In one of her last works, made weeks before her murder in December 2015, artist Hema Upadhyay had two disengaged lovers struggling to communicate, and ostensibly awaiting their eventual break-up. Titled “Conversation”, by the time the work was exhibited at the Sensorium festival in Goa, it had acquired new sinister meanings.
While her audience wondered if it had autobiographical references, like several of her previous works, 43-year-old Hema was no longer alive to engage with them. Her body had been found along with that of her lawyer Harish Bhambhani, wrapped in plastic and put in boxes in a drain in the northern Mumbai suburb of Kandivali on December 12, 2015. Her estranged husband Chintan Upadhyay, 50, was arrested on charges that the murders had been done at his behest. Nearly eight years later, on October 5, he was found guilty by a Mumbai court for abetting and conspiring to murder Hema and Bhambhani.
The trial and the conspiracy
On October 5, a Mumbai sessions court found Chintan guilty under Sections 109 (dealing with the offence of abetment) and 120B (punishment for criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Three other accused — Vijay Rajbhar, Pradeep Rajbhar and Shivkumar Rajbhar — were found guilty on charges of murder under Section 302 of IPC. One of the co-accused, Vidyadhar, has been on the run since the murders. The court is expected to hear the accused on the quantum of punishment on October 7.
Hema and Bhambhani had gone missing on December 11, 2015. A scrap collector had spotted two “suspicious-looking” cardboard boxes wrapped in white plastic floating in a drain in Kandivali the next day and alerted the police. The boxes revealed the bodies of the artist and her lawyer. Chintan, who was in Delhi at the time of the murders, was arrested 10 days later by the Mumbai Police. They had claimed that the murders were committed at Chintan’s behest by his co-accused due to his strained relationship with his estranged wife. While the 50-year-old artist was granted bail in September 2021, after nearly six years in jail, his co-accused remained in custody.
The police had stated that Chintan had hatched the murder conspiracy with Vidyadhar, a fabricator who had earlier been employed by the couple to make their artworks. According to the police, co-accused Pradeep had stated this in his confession in 2016 but retracted his statement subsequently, saying that he had confessed under police pressure.
The police had claimed that Vidyadhar hired the others to murder Hema and had lured her to his Kandivali workshop under false pretences. Sensing something amiss with Vidyadhar’s request, Hema had asked her lawyer to accompany her. Since his murder was not planned, Bhambhani was murdered simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the police said, adding that the duo was smothered.
Bitter divorce proceedings and a battle for alimony
At the time of the double murder, Hema and Chintan were embroiled in bitter divorce proceedings that began in 2010. Before being granted a divorce in 2014, the couple was locked in a property dispute and battle for alimony. “We were all so shocked and bereaved when it happened, which only became worse with the arrest of Chintan. Such close friends of ours and loved by everyone,” says artist Bose Krishnamachari.
Counted among the most important contemporary artists in India at the time, before their relationship turned bitter, Chintan and Hema had been college sweethearts who had become close as batchmates at the prestigious Faculty of Fine Arts at MS University, Baroda. Hailing from Jaipur, Chintan’s father is an abstract expressionist artist, while Hema was a Sindhi-Gujarati raised in Baroda. After tying the knot in 1998, the two moved to Mumbai to pursue a career in the metropolis known for its art galleries and history of offering opportunities to young artists. “They hosted me for a couple of days in 2004 when I was visiting Mumbai for a research trip, and I remember them from happier times. Having seen them as a power couple, it was heartbreaking to see what happened later to their relationship. They were both outgoing and ambitious; she was a convent-educated city girl, and he was simpler, ‘desi’, their sensibilities were completely different but they were so much in love,” says Bhavna Kakar, director of Latitude 28 gallery in Delhi, who was Hema’s junior at Convent of Jesus and Mary High School in Vadodara. Bhavna also worked with Chintan and interacted with both artists over the years.
As their individual careers flourished, Chintan came to be associated with more “flamboyant” works, while Hema was often described as more “introspective”. If in 2002 Chintan’s exhibition “Commemorative Stamps” at Ashish Balram Nagpal Gallery in Mumbai won critical acclaim for its depiction of new wealth in India, in 2005, responding to the Gujarat riots, he sat naked as part of the performance “Baar Baar, Har Baar, Kitni Baar?” in Baroda, inviting viewers to apply turmeric on his body as an act of empathy with the victims. The infant leitmotif that became his trademark was born in 2003 and over the years Chintan presented his babies in different sizes, mediums and patterns, from abstracts to miniatures; they also addressed wide-ranging concerns, from genetic engineering to female infanticide and censorship.
Hema, meanwhile, carved a niche with her intricate paintings, photographs and sculptural installations. Her first solo, titled “Sweet Sweat Memories” at Gallery Chemould in Mumbai in 2001 saw her drawing from her own experiences as a migrant in Mumbai. In the same year, she had an international solo in Australia. Titled “The Nymph and The Adult”, it saw her use 2,000 lifelike hand-sculpted cockroaches to symbolise military action. Presented the Triennale prize at the 10th International Triennale in New Delhi in 2001, the following years saw Hema participate in several celebrated international exhibitions world over, from Grosvenor in London to the Singapore Tyler Print Institute and the prestigious Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Krishnamachari, who first met them in 1998 at Pundole Art Gallery in Mumbai, states, “Both Hema and Chintan worked very hard to find their way and voice in the South Asian scene. I remember they used to have long studio hours, often running late into the night.”
Though their art practices were distinct and shared little in common, there were occasions when the couple collaborated, including the 2003 exhibition “Made in China” featuring Chinese products at Gallery Chemould in Mumbai.
The marital bliss, however, did not last long. A divorce petition was filed in 2010 and granted in 2014. The decree was challenged by Hema, who demanded permanent maintenance from Chintan. The court battle that followed saw Hema accuse Chintan of domestic violence and alcoholism. She also alleged that he drew obscene figures on the walls of their marital home in Juhu. Chintan, on the other hand, alleged that Hema often insulted him in front of their domestic help and staff.
Bodies recovered and an exhibition planned
On the day Hema and Bhambhani’s bodies were recovered, Chintan was in Delhi, where he had moved while divorce proceedings were on. Preparations were underway for his exhibition that was to be held in February 2016 in Baroda. Titled “Gandi Baat”, it was to feature caricatures of men, women and children, and address subjects of sexuality, the aggressive male gaze, abusive gestures and moral policing, among others.
With him being arrested days after the murder, the Baroda exhibition was cancelled. In Thane Central Prison till he was granted bail by the Supreme Court in 2021, Chintan began practicing art in confinement. While jail authorities provided basic material and equipment, he was permitted to arrange for other supplies.
One of his earliest works painted in prison — a deformed elephant hatching from four eggs — was exhibited as part of the “Art from Behind Bars” initiative in Mumbai in 2017, and reportedly sold for Rs 4.5 lakh. The six years in prison also saw him impart lessons in art to other inmates.
“Art has an ability to connect and it was while I was in prison that I realised its power,” he had said in an interview to The Indian Express in July 2022. At the time, he had set up a studio in Navi Mumbai, where he also organised private viewings of his artwork, apart from visiting art events across the country. “He was very positive,” says a gallerist.
(With inputs from Sadaf Modak)