The overdue recognition of Arpita Singh

01 March 2015

ON A CHILLY SATURDAY MORNING LAST OCTOBER, I sat with the artist Arpita Singh in her studio in Delhi’s Nizamuddin East, chatting about her work over steaming cups of tea. Perched on the mezzanine of the charming house she shares with her husband, Paramjit Singh, also an acclaimed painter, the studio is of modest size, with large glass windows on two sides. Thick, grey winter light poured in, and except for the odd birdcall, a meditative calm reigned. Vast, empty canvases and works-in-progress were propped expectantly against the walls; brushes, notebooks, paint and paper lay scattered all around.

Singh retreats into this stillness every day to work, even at the age of 78. This often means cocooning herself away to sketch, read, or simply think, but work, for her, is a ritual not to be missed. After a career spanning over half a century, remarkably rich with experiments in idioms and media, you might imagine that there would be less anxiety, less compulsion, to toil over every canvas.

“First you have to be able to make, say, a hand, and only after you have learned to master it, can you think of distorting it, turning it into something unfamiliar,” Singh said, a smile playing on her lips. “As an artist, I believe only if I am able to make what I can see, will I then be able to make what I cannot see.”

The remark, made in response to my question about the importance of formal training in the fine arts, resonates in the current wave of conceptual and installation art flooding the Indian market, where sometimes even the choicest pieces of junk run the risk of being sold by galleries and auction houses for handsome sums. Yet, while there may be an amused interest in these so-called inheritors of Warhol and Duchamp, traditional forms, such as painting and sculpture, continue to hold their appeal in the public eye. (Last year, the retrospective of the paintings of the late VS Gaitonde was the first solo show by an Indian artist at the Guggenheim Musuem in New York.)

Singh belongs to the generation after Gaitonde and his contemporaries—Ram Kumar, Tyeb Mehta and MF Husain—and is also chiefly known as a painter, though her virtuosity extends to other media as well. Not someone much accustomed to the limelight, she recently found herself the centre of public attention twice, and in quick succession.

In October, Singh was made a fellow of the Lalit Kala Akademi, at the inauguration of a large exhibition that featured a selection of her major works at the Akademi’s gallery in Delhi. This national honour was first awarded in 1955; before Singh, only one woman out of over fifty recipients had won it: the scholar of Indian art, dance and architecture Kapila Vatsyayan, in 1995.

For a time, Singh eschewed the use of colour, as in this watercolour from
courtesy arpita singh

The skewed recognition of female artists could not have been better demonstrated by the spectacle of the award ceremony, where Singh shared the dais with an all-male cast, except for the art writer Ella Dutta, who had curated the accompanying exhibition. I could not help wonder why the selection committee had not invited any female artists of Singh’s generation—Nilima Sheikh, perhaps, or Nalini Malani—to speak about her. What did their absence from the discussion mean in the larger scheme of modern Indian art?

A couple of months later, in late January, Penguin Random House, in collaboration with Vadehra Art Gallery, published Arpita Singh, a book featuring a long essay by the Paris-based art historian Deepak Ananth. While the essay on her life and work placed Singh among her peers of both genders—Nasreen Mohamedi, A Ramachandran and Anjolie Ela Menon, for instance—it left me curious to know more about the hand behind the images, the mind that informed the sensibility. I wanted to hear Singh’s own account of her evolution as an artist—a career she had, by her own admission, accidentally stumbled into.

BORN ARPITA DUTTA, in 1937, Singh lost her father when she was six years old. In 1946, she moved with her mother from Baranagar, a suburb in north Calcutta, to the Bengali Market area of central Delhi. There, they settled into a government apartment, from the balcony of which the young Arpita witnessed the horrific killing of a man in the riots that broke out in the wake of India’s independence and partition. While that memory may not have surfaced explicitly in any particular painting, scenes of violence keep appearing, usually tangentially, in Singh’s work. The large oil-on-canvas My Lily Pond (2009), for instance, referred to atrocities perpetrated by United States forces against prisoners at the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay. But the panoramic composition, with miniature, gun-toting figures scurrying over a background of blue with the word “WATER” inscribed all over it, lends to the spectacle of cruelty a touch of horrific beauty as well.

In the late 1980s Singh exhibited in Delhi with three contemporary women artists. The women never established a formal collective, but remained friends over the years. Left to right: Madhvi Parekh, Nalini Malani, Singh and Nilima Sheikh.
courtesy arpita singh

At school, Singh and her friends were made to knit woolen garments for Partition refugees, who were living in makeshift camps or on the streets. The harsh circumstances of life unfolded in stark black and white, and calendars and posters provided the only visual relief. “I grew up looking at half-tone paintings and oleographs,” Singh recalled. “Especially at those realist scenes from epics like the Ramayana showing royal women or goddesses draped in glorious georgette saris.”

