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Art Anecdotes : Hema Upadhyay & the Search for Truth

Through ART ANECDOTES, Art From Us brings you funny, heart-warming and sometimes heartbreaking stories that shape Artists and their work. Today we look at the story of “Hema Upadhyay & the Search for Truth”.

Art From Us and Divvya Nirula bring to you a curated collection of Art related events, from suspected murder, to love affairs, to grand theft and curious cases of creation through ART ANECDOTES. Join us on this fun-filled ride of exploring and reliving these art-tales.

Hema Upadhyay and her Art Story

Artist Hema Upadhyay was born Hema Hirani in Baroda,1972. She earned her BFA and subsequently her MFA from the University of Baroda in 1995 and 1997. History will know her as an artist who specialised in exquisitely and intricately arranged collages. Her mixed-media installations reflect cityscapes and the identity of her country. It was important for her to create an authentic story and tell it how she saw it. Moreover, the themes of her works were very real and mined extensively from personal experience.

 Upadhyay, crafted narratives from found materials. This was a way to include history into her art. Further, she explored themes of gender, migration, socioeconomics, and urban development. “So much chaos in my work actually came from the city,” Hema had once explained. “When I work in my studio in Mumbai, there are lots of elements, of decay, of life, of chaos. It’s a double-edged condition when you see development in the making—you see growth but decay.”

She received the Gujarat Lalit Kala Academy and the National Lalit Kala Academy award for the 10th International Triennale-India. Hema was known for her personalised gestures and generosity. Thus she was loved and respected in Mumbai’s art circuit.

Hema and Chintan, Opposites Repel

The soft-spoken talented girl would meet her future husband while at Baroda art school. Chintan Upadhay was from Rajasthan. He was her classmate at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. They met in 1995 and fell in love. In 1998 they were married and subsequently moved to Mumbai, armed with dreams.

There was no doubt about her abundant talent, and often it was whispered that she outshone him. Did his love for her survive the cruel disparity that the public creates? It is difficult to tell. The duo had many many friends in the fraternity, and socialised a lot. They met in different artist homes, ate, drank and discussed arts. They were like any young couple, famous, bright and rearing to go. All their friends have spoken about Hema’s warmth, her caring and generous nature. They have also conceded that Chintan wasn’t an evil monster that the media made him out to be.

But something wasn’t right that people did not know about, obviously. There was something that was chipping at their marriage and pulling them apart.  Mrunalini Deshmukh, Chintan’s lawyer in the family court as well as the Bombay High Court has offered her view. According to her the couple was ‘cordial to each other’ although they had taken the legal route, they were not openly hostile. Hema was warm towards Mrunalini as well. Deshmukh said, about fellow senior colleague Mr Bhambani – “It would be an understatement to say that its shocking news that Mr Bhambani too has been killed. He was very pleasant and accommodative as opponent’s lawyer. He never used to take issues outside the court room”.

So what happened?

Saturday, December 12, 6 pm at Jindal Mansion on Peddar Road in Mumbai. Artists Sudhir Patwardhan, Gieve Patel, Shilpa Gupta occupied the three panellists’ chairs for the ART India conversation on ‘This City Reminds Me of Another’. The fourth chair, reserved for Hema Upadhyay.

Hema was always punctual and professional. But, little did they know that Hema would not be showing up ever. Her light had been snuffed. Murdered, she was dumped like garbage along with her lawyer Haresh Bhambani. Friends panicked, waiting for her as her phone was not reachable, no body could trace her. The Bhambani household too was in panic, when calls were unanswered.

There was absolutely no way that anybody expected that they had been victims of a double murder. Prior to the incident, Hema had answered a call and headed to her warehouse of many years. The trail led to the metal workers – Vidyadhar Rajbhar, , Azad Rajbhar, Pradeep Rajbhar, Vijay Rajbhar and Shivkumar Rajbhar alias Sadhu. All except Vidyadhar fled and remains at large. Who had called her on a pretext.

It was not until the 13th December 2015 that two bodies were discovered in Kandivali. It took a while for the police to connect the missing persons reports filed by Bhambani’s family and Hema’s staff. Why did her lawyer Bhambani accompany Hema to the warehouse at that hour? Also, what happened for Hema to alter her dinner plan and head to the warehouse at night? It emerged that her fabricators, had laid out the trap. Unaware, she walked in with the senior lawyer. Chloroformed and smothered they were disposed of, in the hope that no trace of the crime would be left.

When Did the Police Catch up with Chintan ?

The police caught up with Chintan based on the history of their messy divorce. In March 2013 Mirror reported a complaint by Hema Upadhyay against Chintan under the Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act. She had alleged that some of his etchings on the walls of their marital home in Juhu showed women in an obscene light. She insisted that they had been drawn with the intent to humiliate and denigrate her.

Unfortunately for Hema the case was tilted towards Chintan. The Bandra court observed that she had made several allegations without substantive proof. It was cruelty the court had adjudicated and so it went. The alimony was a difficult call. Moreover Chintan’s motives and Hema’s nature – were in the public eye. Consequently, there was little privacy for them. Hema was kind but also talented and independent, she wasn’t going to let this one go and maintained her stance. The one thing that she knew was that he was not going to kill her. Humiliation was one thing and cold revenge another.

Hema and Chintan, after 13 years of marriage and 3 years of courtship were undergoing a serious divorce proceeding. Despite what Mrunalini claims, the reports and the stories that emerge firmly point otherwise.

