Shockwaves rippled across the art fraternity following the horrific murder of painter and installation artist Hema Upadhyay as her death brutally cut short a promising and decorated career.
Artist Jitish Kallat, a friend since the time she graduated from MS University in her native Baroda almost two decades ago, called her an invaluable part of the contemporary art scene. “Her death is truly devastating … a chilling end to a life spent in artistic pursuit.”
Shireen Gandhy, the owner of Chemould Presscott Road art gallery which hosted Hema’s first solo exhibition, Sweet-Sweat Memories, three years after she moved to the city from Baroda in 2001, choked up recalling fond memories of a lost friend.
“She was a lovely and extremely sweet person ... not a mean bone in her body,” she said. “There were times when I would shout at her and she would tell me how she is my punching bag.”
The 2001 exhibition explored what the migration from Baroda to a megapolis meant to her — a loss of home as well as a sense of excitement for the new.
Gandhy, who worked with Hema for years, described the artist as her mainstay as well as a favourite. “Her work, her thoughts and her integrity, were all very beautiful. There were times when she would get stuck but she would then produce something beautiful and aesthetic. Hema loved to challenge herself.”
Another gallerist and friend, Abhay Maskara, recalled Hema’s troubled life after the break-up with painter-husband Chintan Upadhyay but she never let her personal problems get in the way of professional work.
“Everyone had very pleasant conversations with her … we never got the sense that it was a hopeless situation. There never seemed to be any threat to her life. She was cheerfully talking about her art and her projects,” he said.
Family members, relatives and several friends gathered at Kandivli police station on Sunday morning after the 43-year-old artist’s body, along with that of her divorce lawyer, was discovered inside a cardboard box in a drain.
“This is so shocking. She was doing very well for herself and had even won an award recently. Her parents in Baroda were informed and elder brother Manish has come to Mumbai,” said a common friend of Hema and Chintan at the police station.
The couple has been fighting a long-drawn divorce suit for the past five years and a related case over a property dispute. Since their separation, Chintan had moved to Delhi while Hema was continuing her work in Mumbai, winning laurels abroad as well. Her works have since been displayed in China, Australia, France, Israel, Italy and the US.
“People spend 15-20 years to make a name in this profession. This brutal incident has sent shockwaves,” said Rajmore, an artist.
Hema’s work was primarily photographic and sculptural, with her installations exploring the themes of migration to cities, the female identity in India, nostalgia and loss.
Mumbai-based artist and contemporary Dhruvi Acharya called Hema’s work both political and personal. “It was perceptive, inventive, thoughtful and never pretentious. I was inspired by her dedication, ingenuity and work ethics … she was a sensitive, warm and genuine person who became a dear friend over the past few years.”
Acharya said the country has lost a great artist “for we will never get to see the wonderful work she would have made”.
Abahay Sardesai, the editor of Art India magazine who has known Hema for a little over a decade, said she had an artist’s temperament. “Her work looked at how people make sense of life as migrants, as women.”
(With inputs from Manish K Pathak)