A woman born in Baroda, Hema, met her future husband and fellow artist, Chintan Upadhyay, in 1992. They both fell in love due to their common interests and professional convenience. Chintan and Hema got married in 1998 and settled in Mumbai. Initially, they had a beautiful life; they worked together on many exhibitions.
Later on, things were not normal between them. Professional egos and compatibility issues took their personal lives toll. Chintan Upadhyay’s personal diary, filled with grievances about the breakdown of their marriage, played a crucial role in the case. Entries in the diary reflected his thoughts on the divorce and his puzzlement about why Hema, who seemed indifferent to him, wanted revenge. Hema’s career was at its peak when she had her first solo exhibition, titled Sweet Sweat Memories, at Gallery Chemould, now Chemould Prescott Road (Mumbai), in 2001. The exhibition consisted of mixed media on paper. In these works, she has incorporated her own photographs to communicate her ideas of migration, having moved to Bombay in 1998. Hema’s paintings were usually characterized by the inclusion of small-collaged photographic self-portraits.
In 2013, Hema filed a harassment case against Chintan for drawing obscene sketches of her on the walls of their apartment. Haresh Bhambani was her lawyer for this case. She lost when the case ruled the bedroom as Chintan’s personal space. Their divorce was completed in 2014, after which Chintan moved to Delhi and Hema lived in their flat on the Juhu-Tara Road. Bhambani then took on the role of Hema’s lawyer in the alimony proceedings. Hema wanted Rs 200,000 per month. The court brought it down to Rs 40,000 per month. On the day of their murders, Chintan had paid Bhambani Rs 200,000 in a lump sum as alimony. Chintan Upadhyay then ordered the killing of his wife and her lawyer, owing to a long, messy, ugly, and expensive legal and personal battle with her during their marriage and after the divorce. Hema’s 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.
Vidyadhar, after killing Hema and Bhambhani, took a train to Varanasi from Dadar around 9.30 PM on December 11, along with the arrested accused, Shivkumar Rajbhar. After reaching Itarsi, Madhya Pradesh, Vidyadhar tells Shivkumar that he wants to surrender to the police and gets off the train. His phone was last traceable on December 13, 2015. Then, on February 2, 2016, his phone was traced when he called a cousin in Surat from Chennai. The police rushed to Chennai, but he was nowhere to be found. Eight days later, on February 10, his phone was traced to Guwahati, Assam, after which the trail went cold. On September 13, 2016, the police even set up an elaborate trap, complete with personnel in plainclothes. It was Vidyadhar’s daughter’s first birthday, and the police made an educated guess that he would show up, especially since his family had sold off a room in their house for Rs 35 lakh.
Vidyadhar Rajbhar, owner of Vanshraj Arts, who would do art fabrication work for Hema, is accused of having planned the murders and strangled Hema. Hema used to store her artwork at his warehouse. The reason for Hema and Bhambhani’s visit to the Kandivali warehouse on the night of their murder was a fabricator she shared with Chintan. Vidyadhar had promised to show them compromising video clips involving Chintan, leading them to the location where they were killed. Vidyadhar was close to Chintan Upadhyay’s family. In fact, his father named him after Chintan’s father. Chintan also footed Vidyadhar’s father’s medical expenses up to Rs 5 lakh. With the help of Vijay Rajbhar, a tempo driver who dumped the bodies in the drain, the third accused, Pradeep Rajbhar, killed Haresh Bhambani, a lawyer for Hema. He also lured Hema with “evidence” of her estranged husband Chintan sleeping with girls and offered her a proposition to buy these clips for two lakh rupees. The fourth accused, Shivkumar Rajbhar, helped Vijay kill Haresh Bhambani. The fifth accused, Azad Rajbhar, who is a cousin of Vidyadhar, came down to Mumbai from UP in 2015 on his invitation to work with him at his workshop in 2015. He is being tried as a minor on account of being 16 when the murders took place.
On December 11, 2015, the bodies of Hema and her lawyer, Harish Bhambhani, were found dumped in a nullah in Kandivali. The trial court found Chintan guilty of abetting and conspiring to murder Hema, while it found three others, Pradeep, Vijay, and Shivkumar, guilty of murdering Hema and Bhambhani. Chintan, who spent six years in jail since his arrest in 2015, was granted bail by the Supreme Court in 2021. After he was convicted, he was arrested and sent to jail again.
Chintan Upadhyay was a celebrated artist and a recipient of the Charles Wallace Foundation Award. He began as a painter and later began creating sculptures and installations, the surfaces of which he painted. His best-known sculpture project is believed to be the Pet Shop project, which is an ongoing production of a “model baby” for every season. For these works, Upadhyay collaborated with artist Manish Sharma, a Rajasthani miniatures painter, who covered the babies with his interpretations of Indian miniatures. Chintan Upadhyay and controversy went hand in hand. While his contentious works often made headlines, one of the most prominent controversies was when the artist sat in the buff and asked people to smear him with saffron, thus reclaiming the color in a ritualistic manner at the height of the Gujarat riots. The artist courted another controversy when he impersonated a pregnant woman and dressed up in a house dress.
The conviction of artist Chintan Upadhyay for conspiracy in the murder of his estranged wife, Hema Upadhyay, marks a significant development in this high-profile case. While the main accused, Vidyadhar Rajbhar, remains at large, Chintan’s conviction is based on a combination of evidence, including his personal diary and the discovery of the bodies. The case has shed light on the complexities of personal and professional relationships within the art world and the tragic consequences that can result from such conflicts.