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Remembering Hema Upadhyay On Her First Death Anniversary - My Strict Neighbour

Remembering Hema Upadhyay On Her First Death Anniversary - My Strict Neighbour

My last interview with the contemporary art genius, before her murder.

The last time I saw Hema, I was at the back of our building, hula hooping while I stared ahead at the sun setting on Juhu beach. We were neighbours.

Hema had just come down for her routine evening walk on the beach with her pet stray dogs. It had been a while since we met and she seemed extremely amused with my just about average hula hooping skills.

“Where have you been? I don’t see you around anymore..Your mother said you were away to study?...Wow, you must show me how to do that sometime,” she said, grinning and watching me for a few minutes.

“Not studying yet, I was just away for my brother’s wedding in Michigan. Trust me, this isn’t great, I’m just learning but I could show you how to balance a hoop on your waist or elbows. How have you been?” I asked and paused hooping to go pet her dogs.

This moment is easily in my list of top five most pleasant interactions with Hema. Now I must explain the nature of our relationship, before I go any further. I moved into the building when I was 15. At the time, Hema and Chintan Upadhyay, were most likely, a happy couple together.

Hema enthusiastically agreed to be interviewed Hema agreed to be interviewed by a former “teeny bopper” that she once threatened to call the cops on! Image credit:

Chintan often made pleasant talk about art with my father and shared brochures of any upcoming exhibitions with him. However, I noticed his absence soon enough, probably within one or two years of moving in.

Hema was the secretary of the building, now this meant if you were a teenage truant you are likely to spend a fair amount of time interacting with her. Our relationship started off with smiles exchanged, pleasant talk about weather, food, education and everything in between. It was only when I got into college the trouble began.

Like most college kids, experimentation with pot and hash was the norm. In addition to this, being a tomboy didn’t help my situation. While juggling a copywriting internship at an advertising agency and studying psychology in college, I ensured there was an adequate amount of time spent getting high with my group of “bros” watching the sun rise or set from the confines of my safe building on Juhu beach.

The complaints about the smell of pot or hash began from the elderly neighbours, this resulted in Hema often coming around questioning me or my friends. We usually grinned back at her, blazed and red-eyed, denying that we were even remotely high. This was often followed by a cliché, short bitching session about how stoners just don’t have it easy in life. Despite the fact that we were all well off, spoilt city brats, getting high on herbs for fun.

As the complaints got worse, Hema’s threats to ensure we stopped got increasingly annoying.

“Look, I don’t want any of you kids to get into trouble but I’m going to have to call the cops the next time I catch you guys,” said Hema, wagging her finger dangerously at us.

This incident was followed by a tea-time visit from Hema, where my parents and her had a light hearted discussion about the hurdles of raising a rebellious teenage tomboy, as I listened from my bedroom. (I must add that my parents were often not particularly pleased with me and being grounded was a usual scenario).

“You know I really wouldn’t be complaining if it wasn’t for the senior citizens. I think of it as harmless teenage fun…” I heard Hema’s voice in the midst of the conversation.

After this, I toned it down, instead of a boisterous group of 10 I brought it down to a discreet two or three.

Some years later, I was a features writer at a daily news publication and approached Hema for an interview. She enthusiastically agreed to be interviewed by a former “teeny bopper” that she once threatened to call the cops on. However, the interview was never published.

During my interview with her, I met Hema, the artist, an extremely complex human being and someone I had never known. This is what followed.

SK: As a child, what drove you towards the field of art?
It was a childhood hobby, which was paid a little more attention, and developed and pursued further. I was born and brought up in Baroda where my introduction to art was through my grandfather, Kishoomal Hirani. He would make our holidays constructive and creative by visiting the zoo and questioning the nature of it, playing in public gardens like Kamati Baugh and participating in art competitions.

Hema's work depicting Bombay life set up at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Image credit: Museum of Fine Arts in Boston Hema's work depicting Bombay life set up at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Image credit: Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

SK: What are your sources of inspiration when it comes to creating sculptural installations? In terms of your art, there seems to be a focus on miniature sculptures..
Hema: When I look back, it wasn’t any particular artwork, which had me mesmerized, but a series of events that exposed me to art and craft. Like we have a house in the old city area in Baroda and every Ganesha season my father would take all the kids to see the idols. We would go to the workshops and see them give finishing touches to the pieces. This huge sculptural installation in progress is a very clear memory. Then there was a phase of replicating calendars of gods, their beautiful expressions, the ornamentation and ‘divinity’. My mom used to call me ‘kabadiwala’, I would hoard everything. My school text books would often have flowers especially hibiscus and rose flowers, peepal tree leaves, chocolate wrappers and dead butterflies (all squashed flat). These were collected in school or parks and then transferred at home in a huge dictionary which was almost five inches thick. In retrospect

SK: What were your initial thoughts and feelings after moving to Bombay?
: I am very passionate about Mumbai. This city expects something from every person living here. It is like that strict mother who will keep you away from the candy and checks your patience.

