Arpita Singh’s art seems to have evolved broadly in three main phases. In the first phase she roamed happily in a child’s garden of verses that took on form to become delightful images, often in mystifying juxtapositions. These occasionally make you feel that yours is the face, strangely upside down like some of Chagall’s floating figures, looking out of a window and gazing on strange goings-on.

Fresh, innocent and child-like though these evocations are, their genetic heredity may be complex. Here Arpita used a popular pictorial idiom but not with a populist intention which would have led her into the cul-de-sac of pop art that has been conquered by the spirit of the blind alleys of a culture where bill-boards present the parades of consumer goods with as much absorption as murals of the past painted the Passion or the Ras Leela. In the use of the pop idiom without being bowled over by the decadent culture of the mass-man of which it is visually the reflection, Arpita Singh resembles Bhupen Khakhar and there is affinity to him also in the figural style and the colour palette. But there is an important difference. The pictorial space in Khakhar conforms, generally if not precisely, to the rational structure which is yielded by the receding perspective formalised during the Renaissance and which manages a reasonably close simulation of the three-dimensional space of our daily ambience on a two-dimensional surface. But Arpita’s world in these paintings is not Newtonian: forms interpenetrate; gravitation is annulled and objects and figures levitate.

If an associative recall of the surrealist manner comes to mind now, it may not be totally unjustified though there is still need to be careful. Work done in India in abject imitation of that manner has not survived, in the salons or in remembrance. Far more interesting are the new uses to which the free associations of the objects and images emancipated from both the limitations of the physical space and time and the demands of logical nexus, which is the core principal of surrealism, have been put by several Indian painters. Jaswant Singh and R.S. Gill have used the approach for visualisation of Indian musical modes and though the relation between image and melody is no more definitive than in the old Ragamala paintings, the endeavour is interesting in many ways. Swaminathan and Arpita’s husband Paramjeet Singh have levitated rocks, the effect they sought being a light-winged lyricism. This is essentially though not entirely the temper seen in Arpita.

Though one has to has to reject Andre Breton’s pretentious claim that surrealism constituted an entire metaphysics, an all-sufficient world-view, its strange images and stranger juxtapositions have been very effective in some rare instances like Picasso’s “Guernica” and some paintings of Dali, in evoking the monster asleep in the psyche of man. But Arpita’s temperament is sunny; there is little of nightmare, of shipwreck, in her, if at all she regrets anything, it is a lost pastoralism when life was simpler, when people preferred flowery meadows to carpets with floral motifs, when men were more brotherly towards the dumb brethren. In the delightful, whimsical fairyland depicted in the paintings of the first phase, real flowers spring from carpets in interiors and cattle walk into drawing rooms and look over the shoulders of people reading their newspapers.

In her second phase she turned from painting to drawing and from representationalism to abstraction. Large textured surfaces were created with miniscule strokes, a procedure that demanded patience and dedication, but one which certainly could not be called innovative on the Indian scene. For, after a rather libertine phase when all sorts of gimmicks were tried in the fond hope of fortuitously fumbling upon striking effects, there is now a chastened recognition of the importance of basics and exceptionally fine drawings are being produced. It cannot be said that Arpita created an identifiable category here, like Gurcharan Singh’s recreation of traditional decorative designs with the weight of sculptured relief changed to the lightness of Flemish lace, or the deep excavation of virtual space and its classic structuring achieved by the minimal stroke and by the minimum of strokes by Nasreen Mohammedi through a geometricism become visual music as in the profound perception of Pythagoras. But Arpita did develop a variety here through variations in the intensity of the strokes, their width and length, the closeness of their lattice spacing. The flat surface differentiates into multiple planes in some of these drawings which also become incipient, notational landscapes or objects like fishermen’s nets.

In the third phase there was a return to the figurative and in one sense it integrate the expressive intentions and manners of the two earlier phases. In the drawings of this phase, the line comes out of its narcissistic contemplation of the self-sufficiency of its bareness which was not unlike the Brahman or the Parmenidean plenum being completely satisfied with its absolute reticence about the marvellous variety of creation, Becoming. To be fair to those who have rated such works highly, I must confess to a growing disenchantment with the abstract. This way well be due to a deficiency in sensibility. But I happen to believe that while a mathematical structure undergirds the created world, it is wrong to see, in the manner of Galileo, only the structure as real and the sensuous form that envelopes it as unreal, to accept only the frequency numbers of light and forget the rainbow spectrum. Further, the drawings of landscapes by Van Gogh can show every variety of stoke, autonomous on its own in one way, but still retaining the power to designate flower and leaf, flowing rivulet and floating cloud. Enlarge a tiny area of the costume from a painting by Rembrandt or even Franz Hals and you can get abstracts finer than in Mondrian. Art, like the creation, can integrate abstract structure and sensuous morphology. I responded to the change in Arpita’s drawings in the third phase because they pointed to the world out there less ambiguously even if still only suggestively. They evoked spiny creepers tracing arabesques on stretches of sand, ground covered with wisps of straw or needles of casuarina or pine.

But it is the dialectically integrated paintings, most of them in water colour though a few are in oils, that are finer. The manner of the drawings contributes to them without demanding overriding attention to itself. Lines of short strokes or dots form a backdrop like the lines of hanging willows in Kulu paintings or the lines of falling rain in Basohli paintings of Nayikas going to their rendezvous on nights of storm and rain. The main images that build up the composition as well as the way they relate to one another, recover the fantasy world of the first phase, but in less plangent colours, withgreater delicacy of drawing and a lyricism which, if its quiet on the surface, springs from greater depths. This evocativeness remains even when the fantasy - butterflies in unlikely places, flowers sprouting in empty space - is wholly absent and more familiar scenes are presented in some paintings. But in these landscapes, the familiar earth becomes paradisiac under the visiting moon.


Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary 33, 1985
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