This is one of your biggest shows, spanning four decades of your work. Do you think the works represent your various engagements over the years?
I was surprised to see all the work that Vijay Aggarwal from Swaraj Art Archive (organiser) had purchased. Almost all the subjects that I have worked on are in the show, from Buddha and Guru Nanak to environmental concerns, the widows of Vrindavan, and the 1984 genocide. I cannot imagine why someone would want to buy such dark works. When I look back, I feel a lot of my previous work was too dark, too heavy. Earlier, I did not realise that I put everything out there, it (my canvas) was filled edge to edge. In the last decade, that has changed. I have realised an element of abstraction is important; the negative space is actually a positive one. Now, my canvases are less crowded, and the figures minimal.
Do you think the themes that you dealt with — the 1984 violence or the widows of Vrindavan, or the rape of Maya Tyagi (1979), for instance — required you to be that direct?
Initially, painting, for me, was a cathartic experience. My visit to Vrindavan in 1987 was accidental. I had travelled to see the Mathura museum’s collection of sculptures, but that was shut, and that’s when I went to see the temples instead. I had heard stories of Vrindavan as a land of gopis, romance, but what I saw, instead, were thousands of widows with their shaven heads, struggling. I had to paint them. Similarly, I could not help myself when Maya was raped. How else do I depict pain? I decided to create the “Custodians of the Law” series.
The 1984 genocide was very personal too. We were tenants in Neeti Bagh, one of the two Sikh families in the neighbourhood. The landlord got orders for us to vacate our home, saying my mother, Ajeet Caur, was a ‘prominent sardaarni’ and the house would be burnt. We were homeless, and, for months, we stayed with my mother’s childhood friend in Munirka. My mother and I would pile up blankets and medicines and go to the riot-affected colonies and refugee camps. This is also when my mother wrote Khanabadosh, which won her the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1986. All of this informed my thoughts. The series found few takers, but I had to depict what I had seen. I remember Mrs (Roshan) Alkazi (co-founder of Art Heritage Gallery, Delhi) saying, ‘What is a nice girl like you painting these horrific scenes for? You should paint happier works,’ and I said I have seen it with my own eyes.
The series did receive acclaim. It won you the Triennale award (given out by the Lalit Kala Akademi) in 1986.
I still remember the day the award was announced. I was working in Garhi studios and having dal and roti for Rs 2 at a dhaba outside, when an artist came to tell me that I had won the Triennale award. I asked, ‘How much money?’ and he said, ‘Rs 50,000.’ I went home to East of Kailash and told my mother. When we went to receive the award, Balbir Singh Katt and Sunil Das lifted me on their shoulders, and said, ‘Our baby painter has won an award.’
You studied literature at Delhi University. What prompted you to pursue art?
As a child, I learnt the sitar and wrote poetry, but found greatest pleasure in painting. Surinder Chadha, the graphic artist, was our neighbour, and I remember, as a child, I would go and sit in his studio for hours. I started painting when I was three. When I was nine, I made an oil painting, Mother and Daughter, which was inspired by the works of Amrita Sher-Gil. In 1974, I participated in two group shows in Delhi. Bhavesh da (Sanyal) also encouraged me to do a solo in 1975. Since then, I haven’t looked back.
In 1979, I was awarded a scholarship to study at St. Martin’s School of Art in London, but I came back in two months. I was so homesick. In 1980, I had my first solo in Mumbai. My mother and I rolled 20 canvases and took them in the train. The whole night, we installed the show at Jehangir gallery. The next morning, when we returned, Husain saab was there. He bought one work for Rs 3,000, Kekoo Gandhy bought some, and then some were bought by collectors. The show was a sellout. Back then, Mumbai was the place were artists from across India earned their bread and butter.
What about your childhood influences? Your mother is an author, and writers such as Shiv Batalvi, Amrita Pritam and Krishna Sobti were regular visitors at your home.
When my grandfather came from Lahore, he carried the Guru Granth Sahib on his head; we still worship that. Khushwant (Singh) uncle was there too, as a family friend. I illustrated one of his books, Hymns of the Sikh Gurus. In 1980, Faiz Ahmed Faiz used works from my “Naukrani” series in his magazine Lotus. That was quite an honour. Just before he died, he had asked (writer) Kartar Singh Duggal to get transparencies of some of my recent works for publishing, but he died before those could reach him.
Indian miniatures, which form a huge part of your collection, have influenced your work too.
Women usually like to buy jewellery and clothes, but when I started selling my works, I started buying miniatures. During the golden period of Indian art, until five years ago, I bartered some of my works for miniatures, while others, I bought. One collector gave me 25 Sikh school miniatures in return for five of my works; another exchanged 10 miniatures for three of my works. Over the years, the collection has grown; it is available for public viewing at our academy in Delhi. From 1980 to 1984, I brought in architectural elements from Basohli miniatures into my work — its linear architecture and vibrant colours fascinate me. It became a device for dividing the canvas. I borrowed the concept of narikuncher from Persian miniatures, where several figures came together to form one. I also turned to 18th century Pahari painter Nainsukh when I was painting Sohni (from the Punjabi folk tale on the star-crossed lovers, Sohni and Mahiwal). I referred to his painting of her created 200 years ago. Sohni is a metaphor for any human being who takes a plunge. She is a real person, a potter, an artist. I also visited her birthplace, Akhnoor (Jammu).
How did scissors become a recurring motif in your work? I believe artist Satish Gujral calls you ‘kaichi’.
I first used scissors in my work around 20 years ago. I needed a metaphor for time and wanted to paint day and night. The Greeks believe that scissors have the power to cut man’s fate. I painted a woman embroidering the thread of life, and the other was cutting, depicting the endless cycle. It also represented the dualities within nature, of creation and destruction, life and death. It is said that when one dies, Yamraj comes and cuts the umbilical cord.
Recently, there has been a lot of focus on folk and tribal art. You were one of the first contemporary artists to work with folk artists in the early ’90s, and imbibed folk elements into your own work as well. Can you talk about this collaboration?
There is so much richness and colour in tradition and myth, it’s a well one can keep drawing from. I like the circle of Warli as it indicates time. Thread ties everybody in one bond, and, sometimes, it also breaks the bond. In the Nineties, I asked Madhubani artist Sat Narain Pande to draw folk images and then painted my images with it. We worked together for several years, creating works on paper with joint signatures.
Over the years, you have made several efforts to include your work in museum collections. Why is that so important to you?
I have made a very conscious effort to achieve this. I want to take my work to the people and that can happen through museums, which have permanent collections. Hiroshima Museum of Modern Art had commissioned me in 1994 to paint the 50th anniversary of the Holocaust; that work is still with them. If a museum approaches me with a limited budget, I am willing to give my work even at one-tenth of the cost. My work is now in over 20 museums across the world, including London’s Victoria & Albert Museum and Singapore Art Museum in Singapore. It ensures that the work outlives you.