Still two years away from the murder – a lot happened. First, marital discord erupted, then, property disputes emerged, and later financial dealings unearthed. Finally, the trail led from the workers to their personal connection to Chintan. A story was beginning to emerge, the dots were being connected. The Rajbhars were known to Chintan, they were from his hometown and he had personally helped the main accused financially. There was a figure of 5 lakhs that was doing the rounds – the amount Chintan paid Rajbhar for his fathers treatment; an amount Hema owed Rajbhar for his work. And pending legal fees.

Chintan’s Diary Rants

In a note on February, 22, 2012, he wrote, “A case in the court can make a person animal who is wild and just want to kill. Actually she (Hema Upadhyay) never been sensitive to people, she always used people for her benefits,” he had written. According to Chintan, his wife had never loved him and he never felt loved. Published by Asian Age Mar 16, 2014.

The journal entries illustrate Chintan’s view. It’s jarringly different from what the couple’s family friends remember. He wanted to be free of the marriage and of Hema.

Artist Reena Kallat said – “One of the ways I recall Hema is through her generosity of spirit. While exhibiting together, she would finish her installation and typically be around offering other artists help if they needed any… She was wonderful with children and would find a way to engage our son when she was with him on a few of our travels. She loved cooking and sharing food with friends. Sometimes in the middle of installing works before an exhibition, we would be struck by all the delicious food she’d carried from for us.”

Friend Gayatri Jayaraman said – “I thought I would intervene to put the Hema I knew as a person and artist out there before she is lost. Hema was soulful, she was gentle, she was warm and with a vibrant sense of humour. She, by far, the better artist of the couple she formed with Chintan Upadhyay, was capable of putting others first, allowing Chintan to climb to fame, success and money well before she burst on to the scene. Diminutive as she may have been, she was equally fiercely independent. She was a far more contextualised artist, aware of her surroundings, constantly reading her milieu.”

The Inverse Proportion of Love and Success

That Hema and Chintan were classmates in Baroda and dated, is well know. Those who knew them were well aware of the difference between the two. Hema’s work echoed her personality. Sensitive, well-read artistic interventions, quirky installations, feminist, self-quizzical, and independent. Chintan was brassy, irreverent and the son of national award-winning abstract expressionist artist and professor Vidyasagar Upadhyay.

In 2010, Hema Upadhyay was invited to a residency at Atelier Calder, Sache, France. While there, she completed the work Only Memory has Preservatives. Inspired by Sache, it also reflected ideas that have been part of her practice. Hema tried to replicate the forest in her studio, though not in the literal sense. Using copyright free images of certain trees found in the area, she created a landscape work without using materials from nature. He was awarded the Charles Wallace Foundation Award for Residency in Bristol, UK in 2012.

There was substantial difference in the talent and output department for the duo. But what was really irking Hema? What was irritating Chintan ?

Speaking about her art Hema said – “Of course I know the socio-economic structures and social hierarchy in the slum and the city. But as an artist, I am more interested in the aesthetics they created in the slum. When I looked at the architecture, the set-up of the area, the form and colours they created, I am seeing surrealism, conceptual art and arte povera. But it’s their home”.

Here was a true blue creative, not an attention seeker. We are not here to judge artists but we explore disparities and their disruptive quality. Sometimes success is important and sometimes love. How it should be we cannot say, how it stood, we can see.

Death of Hema Upadhyay

Hema met her end and her side of the story will remain in the dark. Does it really matter why she answered the call and went to the warehouse? It was important to have representation so she took Mr Bhambani. What was she worried about ? Was she expecting to meet Chintan ? One thing was certain that she had trusted the caller enough to meet them at night.

And What of Chintan ?

Chintan Upadhyay, who is facing charges for the murder has denied all association many times. Unfortunately for him the needle always points at him. His family too has stood by him saying that he would never do this, and that they still cared for each other.

Chintan has moved the Dindoshi sessions court for interim bail for the second time in 2020, citing the spread of Covid-19 at Thane jail, where he is currently lodged. But his request has been denied.

Vijay Rajbhar, the other accused, too, has moved a plea for interim bail. Vidhyadhar is still on the run and the last call was reportedly traced to a location in Jammu. A career and a personal life in shambles Chintan has a lot to think about when he serves his time.

Who can forget Ana Mendietta

30 years before this case, New York city and the art world was shocked when Ana Mendietta fell to her death. It was late at night and she and her sculptor husband were drinking and arguing.

Although Andre was charged with homicide his lawyer pushed that Ana had committed sub intentional suicide. Her friends claimed that the artist was hitting her stride professionally. Frustrated by her fraught and complex marriage, Ana was feeling more productive than ever professionally. Many also claimed she had a terrible fear of heights. There was no way that she would take this drastic step. In 1988, Andre was acquitted. “I know he killed my daughter,” Mendieta’s mother said as she left the courtroom.

It was another heart wrenching story of an abbreviated brilliant artistic life. Makes us wonder if the talent that the women had had set their husbands on a war path? Would they feel differently of they were separate individuals celebrating their crafts ? There are many couples who support and encourage each other. But ever so often there is a certain darkness that blurs the lines of gender and creativity. The thirst for creating is then replaced with the thirst for power, ending in tragedy.

To read more stories visit Art Anecdotes.

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