Bharti Kher was raised in England, but has become one of India's leading artists
She traveled to New Delhi on the toss of a coin, but has stayed ever since
Much of her work uses bindis, the forehead decoration worn by Indian women
As a young art graduate, Bharti Kher went to India intending to spend six months traveling.
More than two decades later, she is still there and has become one of the country’s most successful artists.
Kher, who is based in Delhi, has exhibited her contemporary work – from paintings to sculptures – all around the world.
Much of her work is based around bindis, the forehead decorations worn by South Asian women.
“The bindis now for me have become a material,” she said. “I took the material, I repeated it again and again and again. I made it mine. I can use them like an alchemist would use or to create something that I don’t really know what’s going to happen with.”
Kher was born in London to Indian parents and grew up in a middle-class suburb, only visiting her parents’ homeland once, aged four.
She went to art school – a rarity in her British Asian community – graduating in 1992.
“All my cousins, friends, the people that we knew growing up as Asians are all doctors, accountants, lawyers,” said Kher. “This is what Asian children did. If you were first generation in the UK, you had to be a professional.
“I think people were very surprised when we said we’re going to art school. I did and so did my sister.”
Kher wanted to travel when she graduated and said she chose between New York and New Delhi with a toss of a coin.
“I had no intention of staying in India,” she said. “I just thought I’m going to travel around the country.”
After turning up at New Delhi railway station, Kher then discovered she was too afraid to travel the country alone.
“I was so very flabbergasted when I first came to India,” she said. “My eyes were wide open, but it was like I was blind. Culturally, it was a massive shock for me. I didn’t speak Hindi very well at all.”
After two weeks in India, Kher met her husband – Subodh Gupta, now also a well-known artist – and never left. The couple now have two children, Lola and Omi.
“That’s how we fell in love. I’ve been here since,” said Kher.
She added: “The first 10 or 15 years were really were very hard like any practicing artist now. To decide to be an artist takes a lot of courage because there are years of rejection and a lot of loneliness.
“To be able to believe in your work when nobody’s even looking at it takes real stubbornness. Because we had each other, really would support each other.”
As two well-known artists living together, Kher said she and Gupta often compete with each other.
“We do compete, (healthily or unhealthily) sometimes,” she said. “I think the crux of our relationship is art because this is something we are both extremely passionate about.”
Kher said her career began to take off in 2006 when she made a model of an elephant.
“People started to look and say ‘It’s grand. It’s on a scale,’ and I think formally it was very successful.
“It was really the first time people were asking ‘Who is this person? Who is this artist? Where is she from? When did you make the work?’”
In 2007, Kher had her first solo exhibition at a major international gallery, Jack Shainman Gallery in New York.
“I had suddenly got into my mojo,” she said.
In the past year, she has had solo exhibitions in London, New York, Hong Kong and New Delhi.
When Kher began to work in India, she said there was virtually no art scene, and that even now it’s only just beginning to take off.
“India still hasn’t been (unpacked) yet, and I think it’s about to begin now,” she said. “There’s a lot of really interesting work here and a lot of really good artists in India. I just hope within our lifetime people realize that culture is really an important part of society.”
Kher hopes she continue to contribute to that culture for many years to come.
“When people go away from my work, I want them to go away with questions. Why did the artist make this? What is it about? Is there contradiction?
“I think almost every single piece that I’ve ever made carries a degree of contradiction between the form and what it’s saying, between beauty and terror or the macabre.”
Kher’s solo show, “Bind the dream state to your waking life,” will be at Nature Morte, New Delhi, until February 16.