Artists

From the catalogue of the exhibition, Arpita Singh Paintings 1992-94, published by Vadehra Art Gallery (1994).

Arpita was talking about the mysterious business of painting a painting. She described how she keeps painting this or that, ladening the surface, adding images. "I keep painting, but not fully knowing what I am really painting, then suddenly just for a flash it becomes clear what it is all about... ..." "That must be so for all artists, isn't it?" she suggests. "Yes, yes", I nod in agreement pleased with her observation, thinking how true it is, a good description of that propitious moment. But then in Arpita's case there is a difference. The game of artifice that painting is anyway all about, becomes doubly so with her, tricking and beguiling the viewer into a seemingly no-win game of illusion and recognition. The deceit of mirage is entrenched into the process of the coming to be of her paintings, into the components of their structure. Look for secret trapdoors and open sesame codes if you like, but mind you, if you begin to think the meaning is more important than the game, or that the 'ultimate' answer is round the next bend and yours for the finding, you may well trip up. An entry may mean a maze or a cul-de-sac. Many beginnings and no end.

If one were to look back upon Arpita' s paintings of the last ten or twelve years one would find the strategy for subversion worked carefully into almost all their manifest attributes. It follows fastidiously posited 'because of' 'in spite of' codes. There is in her paintings the substance of wakeful dream materialising image and mirage, body and fabric. It is made by teasing paint and pigment -layered on, impacted and pushed around, but equally by removing, scraping, mottling and limning as in her water colours. The making of beauty obsesses Arpita. For her the pleasure and ploy of ornamentation is both celebration and disguise. Along with modernist techniques of painting she foregrounds other devices to celebrate the surface: the use of decorative motifs, patterning and what I would like to call illuminating, inexorably bringing to life, tending a surface she fears might dull. Or if it is not offered life through touch or sign, even die. Yet more often than not the motifs offered are funerary, about mourning the dead and celebrating dying. About living inspite of dying. About enacting death. In Arpita's paintings is that different from enacting living?

Over the years Arpita has packed into her bundle of skill and expertise all kind of things. For all the radical changes and disjunctures in her career, she does not really discard things -- a syntax or a particular painting device --for having grown out of them, you never know when it may come in handy again. Yet I would say it is important for her to invent, everyday. And still it would not be a contradiction to say that for Arpita our tapestry weaver, repetition is the warp of invention. She uses it to lay the ground field of her world. The rhythms of repetition form structure and continuity within her paintings and between them. She now puts no premium on originality, realising in her wisdom that it would be an irrelevant straitjacket, redundant when she needs all her resources to garner new means to cope with the world at her doorstep: to invent strategies of survival--terms of acceptance and or resistance in the grim, funny and beautiful business of day-to-day living.

So for her magic bundle she gathers new visual stimuli, raw material for new textures, new bodies, new metaphors as she comes across them. From that she selects, mixes and matches making and unmaking the iconography of her paintings. Posies, patterns, baskets of flowers, birds, ducks, the girl-child's bric-a-brac and what was not hers, guns and aeroplanes; the paraphernalia accrued from the pleasures and pains of tending home, enjoying neighbours' confidences, their clothes and faces, mourning with other women; from thinking about books read recently or old stories remembered; from wrestling manuals and modern dance configurations; from the layer of textures on the surface of the lily ponds in the capital's cultural complexes or from the activities of men groping, grappling, crouching, sleeping, dying down there, just below --the motifs she has chosen to inscribe as stereotypes change meaning in spite of/because of obsessive repetition. Marks which as flags in the early eighties signalled disjunction, today may signal the stigmata of the vulnerable, a noughts and crosses game of fascist marksmanship. War-planes and pineapple share accommodation on the elaborate breakfast-table décor turning chillingly into the reality of table-top war spectacle. A naked woman turns away to face us, dully, the vulnerable body is the body of resistance, "holding out" [1].

When, in 1972, Arpita was persuaded by Roshan Alkazi to show her paintings after a longish period of professional hibernation and a maternity leave, the community of artists was captivated. But perhaps they were also a little intrigued as to why this independent woman of incisive intelligence known for her frank repartee, quite a firebrand, I am told, had decided to play Alice in Wonderland. The sources of her paintings were modernist and not unknown: Klee first of all (fairy godfather to much of Indian art in the sixties and seventies), surreal surprises, recourse to the naive, Chagall, even Rousseau perhaps, but whimsy was the means to be personal, and different. Neither the decision nor the choice of masquerade was ungendered: how clear that seems now. The protagonist/author was a young girl armed with a story book. Did Arpita know when she pulled the facade of quaint, tongue in cheek whimsy over her new vulnerabilities, that the language of transgression she was seeking would equip her to take on the world, living and dying as it encroached stubborn and relentless into her life. Men in suits had pushed their way and a post-Pinter consciousness into Arpita's women and children zone and disrupted the rhythm of women's bodies attaining iconic grace by the simple if seemingly ridiculous belief in the sanctity of their vocation, the rituals of daily living. After the Gulf war, militiamen formed phalanxes, tumbled around and pointed guns, their manoeuvres learnt from picture books tend to get obstructed by reclining multiarmed beauties doing proxy for city monuments. In Arpita's maze-cities of the last four years a great deal of men in their uniforms of conformity rush around sometimes as lawyers in a comic book Camus, sometimes in mufti, as plain clothes men or as goons. But now they sometimes take off their costume or put on other's: the pensive gold-ochre man wearing a Baconesque nakedeness watches two pink-brown men grappling in slow motion combat, and the men regarding the death on the street wear little frocks. I had marvelled while I watched 'Carnations' Pina Bausch'sdance-theatre production a few months ago, marvelled also, at how two women working indifferentmediumsindifferent parts of the world said things in so many similar ways: the stage-surface of flowers, beautiful, sumptuous, artificial; men in suits and dress jackets, militia-men, pointing guns across the canvas; the absurd 'irrelevant' games, men in multilimbed configurations tumbling in mock combat or using a table as weapon for nightmarish intimidation; the endless repetition of absurd synchronised movements / gestures / motifs, the multiple, sometimes simultaneous registers through the layering of structure and meaning, the asides, the interface of the margin, the transgressions achieved with beauty and humour.

