With the exhibition Meetings, Arpita Singh’s paintings return to Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, after a gap of six years, in a late career cameo. It is a show that is born of even greater contemplative power than one usually observes in Singh. At first glance, all the expected elements seem to be in place: flying aeroplanes, the carefully worked sweeping expanses of turgid blue paint, stray figures devoid of volume, and an overarching sense of displacement and unease. Yet, a different emotional tenor is palpable, as the eye searches the canvas, seeking to decipher the restless churn of text and images in an unsettled cartography.
Perhaps, one can understand the depth of difference in this show through revisitation and recall. On the same walls of Vadehra gallery, three decades ago, against the same iridescent blue, Singh had staged a different kind of encounter. A nude middle-aged woman tends to a lush garden, unaware of being flanked, on either margin of the painting by men in black suits, bearing guns. Even as they seem to emerge, tensely poised to invade her space, the patch of flowers is peaceable and undisturbed. The suited men and nude female bring to mind Manet’s “The Luncheon on the Grass”, the contrast between the figures seen as one of the most emphatic views of the sexualized gaze in world art. Singh has used the same trope in earlier works, robbing the erotic power of Manet’s composition by using a middle-aged, even exhausted female figure, seated at table or in the midst of a market place, surrounded by men in business suits. These works heralded Singh’s views on the aging female body and the noxious city, even as she divested the gaze of its voyeuristic intent.
So many years later, gender disparity and the bearers of the eroticized gaze are far from her mind. Even comparisons with more recent paintings, in which she mapped the state of Delhi and the nation, from her own vantage point in Nizamuddin, to speak of the highly fraught contours of the growing city, are somewhat dislodged. Indeed, the large expansive paintings that she made for the sanguine, mythic subjects of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, with their magical turns, seem to belong to another time.
Even though Singh’s location remains more or less the same, the city, the subject of careful investigation here, recedes into a maze of small lights, as if seen mistily through the thick veiled fog of a Delhi winter. Against this cartographic view, words and fragments of phrases spill and tumble across the surface of the painting in an enigmatic churn. Their repetition, like an oft repeated nursery rhyme, carries the echo of a haunting. A river (the Yamuna?) makes an awkward progression across the surface, even as dark large smudges appear, threatening to engulf the surface. Like a vast cremation ground, perhaps, that recalls the horrors the city endured during the pandemic and threatens to engulf the frame. Virtually erasing the life forms beneath, a hundred fires are ignited, leaving a dark residue, with a stubborn insistence. Singh’s chosen palette of pink and blue now gives way to gashes of blood red, that leak and spread across the surface of the work.
In all this, the eye of the viewer is compelled to move restlessly, as if seeking a still centre. The artist has worked with what Susan Sontag spoke of as “the recessionary gaze” of the photographer, of receding further and further away from the subject -- between what we see and where we are -- to encompass a much greater distance. In abstracting or negating her landscape even further, Singh invokes great poignancy and isolation in the ironically titled work “Stars, Moon and Two Different Skies”. The viewer is now set adrift in a world robbed of certainty.