Hema's work depicting Bombay life set up at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Image credit: Museum of Fine Arts in BostonHema's work depicting Bombay life set up at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Image credit: Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

SK: Can you tell me about the inspiration that influenced your first work exhibited at Chemould Prescott Gallery, I heard that there was a neighbour’s suicide that occurred which influenced this work.
The first house we moved in was in Vasai and the building next door had a young boy (who was a migrant from a small town, who couldn’t cope with Mumbai and being jobless), he jumped off the terrace. The idea of ‘suicide’, ‘the missing person’ were really haunting for me and I started questioning what I would want from life and at that time it seemed only fair to me that I wouldn’t allow the city to do something of this sort to me.

Like if starting with my first show, “Sweet Sweat Memories”, speaking of Mumbai. Hundreds of people migrating to the city, a dream destination that speaks its own rhetoric of acceptance and rejection, where the idea of acceptance is wrapped up with the idea of rejection. I am very clearly playing the role of the victim and the narrator in my works

Hema, clearly the victim, in her works Hema, clearly the victim, in her works. Image credit: Anne Maniglier

SK: In 2003, when you were part of the Vasl residency in Karachi you made your work titled Loco Foco Motto, which focused upon the India Pakistan divide. What really fuelled the creation of this art exhibit? You constructed elaborate chandeliers with matchsticks, please elaborate upon the symbolisation of violence coexisting with beauty, a trend seen in  a lot of your work.
In 2003, I was invited to Karachi on an artist residency project for one month. Once I was there, we were looking in the local markets and I saw that they sell matches loose without boxes. The image of a nude matchstick is what struck me that matchsticks can perform two functions with the flames, a constructive one and a destructive one ‘Loco – Foco – Motto’ speaks of that ‘moment’ when the mind decides on the function of the matchstick. The structure on its own is very delicate or fragile. The construction, which is inspired from the form of the chandelier, speaks of the ‘Light of Hope’ in this fragile political environment. As the viewer gets closer to the work they realize that’s its made with matchsticks which appears an everyday, domestic use object. From there begins this journey for each individual to understand their own reference to the matches. And their own leaning to violence/or violent activities.

Loco Foco Motto installation in Karachi Loco Foco Motto installation in Karachi

SK: I would love to know more about your work ‘Dream A Wish - Wish A Dream’ and its relation to Bombay.
“Dream a wish - wish a Dream” is a work which strongly represents a part of our living culture, a result of socio political problems. It is a work about Bombay and the biggest squatter in the city, built by the migrants who have had generations inherit the living places. This work is also speaking about the space in its physical sense. Its people, objects, vegetation, houses, drainage and lanes.

Hema with her art installation depicting Bombay Hema with her art installation depicting Bombay

SK: You were the only Indian invited to the re-opening of the MACRO museum in Rome. What was that experience like?
In the year 2009 Macro (Rome) reopened to the public after renovation and they wanted art which was reflecting the contemporary and my Italian gallery invited me to show this piece ‘Where the bees suck there suck I’, which was a strong representation of need and greed.

Hema's work, 'Where the bees suck, there suck I' Hema's work, 'Where the bees suck, there suck I'

SK: What are your views on religion and belief in god?
Very flexible, sometimes obsessive and sometimes non-existent.

SK: Your relationship with your mother appears to be very important. This is in reference to your collaboration with your mother at the Chicago Cultural Centre. How did this come about and how has she influenced your work?
You know, I have had many best friends but one who has been constant is my mother.  And she has really played a very important role in shaping me as the person I am. Mum-My’ is a collaborative Installation with my mother. Crochet as a medium with its timeless appeal has suited both the young and the old. My mom, after marriage used her crochet skills to keep herself busy. And sometimes distracted herself from issues she wanted to run away from. She almost drifts into her own world appearing so calm and serene, so much at peace with herself. But I know that, there are hundreds or maybe one solid thought she is chasing. And my mother often calls herself an artist. Two women artists with completely different sensibilities, from different generations.

Hema while working. Image credit: HuffingtonPost Hema while working. Image credit: HuffingtonPost

SK: Besides art, what are your other mediums to unwind or relax?
: I love my dogs, I love to watch movies, read biographies and look after my house. All these activities like playing with my dogs, watching or reading somebody else’s story and cleaning are very cathartic processes for me.

As a writer, getting to know Hema as an artist and someone who was well acquainted with her as a neighbour, I began to think of her as a tough, independent, artistic woman, instead of an annoying aunty who infuriated me with her complaints.

After my last interview with her, Hema and I always greeted each other with smiles, laughs and comments on the weather, food, professional life and everything in between. Similar to what it was over 7 years ago, except this time as adults. She probably thought of me as a child who had finally grown up.

When I think of Hema, I think of her walking down the stone stairs of our building towards the beach. Her face bare, without any make up, hair often tied up in a loose bun with a few strands flying in the wind and her dogs running around excitedly near her legs, while she looks on towards the ocean, a slight smile on her face..



Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of

By Sasha Klaatu
Cover photo credit: Hema Upadhyay