Remembering the Soulful Artist Hema Upadhyay on Her Birthday
It was a busy Sunday afternoon in the news studio while I was anchoring on the fast-paced developments in the Delhi slum demolition case. It was the tragic case of a six-month-old baby losing her life and two political parties fighting over how the death took place. I was suddenly asked to switch focus and read out what flashed on the ticker scroll (the bottom band on screen). For a few seconds, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. “Artist Hema Upadhyay’s body found dumped in a drain, along with her lawyer’s body.” WHAT???!! I thought to myself – Are we sure that’s Hema? But a minute into a chat on the news with our Mumbai correspondent, I knew this was horrifyingly true!
On the same Sunday evening, I went to an art show opening. The mood was sombre. The art world was surely hit by a shock, unable to come to terms with how someone like Hema met with such a brutal, cold-blooded death!
I didn’t know Hema too well, but was once in touch with her for a show I was curating on global city conflicts. She always came across as an extremely pleasant and sincere person. Quick to answer your queries. Always respectful of the other person’s deadlines.
Hema’s installations were often about the metropolis of Mumbai, commenting on the issues of migration, dislocation and cultural dynamics. It’s unfortunate that the city she dedicated so much of her art to gave her such a tragic end.
The Director of the 1x1 Art Gallery in Dubai, Malini Gulrajani, who was with Hema last week as she was setting up her latest installation in Dubai, said:
Incidentally, more such sets of gold crochet coasters are what string together Hema’s friends in collective mourning. Artists Mithu Sen and Manisha Gera cherish these crochet pieces gifted by Hema recently.
For Mithu, it’s an abrupt and unfair end to a promising art career too. “She was looking forward to her upcoming show at a museum in Boston. Her works were powerful, questioning cruelty by man. I was to go to Goa today and meet her there for our opening, but I felt too numb. I missed my flight.”
Hema’s works are currently displayed in cities from Dubai to Goa. “We are showing a new work of her’s today at the Sensorium, which is on the theme of Love”, says Roshini Vadehra, Director, Vadehra Art Gallery. They will soon be hosting a memorial in her name.
While the Mumbai Police is trying to piece together the crime scene with five suspects being questioned, including her estranged husband, many are uncomfortable about the ramifications of this on the art world.
Artist Seema Kohli says, “It’s also about the unabashed trust we as artists place in people. I shudder to think of the circumstances which led to her gruesome death. It’s unnerving to wonder what she must’ve gone through.”
At this juncture, all her friends would agree with what she once named her installation, Only Memory Has Preservatives.
(Sahar Zaman is a newsanchor, art curator and founder of Hunar TV, Asia’s first web channel on art.)
(The article has been republished from The Quint’s archives on the occasion of Hema Upadhyay’s 45th birth anniversary. It was first published on 18 May 2016.)