Arpita Singh: A life in painting 

For an artist not given to complex explanations about her own art, Arpita Singh’s paintings, on the contrary, are quite complex, in themes, depth and palette. Curating more than five decades of her works in watercolour, oil, acrylic, drawings and sketches, the retrospective at New Delhi’s Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) studies one of India’s most significant contemporary artists’ career-long love affair with the medium.

Having inculcated her interest in literature, art and mythology since her childhood and a stint at Handloom Board of India’s Weaver’s Service Centre, where she was exposed to traditional art-making, Arpita’s artistic trajectory is founded on these external, creative influences as well as a sharp intuitive quality that guides her brush. Miniatures and other forms of traditional art—such as the ones involving embroideries, fabrics, drapes—have been understood to shape her work. Even though the artist has shuttled between figuration and abstraction during her career, her oeuvre is replete with striking characters, emotionally charged narratives and elaborate forms of storytelling. The scale of her painting transformed around the turn of the millennium when she painted two large murals. One of them, about 24×14 feet in size, was installed at a public building in New Delhi.

A walk through the show titled ‘Submergence in the Midst of Here and There—Arpita Singh, Six Decades of Painting’, reveals a large body of work characterised by a deliberately playful naivete, through pinks, blues and other vibrant colours, and the simultaneous darker undercurrents of the world around her. Her biggest artistic preoccupation is the study of the human form, which she explores in multiple avatars— primitive, urbane, decaying, spiritual, funereal, and most significantly the feminine. These are materialised through phantasmagorical depictions, often taking the shape of numerous women who are melancholic, vulnerable, bald, or in the nude. Sometimes in a quasi-masculine garb, they are smoking, or seen in the form of a formidable Goddess firing a gun. In another series, they are lonely homemakers hosting a party.

‘What are you doing here’, Oil on canvas, 1992

The curiously bloated, creased, distorted faces and the often voluptuous bodies in her work –alongside patterns of lines, dots and other shapes— represent a deep exploration not only with the medium of painting and the techniques that she uses but also of an inner perspective of things around her. This includes on canvas, fairly large, figurative paintings on war; mythology (for example, a dramatic scene where a golden deer is being chased, or Sita being searched through torn papers); highly imaginative spiritual explorations; the labyrinthine web of cities, especially Delhi; and abstract works that have often been likened to the works of Van Gogh and Paul Klee—artists she admires, apart from Ram Kumar and Tyeb Mehta.

The figure of the solitary, reclining woman, occasionally undraped, is a recurrent image seen most prominently in a large oil painting titled ‘Ayesha Kidwai with Grandma’, who is seen on her deathbed. In this respect, Singh’s oeuvre is populated with highly distinctive dramatis personae, such as paintings about the ‘Death of Safdar Hashmi’, ‘My Mother’, ‘Munna Apa’s Garden’, ‘The Lily Pond Carpet’, ‘My Lolli Pop City, Gemini Rising,’ and the frequent tea party works, the latter inspired from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Evaluating Arpita’s beginning as an artist, KNMA curator Roobina Karode writes: “Arpita entered the male-dominated, mainstream modernism in India in the 1960s, working out of a personal repertoire of motifs and decorative painting. Belonging to a ‘hundred sketches a day’ generation of artists, drawing became an indispensable part of her being and a rare attentiveness sharpened her responses to everyday situations and the world around her.” The retrospective has been curated out of KNMA’s personal collection of 60 artworks made by Arpita, and about 160 of them have been sourced from private and public collections from India and overseas.

Her paintings, as the KNMA retrospective demonstrates, have alternate, unpleasant and horrifying realities lurking beneath those vibrant colours, evident in the way she draws her human forms, including the patterns of lilies, motifs of guns and war tanks, letters, alphabets, sentences and other forms. Her canvas is indeed limitless; and if we go by what the artist says about her work, it is, quite literally, a work-in-progress. “Within the techniques of watercolour, oil and acrylic, I feel I don’t know enough of these,” said the 1937-born artist, who joined the Fine Art Department of Delhi Polytechnic in the 1950s, where she received training and support from artists like Biren De, Jaya Appaswamy, Sailoz Mookherjea and BC Sanyal.

‘My Mother’

In 1972, Roshen Alkazi organised Aprita’s first solo exhibition, at New Delhi’s Kunika Chemould Art Centre, after the well-known art scholar accidentally discovered a painting by her. During the late 90s, the artist, along with Nalini Malini, Nilima Sheikh and Madhvi Parekh, exhibited together in Bhopal and Delhi, which were seen as making “a different set of assertions about female solidarities and the art they wanted to make without the support of gallery system (Karode).” Since then, her works have been the subject of multiple solo and group exhibitions in India and abroad, including recent solos at Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery and New York’s DC Moore Gallery.

More than half a century later, as artists all over the world continue to experiment with a range of new materials that especially intersect with technology, Arpita’s practice is nurtured by the creative force of her imagination rather than the trends of contemporary art production. “I am not concerned about the change, whatever is taking place in general. I am only concerned about my work. I am not very mechanical, in terms of the use of mechanical things. Whatever I do, I do with my hands. But anyway you are living in a society and all the changes are bound to influence you,” she said.

While attempting a full-scale review of Arpita’s art, it is tempting, but not always plausible, to refer to her as a feminist or a figurative artist. Her legacy perhaps lies not in these labels that often serve as easy cues to decode an artist’s works, but in developing a unique visual language that is as much born out of an unceasing pursuit of creative inspiration, as it is a life-long immersion in the medium.


The exhibition continues till 30th June at KNMA, New Delhi.

Cover Image: ‘Journey’
Image credits: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi