followed was a macabre prime time drama that continues to get rolled out. Insinuations, charges and counter charges. Cops playing art critics, reading motives in his doodles and diary entries. And a man in jail for more than a year now, held as a suspect in the double murder of the ex-wife and her lawyer.
I am not here to offer arguments. But I know of Chintan’s expedition from 1992 to 2017. Twenty-five long years, how it all panned out, how our values, successes and failures got defined and redefined. I know of his hopes and desires, fears and apprehensions. I know he is very many things, or that he became very many things that I think he was not. But one thing that I know he certainly is not, and can never be, is a murderer. Not after the prolonged and tedious journey he took from the Borivali shanty to the Juhu house, redefining his art and himself in the process. It was hard earned. He would never ever squander it away.
I understand it sounds simplistic, my conclusion, but I also understand it is the truth. I know the man. I know his life. I don’t care whether the matter is sub-judice or whatever the technical term is which prompts people to not have an opinion on an on-going case. My friend Chintan Upadhyay is NOT a murderer.
I am innocent (I hope you know why) | Performance art | 2013
More than a year of confinement of an artist, of a sensitive, intelligent person is not a done thing. Especially if it is leading to clinical depression. But, apparently, this is how the system works, psychological traumas be damned. The only consolation is that he will come out of this unscathed. He will emerge more insightful a person and more piercing an artist. Loud and vociferous, as he used to be!
I may ask him to go back to the Common Minimum Programme when we meet up. He owes me a chai and a long conversation. And, while we are at it, the bastard also owes me some money back from the college days!