She had a natural facility for drawing. But in those days, paper was in short supply and hard to afford, so she often depended on newspapers and colourful industrial catalogues to express herself, teasing out images from between the dense forest of text on their pages. That early mode of association, of the eye and the hand with words and pictures, would later manifest in many of Singh’s works, where broken phrases and words ascend from the graphics, like whispers and murmurs in dreams. This unconventional habit also defines the modernist iconography of her mature work, in which image and text come together in a seamless unity, forming a vocabulary at once verbal and visual.

After finishing school, Singh enrolled at Indraprastha College, in Delhi, for an honours degree in philosophy, though her preferred subject was Bengali literature. “In those days, one needed to have Sanskrit to be offered a place to study Bengali honours,” she said. “So I could not qualify.”

When her mother went to her school to collect her certificates, the principal suggested that Singh should consider pursuing art instead, and recommended her to the department of fine arts at the Delhi Polytechnic (now Delhi Technological University). “In those days we followed whatever our teachers asked us to do, and so, obediently, I went for a visit,” Singh told me, laughing. BC Sanyal, one of the finest art teachers and painters of modern India, was the head of the department then. He asked Sailoz Mookherjea, another legend among early modernist painters and part of the faculty, to set up a test for her.

Singh was asked to copy a plaster-of-Paris bust of Minerva, the Roman goddess of the arts, an exercise she, in spite of her utter inexperience and to her profound amazement, passed. “I was then required to draw a horse rider, which completely threw me off!” she said. Mookherjea took her to nearby Kashmiri Gate and pointed out the tonga-wallas on their horses. “Stand here and observe them carefully,” he said. “When you think you will be able to make the drawing, come back and finish it.”

She crossed that hurdle too, after which it was time for an interview. “It was another disaster,” Singh remembered. “I had this awful habit of breaking into fits of giggles in those days, as a result it went somewhat like this: ‘What is your name?’ ‘Heeheehee.’ ‘Why do you wish to study art?’ ‘Heeheehee.’”

At college, Singh was mentored by several distinguished artists—Dinkar Kaushik, Biren De, and Jaya Appasamy, among others. Her contemporaries included the abstract painters Eric Bowen, Gopi Gajwani and Paramjit Singh, who was a year senior and whom she married in 1962. But more than academic aptitude and training, it was Singh’s eclectic appetite for reading that most shaped her intellectual and artistic leanings, and her affinity with illustration rather than abstraction.

“I used to read voraciously from my father’s library, whether I understood the books or not, be it the plays of Shakespeare or heavy philosophical tomes,” Singh said. “I still read every evening, though I prefer non-fiction to fiction. I enjoy historical studies, particularly those that establish the links and overlaps between different civilisations.” She mentioned her love for Tutinama—“Tales of a Parrot”— a fourteenth-century Persian compilation of 52 stories, and pointed out its resonance with texts from other cultures: Boccaccio’s Decameron from Italy and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from England. The polyphony of voices that run through these deceptively simple narratives appears reflected in Singh’s larger compositions, where myriad visual elements come together like patterns on an intricate tapestry. “I am fascinated by the common roots of various languages, by the mystical formation of the Roman alphabet with the sudden coming together of two lines, by the way in which two things meld into each other and form an original,” she said.

IN 2010, the artist Bharti Kher’s life-size sculpture of an elephant covered with bindis, called The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own, sold for R6.9 crore, creating a stir in the media. A few months later, Singh’s monumental mural Wish Dream, composed of 16 individual pieces and measuring 24 feet by 13 feet, fetched an even greater amount—Rs 9.6 crore—at an online auction by Saffronart. Influenced by Buddhist thangka painting, Wish Dream depicts a cornucopia of human figures and birds in flight, with a recurring motif of a female ascetic draped in white. Both works were spectacular feats of imagination, exuding a sense of serenity despite their arresting scales. Yet Kher’s work has become iconic, while Singh’s lacks the same kind of recall.

The female figure finds prominent place in Arpita Singh’s work. This painting from the late 1980s, titled Object with and without Shadows, incorporates Singh’s collage-like style, juxtaposing images from nature, technology and domestic life with figures.
courtesy arpita singh

This tendency to exclude women of Singh’s generation from the A-list of Indian artists (Kher was born in 1969) is symptomatic of a certain predilection for more ostentatious forms of expression. But it also says as much about the difficult to categorise, diffused but intense aesthetic of Singh’s art, which moves across diverse styles and media and ranges from colourful forms to formless colours.

