Subodh Gupta’s paintings of forest fires captivate you like an augury coming true. There is a magnetism to the cloudy beauty of smoke, the inkiness of the charred canopies. The melancholy that is seen in Casper David Friedrich’s works is present in Gupta’s oil-on-linen Lonely City series too, as elements of the landscape turbulently collapse into unrecognisable patches. It appears as if an ecological alarm is being sounded in the frames by an artist who usually fashions installations out of kitchen utensils and prefers not to put his paintings on public display.

While studying at the College of Arts in Patna, Gupta sponged up lessons from with voracity. From a skilled senior, Umesh, he learned to use water colours. From an ad-hoc teacher, a few technical skills about oils. “We weren’t taught – we learnt,” he told me during a long conversation about the Nature Morte show. “We learnt ourselves, from each other.” Painting was the skill Gupta took away from five years of art school. From the 1990s, his vignettes from the Indian hearth and middle-class kitchen became foundational to his best recognised works.

Lonely City, by Subodh Gupta. Courtesy: Bharati Chaturvedi.

On his artistic journey, Gupta as well as his partner, the acclaimed artist Bharti Kher, have constantly engaged with the world around them, as citizens and artists. They donate works or proceeds from the sale of their works for issues that pain them. One of the better-known interventions by Gupta was in 2008 when he saw his home state, Bihar, go under in devastating floods. The Lonely City series was born in 2019 of the same anguish, although it was not made for charity. “When I saw the photographs of the fires in the Amazon, I felt so sad, so angry,” he said. “I was just so upset.” In his exasperation, Gupta turned to painting large, Dante-esque landscapes.

Nature had been similarly his muse in 2017, when as the artist-in-residence at Rashtrapati Bhavan, he had painted Mughal Garden roses, forlorn and wilting. Water colour was his paint of choice then. It was practical in that context and, anyway, he “always liked to paint”.

Lonely City, by Subodh Gupta. Courtesy: Bharati Chaturvedi.

Gupta’s forest fire paintings mesmerise us, despite the tragedy they gesture to. “You know, how much we look at big events, big catastrophes, like the tsunami,” he said. “They are horrific, but we can’t stop looking at them.” He rides this inescapable human voyeurism, while painting in the Western landscape tradition. The works are drenched with the grandeur of pioneering white American landscape artists – Thomas Moran, even Ansel Adams. The viewer is made only too aware of the burning of the planet’s lungs, of ecological demise. Yet, these are literally, a visual smokescreen. “What do I do? I am an artist, not an illustrator,” Gupta said. “I have to work where my artistry takes me.” It can be a very fine line, he agreed. Thus, he plays with the visual experience.

“Fire is fire, wherever you go, isn’t it?” Gupta said, pointing to Indian forest fires. “It’s a disaster.” But smoke isn’t the same smoke. “When I was young, my mother used to cook on the chuhla. I also know how to light one myself. We used to put some of that ration-tel (oil, sometimes also meaning kerosene) on coal, sometimes shreds of cloth, and light a fire.” Gupta, growing up in India of the 1960s and ‘70s, owns his memories of smoke. “That smoke was not this smoke. It was a fragrant smoke, it reminded me of food. It gave us comfort, you know. This one is terrible.”

Lonely City, by Subodh Gupta. Courtesy: Bharati Chaturvedi.

While working on each Amazon landscape – three to four weeks – Gupta would often think of his growing years. Creating this body of work as a 50-something artist nudged him to mine memories, to join the dots between his youthful self in Bihar to his older, global self. “Everything is inter-connected,” he said. “A forest fire in India is a real disaster for the whole world, the Amazon – you know, they are the lungs of the planet.” In that, the works are no longer site-specific, but abstracted to wider, global environmental phenomenon. Our fears and fates conflate in these frames.

Subodh Gupta’s Lonely City and Jitish Kallat’s Palindrome/Anagram were on display at the Nature Morte Gallery, New Delhi, from March 1 to March 27 as part of the exhibition Confabulations: New Paintings.

Bharati Chaturvedi is an environmentalist and founder of the NGO Chintan.