Yes, Arpita paints beautifully. She has spent quite a lot of time learning how to. After practising the calligraphy of modernism in accomplished black and white abstraction during the second part of the seventies she switched to painting abstractions in subtly nuanced and gleaming colour, dextrous in handling oils. Yet, even before the flags popped out of the abstract terrain to signal new directions, the care with which each daub and patch was laid on to the entire surface of the canvas was unusual. The pleasure in fabricating the surface of the tapestry made her a little unmindful of the reductive rules of modernist abstraction. After the flags in the early eighties, cars, aeroplanes, ducks, portrait -busts and toy guns tumbled out, clamouring for recognition of their identity -'through the looking glass'. This was the beginning of the elaborately coded world of Arpita's paintings today. It was also the beginning of the multiplying inventiveness in drawing and painting demanded by the overlapping registers of this elaborately coded world. She recycles her modernist expertise for painting in oil and grafts onto it as varied sources as naturalism, picture book illustration and the textile crafts -weaving, stitching and embroidery. The water colours are set on a different premise, their scale and medium enlists a more direct connection with the art of illustration. Some of the greatest painting traditions of the world endorse the fertility of this source, Arpita would seem to suggest. And she has painted the life of Nanak to acknowledge her allegiances to book illumination, to the medieval, to fictionalised narratives and to the making of legend. They are also acknowledged in the painting-drawing techniques of her water colours. The delineation of the body and garment of the female icon, the suffusion of colour and surface by a fastidious limning process, the use of gold and silver grounds to contain the embedded colours in a shimmering surface equilibrium, inscriptions and the different graphic means used to register the asides and the counterpoints bring to mind the devices of European medieval manuscript illumination and icon painting. The pictorially active edge which borders most of Arpita's paintings to signify the process of completion is usually in itself incomplete. It often looks like a tantalizing vignette of another layer of painting underneath, or the next page of our picture book waiting to be turned open....

The artist's mother is out on the streets protected (if you call that protection) only by her own single mindedness. A grey road, site for motor-vehicles, dead and dying men, running diagonally across the painting separates her from a marked city, lying askew, peopled by the ubiquitous men in khaki, some people living, dying, grimacing or offering bouquets. The tapestry is woven on a white warp: white shrouds, white garments for the living, white for setting off the beautiful edge of pain, of colour and flesh. There would be martyrs and survivors when a city wages war on itself. You might come across them amongst the absurdities strewn into the city fabric, one tucked away on its edge trying with her arms splayed "to hold something".

The woman of Arpita's new water colours has grown, to fill the paper sometimes. In some paintings she seems to grow larger than the daily-life arena where she had juggled her size and place with other members of the repertory. She is the large mother holding her golden girl-child in the soft warm pink and blue-brown folds of her flesh as she would have inside her womb-cave, heir to the legend of Yama-uba the mountain woman that Utamaro illustrated. But most of all Arpita's new protagonist brings to mind Jeanette Winterson's Dogwoman in 'Sexing the Cherry' -large, caring, frontal, mythic, urban and funny, stepping across history to belong to other times. She may also be pockmarked, diseased and probably mad, an outcast, a red, looming bairagin on the outskirts of a medieval town.

She has also grown older. Of late Arpita often paints the ageing woman -as icon, as protagonist, sometimes naked baring the postmenopausal sexuality of her body. In ' Afternoon', a truly remarkable painting, she shares her space with her mate. They stand, fingers interlocked within the familiar intimacy of home in a stilled moment of the afternoon. The distances of familiarity and routine seethe on the surface, materialising desire and fear, then dissolving body. The conjugal bodies are painted in relentless pale daubs of Indian red and terreverte -colours of the earth -touched with blue-grey shadows that both make and dissolve luminous body mass, the repeated sensory stimulation simulating the pulsations of desire. This is the very private moment, not only of desire but for its vulnerable incompleteness. Then the chilling recognition of violation dawns on us. The goons that have been running amuck over Arpita's paintings stand lined up -ten of them, small, stubborn and silent at the threshold-edge of our space, and one of them points a gun at it.

Notes

[1] The term "holding out' is taken from the title of Geeta Kapur's illustrated lecture 'Holding Out: Women Painters at Work' delivered in February, 1993 at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda.

From the catalogue of the exhibition, Arpita Singh Paintings 1992-94, published by Vadehra Art Gallery (1994).

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