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Posted at: Jun 9, 2019, 2:05 AM; last updated: Jun 9, 2019, 2:05 AM (IST)

The woman within & around

A retrospective of Arpita Singh’s work traces the evolution of her distinctive visual language

Swati Rai

The first ever in-depth retrospective of one of India’s most significant women artists, Arpita Singh, gives an opportunity to view six decades of her art practice. It engages with her complex view of the world through her paintings, drawings and diaries.

Arpita (b. 1937, West Bengal) graduated from the Delhi Polytechnic in the 1950s where she had already developed a style of painting colourful abstracts, architectural facades and motifs, geometrical patterns, experimenting and using lines, dots and etchings with playful swiftness.

Her paintings have since persistently probed the modernist tradition. One sees her protagonists with bodies half-submerged/ half-immersed in thick layers of paint, appearing like ghosts, impersonations or votive figurines representing the dead and the departed. Her canvases often resemble a game board, collecting evidences in-between the painted layers, creating a labyrinth of textures and spaces.

The retrospective, Submergence: In the Midst of Here and There, currently on at the Kiran Nader Museum of Art in Delhi, explores the relational space shared between different objects and characters in Arpita Singh’s works. It houses 60 of her artworks and approximately 160 are on loan from various collections in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Fukuoka and New York.

The central gallery consists of paintings depicting different stages of a woman’s ageing body: from childhood to adolescence, maternity and old age — from sagging breasts to a lump of flesh lying on the ground, engulfed in a swirling frenzy of the world around. Arpita Singh’s rendition of mother and child is nuanced, depicting how women are perceived in a context-reliant society, from caregivers and nurturers to hauntingly silent spectators, hinting at a sea of unnoticed labour.

Works like The River Project (2007) highlight the vulnerability of the female body or exposure of the ‘self’ to an external world, further complicated with the presence of men dressed in black suits. The gaze of a female painter on her male subject can be seen in paintings like Man with a Black Jacket (2005), Man with a Glove and Watching (2004).

Also on display are key works from the 1990s with neighbours, friends and family, primarily women, as the theme, reflecting on the many histories that individuals carry. For instance, Amina Kidwai with Dead Husband (1992) and Ayesha Kidwai with Grandma (1990s) are works that border on quasi-biographical narratives brought alive out of residual memory. They consist of multiple layers, both in terms of imagery and colours, with the protagonist often clad in sharp contrasting white.

Each work is as intimate as a diary entry, each painting stirs different memories, dreamscapes... also real-life encounters. “Inherited memory gives you form, not the exact situation which may have been faced by my great-great-great-great ancestor. I may have just inherited the shock or delightfulness of it,” says the artist. An apt footnote to her artistic repertoire.

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