It’s Too Hard to Talk About Her: Friends Remember Hema Upadhyay

Here’s to an art genius who did contemporary India proud, and to an always reflecting, always smiling Hema Upadhyay. 

4 min read
Artist Hema Upadhyay was found dead in a drain in Mumbai’s Kandivali. (Photo:<a href=""> Anne Maniglier</a>)

“Can you please call her Hema Hirani, her original name? Her divorce got approved, so Upadhyay is the wrong surname to use,” pointed out Sanchu Menon, a close family friend of the late contemporary Indian artist who was brutally murdered on 13 December 2015, along with her lawyer, Haresh Bambani.

Such was the quiver in his voice, saying no would have been heartless.

On her birthday, The Quint remembers Hema Hirani Upadhyay, responsibly and fondly, for the person and artist she was.

Menon remained silent. He really didn’t have much to say, and yet you could sense the sadness through the phone. “She only left her dogs behind as a memory, Chintan tried to take them away too when he asked the court to seal her Juhu house,” he told me, his anger against Hema’s accused ex-husband rising.

Hema and Chintan’s was a love marriage but slowly the relationship fell on hard times, and ended in an ugly divorce, fraught with arguments and unpleasantness.

I don’t have any words. She just left us, leaving behind her two dogs, Kismat and Zindagi. They are living reminders of her for us. People tend to forget things, but I won’t let them forget. I still go to court every two days. I won’t let them forget. 
Sanchu Menon, Hema’s family friend

Investigation into the double murder is on as the main accused Vidyadhar Rajbhar is still at large. Four others have been identified as associates in the crime, and along with ex-husband Chintan Upadhyay, are in judicial custody.

The Artist as Seen by Her Fellows

When I contacted some of her artist friends, I was surprised at how many sent me away simply because it was too painful for them to recall the incident.

Anju Dodiya’s work has, in the past, been exhibited at the Chemould Prescott Art Gallery in Mumbai along with Hema’s.

Hema gave her art a fine craftsman’s attention . She enjoyed holding, joining, pasting , moulding – bent over an ongoing piece – you see it in her art all the time. It was always a very focused occupation with her ongoing theme about the artist’s dense climber , the migrant’s shanty town or the bird’s nest. In retrospect, this ‘search for home’ is tragic. Her own special artistic vision had immense possibilities.  
A <a href="">picture</a> of Hema’s most loved installation in Milan. (Photo: <b>The Quint</b>)
A picture of Hema’s most loved installation in Milan. (Photo: The Quint)

Her husband, Atul Dodiya, too, has a particular liking for Hema’s installation ‘Loco Foco Motto’, displayed in Milan in 2009. Made out of 1,50,000 matchsticks per chandelier, the theme of construction and deconstruction looms heavily over this piece.

My favorite installation of Hema’s work is her chandeliers in Milan in 2009. They were all made with matchsticks! So when you light it, the thing that burns, burns the art. It was so poignant, so fragile. It gave a feeling of loss, while it gave out light.

Hema Hirani’s first international exhibition was in 2001 in Australia, where in an installation titled ‘The Nymph And The Adult’, she put together 2,000 life-like cockroaches. The artist’s question - would cockroaches be the only survivors of the then politically and militarily tense environment in Southeast Asia. Her works on megacities, slums, urbanisation, landscape, migration and class differences followed.


“She was a wonderful person; always smiling, never complaining,” Atul Dodiya continued, mentioning how he spent more time with her abroad for various shows. “She was a good friend,” he reminisced. Soon, he too would tell me it was hard for him to talk about her.

In the contemporary Indian art circle, everyone knew her. Everyone wanted to see her work. In her last few years she was very disturbed about her relationship with her husband. I remember in 2013, we were together at the Contemporary Arts Centre in Cincinnati. We both had solo shows, and we spent one week together. We discussed art, and also her personal life. She was always generous in her expression of appreciation for other artists. She told me what she was disturbed about personally. I also told her what she should do to in that situation. For an artist, art is the most important thing. You have to get rid of everything else on your mind and then create. It’s terrible how she was taken away from us. 
A<a href=""> picture</a> of the installation Hema was working on at the time of her death. (Photo: The Quint)
A picture of the installation Hema was working on at the time of her death. (Photo: The Quint)

After her death, the art community in Mumbai came together to mourn, and fight for Hema because she had become an invaluable part of their personal and professional lives. She took India’s name to international forums without the care of mainstream media attention. She humbly gifted hand-made crochets to art directors after successful shows. She took in two stray dogs, gave them a home, fought through a crumbling marriage with a volatile man, offered to help friends with their children during vacations...the anecdotes don’t end. She may have died before her time, but she lived her life fervidly.

Also Read:
‘Artist: Hema Upadhyay. Medium: Soulful. Year: 2015
Chintan Upadhyay’s Diary Reflects His ‘Troubled State of Mind’

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!