Singh’s early paintings, which were mostly assemblages of abstract shapes defined by a confident use of colours, won her critical attention. She showed these works with a collective, appositely called The Unknowns, in the 1960s, shortly after graduating. In the same decade, she got married, had her daughter Anjum (also an artist), and was appointed an art designer by the Handloom Board of India.

Singh’s day job involved working closely with prints and textiles. Not only did this alert her to the artistic potential of fabrics, it also engendered a strong tactile sensibility. Singh revisited textiles many years later, when the collector Abhishek Poddar commissioned her to create a set of carpets, in 1993. Combining the rustic elegance of the hand-stitched and embroidered nakshi kantha of Bengal with the multi-paneled style of patchitra scroll paintings, these exquisite carpets, adorned with elaborate borders, harkened back to the modernist aesthetics of artists such as the French-American Louise Bourgeois, who used needle and thread to sew pungent aphorisms onto quilts (“I have been to hell and back. And let me tell you it was wonderful,” reads one famous inscription). In Singh’s case, the imagery was more decorative, derived directly from her paintings and transposed onto the carpet, as though an extra texture had been added to the canvas surface itself.

For much of her early career, Singh was under the spell of Paul Klee—the “fairy godmother to much of Indian art in the Sixties and Seventies,” as her friend and contemporary Nilima Sheikh described him in an essay on Singh’s work that was reprinted in the catalogue of the Lalit Kala Akademi exhibition. Apart from this Swiss-German master, who combined surrealist, expressionist and cubist approaches in his haunting, enigmatic drawings and sketches, another overwhelming influence was the Russian abstract expressionist Wassily Kandinsky, best known for his experiments with grids and colours. Marc Chagall and Henri Rousseau were also inspirations. With these various styles churning in her head, Singh demonstrated a distinctly European approach in this decade, moving between still life and abstraction.

Following a break after the birth of her daughter in 1967, Singh returned to painting with a dream-like series called Figures and Flowers, in which scenes of domestic life are depicted as if through a bubble. Ghostly faces of men and women contort in the paintings, the colours deepen and become hyper-real, furniture floats about rooms, and objects of daily use are suspended in a two-dimensional miasma—reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s famous cut-outs, though less distinct. Even as we stare at the mundane reality Singh shows us, we become aware of it dissolving. This dissolution introduces a sense of anxiety—a primal fear of the loss of self, perhaps. “I have always believed that a primitive force exists within us,” Singh said. “As individuals, we have to satisfy this instinct; we cannot escape it. As an artist, I try to distil into each of my lines my own stories of darkness.”

In spite of its depths and recesses, Singh’s imagery has always been redolent of a playful spirit, that seamlessly incorporates pop emblems: the label of a packet of Brooke Bond Red Label tea, or a calendar print, for example. Figures and Flowers was displayed at her first big solo exhibition, at the Kunica Chemould Art Centre in Delhi, in 1972. “My show was preceded by Tyeb Mehta’s,” Singh recalled. “The transition from his style to mine was, as you can guess, quite dramatic. It seemed as though the entire gallery had been transformed overnight into a corner shop, selling paan and bidis!”

Singh’s childhood practice of drawing on magazines and newsprint is evinced by her use of lettering and words in her paintings, such as the triptych Tarot Card Reading from 2003. Singh uses letters like hieroglyphs , seamlessly mixing them with objects.
courtesy arpita singh

If the intensity of life, throbbing with a thousand colours and cadences, invigorated Singh’s work, it also seemed to drain the artist of her vitality. She emerged from this phase feeling spent, “unable to move on,” as she put it. “For the next eight years, I only practiced lines and grids, repeatedly made dots and patterns.” These were also the years when the artist Nasreen Mohamedi, Singh’s exact contemporary, was venturing into the realm of optical illusions—allowing a line to trace its own crazy geometry, creating planes on paper surfaces. Bridget Riley in Britain and Agnes Martin in the United States were pushing their work in similar abstract directions. Inspired by the pointillism of Georges Seurat, Riley became obsessed with cracking the mystery of colour by creating optical illusions, while Martin started producing rarefied impressions, putting up a series of nearly white canvases on the four walls of a room, for instance. In contrast, Singh’s was a far more deliberate exercise. “It was like practicing handwriting,” she explained, “before I found my voice once again.”

