"A rickshaw puller carries the burden of a city loaded with Spirituality and all he gets in return is a meager amount, which can't buy him anything more than cheap rice. The lotas are used to carry the holy water and the brass here is symbolic of the wealthier lot" (S. Gupta quoted in N. Sharma, Indian Express, 4 January 2008).
In this work Subodh Gupta combines two utilitarian objects typical to everyday Indian life -- the brass cooking vessel and the rickshaw. Familiar to both the rural and urban echelons of Indian society, these stainless steel containers and simple bicycle cart are ubiquitous objects of everyday Indian life. Filtering through his cache of symbols, the brass lotas (water vessels) epitomize Gupta's ability to find tension and irony in the mundane. The artist has an uncanny ability to identify those commonplaces of Indian culture that possess innate dichotomies suggesting both the traditional and modern, the rural and urban, the wealthy and the impoverished. The stainless steel utensils in Gupta's hands become comments on larger social ills of discrimination, caste politics, globalization, industrialization and religious tensions.
Indian culture never entirely seperates the sacred and profane. Gupta often likens the modern day kitchen to a secular temple, as a central axis to the home, while referring to his vessels as idols and/or hungry gods. While on the one hand he treats his subject matter with reverence, he also pokes fun at the materialism that has shifted India's focus away from the spiritual. At once ordinary and sacred, possessing both a utilitarian function and mythic aura, these simple, mass produced bowls with their potbellied shape also symbolize life; the pregnant womb and akshaya paatram; the vessel which never empties. The rickshaw is India's most widely used and cheapest form of mass transportation, yet it also embodies the traditional and rigid divide of class on the Subcontinent. Historically a form of transportation only available to the upper classes, the image of the rickshaw both in Gupta's art and streets of Indian cities stir up anxieties and profound questions about the enormous changes taking place in India -- changes that range from dramatic shifts in wealth that have accompanied the country's recent economic boom and their effect on the nation's ancient, agrarian and deeply spiritual culture, to modern India's complex relationship with the West.
By combining two practical objects Subodh eliminates the inherent functionality of both and then recasts the once simple vehicles of sustenance and transportation as precious luxury commodities. Working in the same spirit as Duchamp's readymade, in which he mounted a typical bicycle wheel on a bar stool rendering both functional items useless, Subodh segregates the form of an object and its function and condenses it all into an archetype -- be it sacred or profane -- of Indian art. The action of the artist then is the greatest function of all.
Stacked like bodies on the now very public seat of the rickshaw these once personal vessels symbolize the public marriage of India's intimate rituals and ways of life with the global art world. While the rickshaw itself becomes dormant Gupta creates a mobility of meaning. Pots are put in place of the body, or rather re-place the body of the simple bartan wala (utensil seller) who would roam the streets and barter utensils for other common household wares, has become swollen with product and wealth. But one must ask at what price does rice and art come cheap?