By Rajkumari Tankha
From his series Excavations of Hymns of Clay, renowned artist Manav Gupta brings to fore a beautiful public art project on sustainable development. On display at the Plaza Steps, India Habitat Centre in New Delhi, the installation – Rain, the Ganga Waterfront Along The Time Machine – depicts the flow of River Ganga from its origin at Gangotri, down to its tributaries in various Indian cities. The artist has used the architectural design of the building to depict the flow of the revered river, creating ripples and waves with diyas and chillums.
Hymns of Clay is a spectacular piece de art, quintessentially Indian in thought and creation. In addition, for all those who care to take note, it sends across a strong message on sustainable development. The use of diyas and chillums to depict the flow of the holy river has perhaps been done for the first time in the world. And the effect is picturesque indeed. That the artist is able to create a visual image of a river, miles away from its shore, without any use of water speaks volumes about his talent.
“The diya is used as a metaphor for earth and several of them put together depict the Ganga as the idiom,” says Gupta. “It took me one week to do this installation work here, over one month to weave the chillums at my studio but much longer to procure these earthen artifacts from the potters across the city,” he adds.
“I have been wanting to do this project since many years…. And I am glad there has been a record turnout of about a hundred thousand footfalls so far. Visitors have been commenting vociferously on it which shows that there is surely a demand for public art,” he says.
“The earthen lamp is woven in the cultural-religious fabric of India since time immemorial. And chillum is a means of cheap intoxication to gratify. This humble small clay bowl and the local “cigar” have a nondescript existence and only during that momentary use turn into the medium of gratifying the desires of the soul or the senses. Taken for granted. Anointed when needed. Only revered when in use. Their life is strange like the Ganga. And how we use the earth's resources while we live our own life in this minuscule moment of time in the universe,” opines Gupta.
“The Time Machine with earthen cups denotes the value of time and how we are running out of it in the context of sustainability,” he says.
Besides other Indian cities, Gupta has been invited to take this installation art to US and London. “I could have depicted any river, but why I did Ganga is because this is our sacred river, connected to the core of our identity. For us it is not just a river, but a part of our culture, our identity,” he says. “This spiritual connect couldn’t have come with any other river,” he adds.
In the words of noted art critic Keshav Malik: Manav’s art, facing both forwards and inwards, is a contemplation of spiritual and the natural communion. He has a precise understanding of color and form as the language with which nature tries to communicate meanings and values.
Gupta has widely exhibited all over the world. His latest installations via Travelling Trilogies in US, Europe, South Africa and the Middle East have got rave reviews from international media.
Gupta has, to his credit, two of the biggest solo-commissioned artworks: The world record five-floor 10,000 sq. ft. mega mural at Airtel Centre, in Gurgaon (India) and the 20 ft-high Indo-Bhutan friendship mural in Bhutan.
However, public art is not his only claim to fame.
In 2003, he was invited by former President Dr A.P.J. Adbul Kalam for a book of poetry and paintings, Life Tree. For two years, he worked with Dr Kalam, giving shape to his words, and in words of Dr Kalam, converting Life Tree into Speaking Tree.
The same year (2003), he also pioneered the concept of jugalbandi wherein he painted live with leading vocalist Shubha Mudgal performing at Ashok Hotel, Delhi. Later he did jugalbandi with other artists like violnist Dr L. Subramanium, vocalist Anoop Jalota and Santoor player Rahul Sharma, Table player Vijay Ghate, Flutist Rakesh Chaurasia and an Egyptian Ballet Troupe.
In 2005-06, he made six one-minute films on environment conservation for the Union Ministry of Environment, using his paintings and poems.
A multi-faceted personality, Gupta is a painter, a performance artist, a poet, a filmmaker, all rolled into one. But underlying each of his works is his love for environment; be it a painting, a film or a poem.
“I grew up in the lap of nature, in Kolkata, where life brimmed with art, culture and music,” he says. That both his parents were litterateurs was an added bonus for the artist in him. So, along with joining the Presidency College for a B Sc (physiology), he also joined the Academy of Fine Arts for a course in art.
“I was inclined towards art since childhood. When my friends played cricket and football, I would be sitting with my guru Vasant Pandit, learning the soul of art. All innovations I do are thanks to what I learnt from guruji. For me, art is not iconoclastic. It can make a lot of difference to the lives of people,” he says.