The unmaking of Chintan Upadhyay

The year was 1996. Mumbai was still a little bit of Bombay, the megapolis accepting us migrant cousins 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 excited 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.

We were together at the Faculty of Fine Arts, the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. We couldn’t 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 wanted to change the world. We were rebels without a pause, our shabby kurtasspearheading the mutiny. Baroda gave us the freedom to be. We revelled in it. Little had I ever imagined that Chintan’s freedom would be abruptly curtailed some day for what would look like an unlimited period of time.

But I am digressing again.

The Faculty taught us to think differently, humoring 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. 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 staring at us, as we discovered a whole new universe, all bright and beautiful.

Before we could realize, 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 doordarshan-bred-hum-honge-kamyaab present and our shiny-disco-ball future. And it was a very very tough fight. Our middle-class idealism was being hit on its backside by this new India we did not know much about. But we realized we wanted to embrace this India. Despite the guilt.

The pride in poverty 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 attempted to make 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 pompously 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”.

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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?”

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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 figure that all the personas that I had spoken about had to be a subset of this overarching singular persona that he had to become. That’s how 90s was preparing us to face the new millennium. By becoming a brand new persona enveloping everything. 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, with wines and cheese we never knew existed, 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 talented one. He knew 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. What followed was how most of us 1990s kids embraced the changing times. We figured that life wasn’t about brooding and snorting our middle class affiliations. It was about breaking patterns. It was about earning and spending and earning some more to spend some more. The conflict that was, soon ceased to be. It had been dissolved and resolved.

Chintan, of course, went beyond that. 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 created 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 biennales and triennales 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. Post their formal separation, Chintan started work afresh, low key and guarded. And then, suddenly, Hema was murdered. What followed was a macabre prime time drama that then turned into a tragedy. Insinuations, charges and counter charges. Cops playing art critics, reading motives in his doodles and diary entries. A man in jail since 22nd December 2015, held as a suspect in the double murder of the ex-wife and her lawyer. Guilty until proven innocent. And a trial that is still in progress with witnesses yet to be examined, and the supposed killer still at large. Almost seventy months of confinement. Six long years of waiting. 

The honourable Supreme Court finally granted bail to Chintan on 17th September, 2021. Amongst other things, the Court has instructed him to reside in any place other than Mumbai, and visit the city only for the purpose of attending court. They have banished him from the city that made him into what he is now! 

But I am not going to give this a Shakespearean hue, and project Chintan as the tragic hero. Despite knowing his journey from 1992 to 2021. The prolonged and tedious trek that he took from the Borivali shanty to the Juhu house, and then to the courtrooms and the Thane Jail, redefining his art and himself in the process. Almost thirty-odd 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. I also know that his struggle was real, the achievements hard-earned. I would not want to believe that he would squander it all away just to cater to his whim or vindictiveness. I know his truth. I hope for the world to know it, too.

I am innocent

  I am innocent (I hope you know why) | Performance art | 2013 

I also hope he come out of this more insightful a person. With the same set of hopes, aspirations and positivity that was there when we came to Mumbai in 1996. 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. About what we were and what we became.

We shall curse the 90s. We shall bless the 90s.

(First published in Midday, Mumbai)

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