The Kiran Nadar Museum of Arts presents the first ever retrospective of one of India’s most significant female artists, Arpita Singh. Singh entered the male-dominated mainstream of Indian Modernism in the 1960s.
The exhibition maps six decades of Singh’s artistic trajectory through her seminal paintings, drawings, sketches and diaries, while tracing the passage of her practice and how she established her distinctive style both in oil and watercolour. While the museum houses some 60 examples of Singh’s artworks, around 160 artworks were loaned from various private and public collections in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Fukuoka and New York to realise this retrospective.
Eighty-two-year-old Singh’s art is marked by an exuberant palette, a childlike naiveté in the simplification of forms, a rich ornamentation of surface, and a marvellous control over lyrical lines. Though her palette is brightly-coloured, Singh’s themes can be dark and daunting, celebrating the rituals of family life while questioning the myth of cosy domesticity. Singh’s canvases are populated by floating human forms, multi-hued blossom, as well as by symbols of war, ageing, death and loss.
Many of the works exhibited reveal Singh’s preoccupation with the texts that often seamlessly weave in and around her figures. Using them both to describe and give greater depth of meaning, Singh builds a unique aesthetic combination with elusive surface; each layer adding meaning to the subject and content.
The exhibition brings together a simultaneous reading of the artist and a reading of ‘Her’, the female protagonist in Singh’s paintings. Singh has painted this female subject in all her sensuousness and sexuality, displaying her melancholy mood in response to the loss of youth, her sadness lodged in the flaccid creases of her ageing body. The central gallery of the museum displays a number of paintings depicting different stages of a woman’s body: from childhood, adolescence, maternity and old age with sagging breasts to a lump of flesh lying on the ground. Her iconic paintings exhibited at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Arts such as ‘My Mother’ (1993) and ‘Whatever is Here’ (2006), among others, have perhaps left the most haunting mark on Indian art in terms of the representation of female form.
The exhibition includes some of Singh’s crucial works from the 1990s, which border on quasi-biographical narratives chiselled out of residual memories. The display is arranged in thematic groupings, focused on the layered textures in Singh’s work that sometimes resemble stitches and weaves, drawing upon the artist’s acquaintance with carpets and textiles during her formative years. Another cluster brings the portrayal of domestic interior space together with urban complexity. A section in the exhibition also explores how Singh employs maps as a means of drifting through and navigating the conscious and the semi-conscious states. Her source of inspiration ranges from folk arts and crafts to textiles and graphic symbols in popular culture. A gallery is dedicated to Singh’s interpretations of mythological narratives.
An onlooker may or may not be acquainted with the personal stories behind Singh’s painted world, but they will certainly sense an air of loss in her work, acknowledging a meeting of the psychological and the political in her paintings.