One of the foremost women artists in the country, Arpita Singh got much-deserved attention rather late in her career. For years, she took pride in being the observer who balanced work and home, bringing elements from life into her art. In 2010, she became the most valued woman artist in India, when her painting Wish Dream went under the hammer for Rs 9.6 crore. The 80-year-old continues to experiment with the texture and form of her artistic idiom.
In an exhibition at Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi (on till December 2), she shares pages from her sketchbooks from the last decade that feature figures in fragmented lines, origami shapes and ideas that led to larger paintings. In this interview, she talks about the constant changes in her oeuvre, her friendship with women artists and the growing culture of intolerance across the world:
Can we say that with this exhibition you are sharing your drawing board?
Yes, you could. I sketch on anything I get. When we could not afford high quality paper, I used to draw in the white spaces of newspapers, industrial pamphlets, art catalogues. Several of my bigger works germinated from these smaller, impromptu ideas. It feels like taking notes to work on bigger stories.
You build your canvases in a similar manner, enlarging smaller figures in the actual work space.
I’m scared of making large figures directly, I’m always afraid that I’ll lose control. So I start with smaller figures and then expand them. This is also why they appear flabby and loose. The objects around are added later. The world that I paint is part real, part naive; there are things that I see around — it could be as simple as telephones, aeroplanes, flowers or guns — and pair it with anything that I want to say at that moment.
For years, you relied on symbolism to express your views, but now we see more direct references. You responded to the Best Bakery case judgement in Watching (2006). This solo has the pen work Taxi: Women Friendly, suggestive of the Uber rape incident in Delhi.
I have opened the doors now. When my daughter (Anjum) was growing up, I was spending more time at home, so that world was, perhaps, more prominent in my work. As an artist, one is bound to be affected by what is happening. It is not like I decide to depict a certain thing, my subconscious is always at work. It is also because things around us are different now, the scene has changed, it is more insecure, not just in India, but the world over.
In the early ’70s, you used a lot of bright shades and flat surfaces. I believe you were inspired by an empty box of Brooke Bond Red Label tea?
That box became a special thing for me. I was already painting small format water colours when I came across it at home. I reacted to its bright shades of red, yellow and silver. My colour palette as well as my approach to art changed. I started using flat surfaces and sharp outlines, almost like the popular bazaar calendar art.
Then suddenly in the mid ’70s, you turned to abstracts, restricting yourself to black and white for almost eight years, before turning to figurative works again. What provoked that?
I was having technical problems and needed to understand a few things before I did any more figurative work, so I turned to drawings. I wanted to concentrate on structure and did not need colour for that — therefore black and white. I attempted basics like dot and lines and spent eight years doing just that. People said they were abstract drawings. And then one day, there was this urge to add colours to the dots and lines — small strokes of orange and yellow, and coloured flags.
You moved to Delhi (from Kolkata) in 1946 with your mother after your father’s death. What were your first lessons in art?
My entry into professional art was accidental. My principal at Lady Irwin Higher Secondary School in Delhi, Kamala Sengupta, encouraged me to pursue art. My first lessons, perhaps, were in Kolkata, when I saw our help make dolls from clay for us, when I was around three or four. I used the small metal sheets behind pencils to make kitchen sets, glasses and utensils. Later, I studied art under teachers like Sailoz Mukherjee and Biren De, which was a wonderful experience. There weren’t classes as such, but informal interactions; they asked us to paint/draw and then discussed what and how we had made what we did.
You were never shy of experimenting with techniques. From shunning colour altogether to alternating between abstract and figurative artwork to trying out different textures, you have worked around an enormous range. Do you think artists today have as much freedom or is market the driving force?
We had much more freedom, there was nothing to lose. There was no money in art, we had to do other jobs. I taught at a government school and was later a designer with the Handloom Board. Paramjit (Singh, husband) also taught art at schools. But when my teacher suggested that I take up art, my mother was not really concerned about the earnings through it. Women were not expected to earn a living in those days.
You, Paramjit, RK Dhavan, Eric Bowin and some more artists used to gather money to organise exhibitions in the ’70s. When you look back, what memories do you hold of those days?
I miss those days, there was this excitement about doing things together. We had formed a small group called Unknown, and had our first exhibition at AIFACS in Delhi, where we had rented space. Only one work of mine was sold. It was bought by Kumar Art Gallery for Rs 100, on the advice of GS Santosh. The exhibition also got me my first solo at Kunika Chemould Art Centre (Delhi, 1972). Success did not come fast or easy in those days.
There was another informal group that you were part of — you, Nalini Malani, Nilima Sheikh and Madhvi Parekh — who exhibited together through the ’80s and ’90s. How did you all come together?
We knew each other well and all of us were working with watercolours, so we decided to come together. I received a letter from Nalini, and instinctively responded on a postcard, inscribed with the number ‘4’, standing for us four. That was the beginning. We had more than five exhibitions together. We had no name for the group or any programme, it was just a dialogue between us. Apart from exhibiting, Nalini and I also often wrote to each other. She has saved all those letters, but I haven’t, careless and disorganised that I am. For our last exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Delhi, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh even wrote a poem for the occasion.
Three of you (Sheikh, Malani and Singh) also drew a lot from the political scenario, such as Partition.
All three of us were affected by the Partition, directly or indirectly. Nalini’s family had come from Karachi, Nilima and me were in Delhi. I used to stay near Bengali Market and vividly recall an elderly man being killed during the communal riots that followed the Partition. That incident has stayed with me. I never painted it directly, but that menace affected some of my work, just like the riots after the Babri Masjid demolition did.
Mythology has also played an important part in your work. The triptych Whatever is Here (2006) had a blind Dhritarashtra as the central figure, surrounded by an intricate web of human figures and text. In Yudhisthira Approaching Heaven (2005), the Pandava was seen climbing skywards in an airplane.
I like to read, fiction, non-fiction, epics, anything. In this exhibition too, some sketches and drawings are my recent large work: In Search of Sita, made for Kiran Nadar, is based on the Ramayana. Sita haran (the abduction of Sita) is still prevalent in society. I don’t feel it’s a great thing that Ravana did not rape Sita. The very fact that she was forcibly removed from her own location, that is a greater crime to me — one of tearing a form from its location, from a place where it belongs. Between the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, I find the Mahabharata more interesting. There are a lot more characters and stories to tell.
Even the monumental (16 panels, 24×13 feet) Wish Dream was based on the Tibetan version of the Ramayana.
When I was asked to do the work, I actually said no, because it was so huge and challenging. Then, I just did not know how to begin, so I started reading epics and old literature. Someone lent me a book about a Tibetan play, which was a version of the Ramayana. I was reading the introduction and came across the words ‘wish dreams’. The mural shows the wishes and dreams of a woman within our society, how it progresses and the rituals that are associated with it, including marriage. Of course I never thought that one day the work will sell at an auction, or will be worth so much. I’m just relieved when a work is over.
What is your wish dream?
I wish for more tolerance. I wish things would change for the better. We see so much violence and terror the world over, so many issues. Look at the Syrian migration crisis, or how historical statues were pulled down in Afghanistan. We are with the authors who are returning their Sahitya Akademi awards. I even considered returning my Padma Bhushan, but I was given that during the tenure of Manmahon Singh as prime minister and want to keep it to honour him.