SINGH RETURNED TO COLOUR in the early 1980s with Flags, a monumental work depicting a field of flags fluttering in the wind. Using impasto, or thick layering of pigment, she created a shining, high-relief texture on canvas. This was also the only period when her work seemed to speak directly to her husband’s, who employed a similar technique to evoke the beauty of the natural world.

With this reclamation of colour, Singh now moved into one of the most prolific phases of her creative life. Her canvases grew in scale and began filling up with people and objects. Different planes of existence began to cut across one another; newer themes, especially those concerning the lives of ordinary women, began to flow into her work. But recognition, at least the popular variety of it, wasn’t quick to come. Those were the prelapsarian days of Indian art, when a painting or sculpture would receive intense scrutiny from critics such as Geeta Kapur or Richard Bartholomew, but rarely became the centre of attention in an ever-transient news cycle solely for the price it had commanded.

In 1986, a year short of 50, Singh had her first major international exhibition, at the Pompidou Centre in Paris as part of the Festival of India. Her work was shown alongside that of Gulammohammed Sheikh, Sudhir Patwardhan and Bhupen Khakhar. Singh’s style was dramatically inflected by Khakhar’s figurative paintings—especially by their erotically charged, often perverse, energy, and the way different elements were arranged to create panoramas, forcing the viewer to absorb each specific detail as well as the work as a whole.

Towards the end of the 1980s, Singh collaborated with the artists Nilima Sheikh, Madhvi Parekh and Nalini Malani in a show at the CCA gallery in Delhi. It was a rare instance in the history of Indian art when a group of women came together to present their work. “At first we had a sponsor who offered to support an exhibition by women painters,” Singh recalled. “But soon the gentleman in question found it more worth his while to invest his money in television serials.” Undaunted, the formidable four decided to pool their own resources to put up the show. Unlike the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group—an all boys’ club that included luminaries such as FN Souza, SH Raza, MF Husain, VS Gaitonde, Akbar Padamsee, Ram Kumar and Tyeb Mehta, who wanted to revolutionise the practice of art, some of them with their shockingly decadent imagery-—these women did not have a defined political agenda. What they did have in common was a “shared interest in exploring the meaning of a painting and the game or artifice that goes into its making,” Singh said. There was no real inclination to come up with elaborate vision statements or unleash programmes of anarchy to unsettle the world of Indian art. Rather, the work of creating paintings and sculptures had to be seamlessly integrated into the work of bringing up children and keeping the home fires burning.

Although they never formed a collective proper, choosing to work out of solitary rooms of their own, these artists’ affinity continued in the years that followed. The human form, especially the figure of the woman, at once mother and child, victorious and defeated, oppressor and oppressed, remained at the core of whatever form or style they worked in.

In Singh’s paintings, the feminine figure has morphed down the years, mirroring perhaps the fragilities of her own ageing body. Once shapely and curvaceous, sitting in a prospect of flowers, as in Painting I (1987), the figure has gradually turned grotesque, as in a Lucian Freud portrait. Her skin has become distended, signs of decay have been written over her nakedness. Flabby and bloated, she sits cradling an infant, like the Madonna (Woman With A Female Child II,  1994). But most commonly, she appears in the still centre of the visual field, radiating a mythical energy in all directions, as in Whatever Is Here (2006). She may be Durga, the goddess with ten hands, in Devi (1991), or a weather-beaten soul seated on a sofa, reading the papers to fellow travellers on the path to oblivion in The Listeners (2010). Around this matriarch gathers an entire ecosystem of other creatures—children demanding to be nourished, men imposing or prostrating themselves, and other women immersed in their rituals.

“Paul Klee believed that art does not reproduce the visible, rather it makes visible,” Singh told me. “I have embraced this sentiment as an article of faith.” Perhaps this credo, of illustrating the unseen, also translated into an ability to witness the world from other vantage points and multiple perspectives. Imagined through the eyes of a child, which hide behind them the soul of an old woman, and rendered by a practised hand, Singh’s every work has “many beginnings and no ends,” as she put it.

Facing us, resting on an easel, was one such work: a long, vertical canvas that was part of an enormous triptych Singh has been working on for over a year. Teeming with figures on a landscape criss-crossed by rivulets of blue and patches of dull India red—a colour that has become part of Singh’s natural vocabulary—it stood like a majestic jigsaw puzzle, or a map for a treasure hunt, refusing to yield its inner secret, its precious gift. “There are moments when I feel I have got what I was looking for,” Singh said, as we both stared at it, “but then I begin to doubt myself.”

Somak Ghoshal Somak Ghoshal is an editor and writer based in Delhi.