For the Vadodara-born and Mumbai-based artist, the city had been a recurring motif in her work. Upadhyay moved here in 1998 after art school. Her new home, her gradual understanding of it and its impact on her was chronicled through mixed media, photography and three-dimensional installations. From the sense of both awe and alienation that migrants feel to Mumbai’s gradual decay, Upadhyay’s works explored various facets of life in her adopted city.
“Her work was always autobiographical,” says Shireen Gandhy, curator of the Chemould Prescott Road gallery, earlier known as Gallery Chemould. “Her coming to Bombay, grappling with the city, making sense of it—it all became part of her work.”
Upadhay’s first solo show had been at Chemould, and she went on to have several exhibitions there. Artists and their gallerists frequently share a close relationship, says Gandhy, but her bond with Upadhyay went further—a warm friendship lasting years. “She was just a very, very wonderful person. Sometimes bhola, sometimes smart; sometimes believing, sometimes not—it’s hard to describe. There was a lovely, soft side to her.”
Upadhyay’s works, examining themes such as identity, displacement, loss and nostalgia, incorporated materials from rice grains to 2,000 handcrafted cockroaches. The latter was done for ‘The Nymph and the Adult’, a hard-hitting installation made in 2001 as a response to the arms race between India and Pakistan.
Another work from ‘Fish in a Dead Landscape’ (2014) had photographs of the 1993 Mumbai riots juxtaposed with those of the Haifa bombing in Israel in 2003 to communicate the devastation of war. Asbestos, tarpaulin, paper birds, plastic, newspaper clippings to bits of her own memories, Upadhyay’s tools were diverse.
“She was an invaluable part of the contemporary art scene,” said artist Jitish Kallat, who had known Upadhyay since the time she graduated from MS University. They had been friends for almost two decades. “Her death is truly devastating; a chilling end to a life spent in artistic pursuit.”
The tumultuous years when she was dealing with an ugly divorce case also made their way into her art. “But no matter what else was happening in her life, when it came to her work, she gave it her complete focus,” says Gandhy. “She hadn’t yet hardened to the point of being cynical.”