Artist Arpana Caur never leaves home without colours and papers — even when she is going for a triple bypass surgery. When her heart faltered in 2007, Caur realised that she may not live to see 60. She kept drawing. She drew a woman’s heart erupting like a red bomb in Explosion, and showed three plastic rulers moving in to imprison her in a triangle, away from the green trees at the bottom of the page. Above one ruler, Caur scrawled a desperate plea, “more time please more time please more”. The artist’s prayer was heard. On September 4 this year, she celebrated her 61st birthday. The next day, Caur opened her new exhibition, titled “Crossing 60”.
This is her first solo in 11 years, but that is not the event’s significance. “Crossing 60” is made up of paper works that the artist is not known for. She is synonymous with huge canvases that dwarf, even overwhelm, the viewer who stands before them. For this exhibition, Caur brought out paper works in which she had to negotiate ideas in a small space. “My heart and soul is my large-format paintings but, at times, you want to take on things you haven’t before. Paper works are very personal and intimate. I would never do the bypass series on canvas,” she says.
Caur worked on paper when she travelled, “while ruminating at home” and to remark as personal and political landscapes changed around her. Her paper works are significant since Caur is known to be a quiet and introverted artist. To ignore the exhibition would be to miss out on the artist’s less-public evolution. In Faith, she paints a generic religious book burning bright at the epicenter of a circle of severed legs. In the series on the widows of Vrindavan, a work shows women folding their hands to Krishna, who has turned his back on them, as, around him, the trees of Radhakunj that are said to be gopis become twisted like the bodies of the widows. The series was famous for its large-scale canvases but it was on paper that Caur recorded the impact of visiting Vrindavan and seeing the widows for the first time.
The 103 displays start in 1981, with an image of a girl painting a tree in the middle of Delhi’s growing traffic. “Things were beginning to change, though they were not as bad as they are now,” says Caur about the roads. She used to make drawings earlier but “we shifted the house so many times that I couldn’t find anything decent from before ’81”. The 1984 massacre of the Sikhs provoked the series “World Goes On”. In one image, Caur, who helped out at relief camps with her mother, the writer Ajeet Cour, depicts mangled bodies in a heap while the unaffected look on indifferently and peacocks dance without concern. Ghost commemorates the peacocks that were eaten by stray dogs when hundreds of trees from south Delhi were cut down during the Commonwealth Games. The bird, painted in white gouache, hovers in the foreground of penciled high-rises while a real peacock feather curves over the paper.
One of the new works, from 2015, illustrates the communal disharmony in the country through a map in which Muzaffarnagar lies at the point of focus.
Caur’s figures are rounded and organic and the works appear more poetic than political, even when they chronicle a chronological breakdown of social and ecological orders or, in the case of poverty, maintains a despairing status quo. Into this environment, images of Sohni Mahiwal, Buddha and Nanak capture the serenity that Caur’s large canvases are famous for.
“Ninety-five per cent of these paper works are independent of canvases and are complete in themselves. The image needs only this small format. In the 1984 or Vrindaban widows series, the works are not sketches for the paintings but accompany the paintings. They were exhibited in Art Heritage Gallery by the side of the paintings in 1985 and 1988, respectively,” says the artist.
The surprise, she adds, are the etchings that she made from 1981 to 2009, which cannot be reproduced either because the plates are missing or the equipment is not available. “I have been careless with my etching plates because in those days nobody used to buy art and nobody used to buy prints anyway. Even now prints hardly have a market,” she says.
“Crossing 60” did not have an opening party. “People go to galleries only on openings. After that, walk into any gallery and how many people will you see? Even now, where is the audience? The thought of having an opening prevented me from having this solo,” she says.
Not hung but as much a part of the exhibition is the only book that the artist ever wrote, an illustrated parable about a man who always lived by his watch. “One day, he throws away his watch and starts looking around him. At that moment, he turns into a child, soaked in the rain of nature,” she says.
The exhibition is on at Academy of Fine Arts and Literature, 4/6 Siri Fort Institutional Area, till October 5. Contact: 26498070