Each canvas is a melange of thick brushstrokes converging to form diverse pictures — from entwined leaves to clear skies and floating green islands. They do not belong to a particular location but are a figment of Paramjit Singh’s imagination, an outcome of his numerous travels and his romance with the variegated landscapes. The earth always fascinated the artist, for as long as he can remember. As a young boy growing up in Amritsar in the ’40s, he recalls visualising territories that Guru Nanak travelled to, when his father narrated tales of the saint’s wanderings. “My father was a great storyteller and I remember him telling stories from the life of Guru Nanak, giving details of the rivers, mountains and the sky, and in my head, I used to recreate each detail,” says Singh, 82.
Over the years, he has reimagined several pictorial memoirs. His ongoing exhibition in Delhi is also an outcome of these reflections. If the mass of pink on pristine blue appears to be lotus fields pictured in bright light, in another oil on board, green forests inhabit vast open fields. “I use light for body and colour for perspective. Colour comes from nature and the strokes of colour are like a language. The repetition of strokes is like repeating words,” says the artist, adding, “I use nature and invent my landscape. What matters is the concept of landscape. I am a painter of nature, not an illustrator of nature. I paint the moods and its older elements, like the air and texture.”
His depictions, though, were not always devoid of figures. In his early years, the colourist painted figurative works and was known to be a fine portrait painter. “There was a lot of still life with landscape in the backdrop,” recalls Singh of his student days at the Delhi Polytechnic. It is here that he found mentors in teachers such as Sailoz Mukherjee, and influenced by the Impressionists, Singh attempted to develop his own language with colour.
“The academic environment was such that each of us was encouraged to think and choose our own path. With me, I always enjoyed the mysteries and marvels of nature,” says Singh. So the young lad from Amritsar who used to bathe under tubewells and cycle long distances from his home to school everyday, found serenity in the uncrowded Delhi of the ’50s too. “Even in Delhi, we would cycle on the ridge or walk through the wild fields and visit old monuments,” he says.
Gradually, therefore, elements of nature began to come to the forefront in his depictions, and by the ’60s, nature became dominant. In 1958, he, along with Suraj Ghai, Eric Bowen and his wife Arpita Singh, established the group The Unknown, formed to encourage emerging Indian artists. Together, they organised their first exhibition at AIFACS, followed by handful more in the subsequent years. “I do not remember selling much but we were written about a lot, which helped get attention,” says the artist, whose work Stone on the Wall won a national award in 1970, while three of his paintings were accepted for the Lalit Kala Akademi triennial in 1971.
A self-sponsored trip to Europe, including a couple months of training in printmaking at the Atelier Nord in Norway in 1973, gave him better exposure to Western art and he also exhibited his work across the continent. “I managed to sell some,” he recalls. Back in India though, with no commerce in art, he supported his practice by joining as faculty member at the Fine Arts college at Jamia Millia University in Delhi where he taught from 1963 to 1992.
Soon, he and also his work started travelling the world. If in 1988, he was invited by the Indian Council of Cultural Relations to curate a show from India at an international art festival in Lahore, in 1989, he exhibited at Gallery Killian in Hannover. Also, the figurative elements receded in the background, bringing more abstract and mystical landscapes to the forefront — both in colour and charcoal, playing with form, texture and light which are so integral to his work.