With a career spanning more than sixty years, Arpita Singh is among the most prominent living artists in India today, acclaimed for both her abstract period of the 1970s and ’80s and the large-scale figurative paintings that followed. But in recent years her audience in the United States has grown, as a series of high-profile group and solo shows on multiple continents have featured her paintings and museums vie to add her work to their collections. In books and articles, scholars explore her artistic trajectory. At eighty-five years old, Singh has continuously evolved as an artist, creating work as fresh and contemporary as any up-and-coming younger painter.
In her later work, for which she is best known, Singh developed an unmistakable style, drawing on diverse artistic traditions to explore war, violence, modernity, sexuality, and consciousness. Yet despite the gravity of much of her subject matter, Singh’s dreamlike paintings often include elements of playfulness or absurdity too, conveying that tragedy coexists in life with joy and beauty as well as mundanity. Singh weaves allusions to literature, folklore, mythology, and history in with idiosyncratic imagery. She often includes text, either existing printed matter or cryptic lines handwritten herself. Her paintings from the late 1980s and onward are often characterized as narrative, but their openness to multiple interpretations invite viewers’ engagement in making meaning.
Arpita Singh was born in 1937 in Bara Nagar, West Bengal, a suburb of Kolkata that is now part of Bangladesh. Her family moved to New Delhi in 1946, the year before the Partition of India officially divided Bengal Province in two, displacing millions of people amid widespread violence between religious groups. Communal violence and international warfare would later become prominent themes in her art. After graduating from the school of art at Delhi Polytechnic in 1959, she became a textile designer for the Weavers’ Service Centre, a recently developed government-sponsored organization that provided early support and formative training for other Indian artists who would go on to become well-known. During her four years there, she learned traditional embroidery techniques such as kantha, which numerous critics have identified as informing her drawing and painting style. “Essentially, this involved building up rich patterns from tiny, individual stitches, like the brushstrokes in an Impressionist painting,” Nishad Avari, an Indian art specialist for Christie’s auction house, explained in a 2022 feature on Singh. “It would have a clear impact on the sense of patterning we see in her paintings of the decades to come.” Outside of work, Singh was part of a vibrant art scene, and in the sixties joined a group of artists who called themselves “the Unknown,” others of whom also went on to notable careers.
Arpita Singh’s paintings during the sixties were strongly influenced by surrealists of the earlier twentieth century, such as Marc Chagall, but in the early seventies she made a radical departure into pure abstraction. In a 2005 interview with Uma Nair, Singh said that she’d become disenchanted with her practice and didn’t know where to go next. “For about eight years, I practiced lines and grids and repeatedly made dots and patterns. It was like practicing handwriting,” she told Nair, “before I found my voice once again.” Stark, monochromatic works in black poster paint and minimal pastel-and-ink works featuring delicate lines and washes of color reflect the birth of this new phase of Singh’s art practice. Her experiments in mark-marking grew to include abstracted landscapes. Most of these pieces are untitled, in a further refusal to impose conceptual meaning on these compositions. While this period of Singh’s art was at times discussed as a bridge to the celebrated narrative and figurative paintings that would follow, in recent years her abstract work has itself found an enthusiastic following. In 2021 and 2022, the show “Women in Abstraction” at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and later the Guggenheim Bilbao displayed Singh’s work alongside that of artists such as Hilma af Klint, Louise Bourgeois, Georgia O’Keefe, Carmen Herrera, and Atsuko Tanaka. Singh’s abstract compositions are collected in the book Tying Down Time, published in 2018 by Talwar Gallery.
Singh’s most recognizable work begins with her return to figurative painting in the 1980s. Elements of her early interest in surrealism remain, with figures flying or floating, untethered from normal relationships of size between objects, and an exuberant use of color. Mundane details intermingle with fantastical or mythic ones; boundaries of geography and historical time seem to blur. In My Mother (1993), shown on page 112, a woman in a white sari looks stoically out from the foreground as behind her various figures float above or litter the landscape. Bodies also draped in white, perhaps in preparation for funeral rites, lie in a roadway that also suggests a river. On the other side, cars, bicycles, and airplanes rush among soldiers and citizens and displaced furniture, at times colliding or overturning. Groupings of short, repeated lines suggest both roadways and the kantha stitching Singh practiced as a young artist. Many people wear modern, European-style clothes, while others wear more traditional Indian garb or nothing at all. Among the chaos we also see flowers, a frequent motif in Singh’s work, planted in pots or existing singly. The words between what i say and what i keep silent slips vanishes appear along the top, easy to miss amid all of the action of the busy canvas. The mother stands alone, her back to the action, her perspective on it unknowable.
While threatening elements appear in My Mother, other works are more explicitly ominous as Singh looks at the wider vantage point of societies and nations and the human costs of warfare. Blessy Augustine explains that the title of Singh’s Whatever Is Here . . . (2006) alludes to a line from the ancient epic the Mahabharata: “Whatever is here, is found elsewhere. Whatever is not here, is nowhere else.” In the huge triptych, two groups of men march toward each other across a map, each side wearing different colors. Their simple dress and abstracted features could locate them at many different periods and places in human history, suggesting the tragic timelessness of war. Some figures are riding horned animals, but a large tank and multiple fighter jets also join the fray. In the center, a seated figure in black stares downward, apparently helpless to end the violence surrounding him. Faint, mostly illegible text surrounds the warring bodies, but at the top, some language is in focus: key/code/password: 1. epic heros 2. mercenaries. Other items in the list are obscured, but war widows, women violated, and gun can be discerned. The men rushing at each other do not appear to differentiate themselves as epic heroes—they are hardly distinguishable from each other—but as anonymous members of groups, enacting a struggle for dominance that may or may not be righteous. Around them, faces seem to display fear or sorrow. The huge number of people depicted reflects war’s all-encompassing reach.
Singh continues these themes in Searching Sita through Torn Papers, Paper Strips and Labels (2015). Figures in black cloaks run across the map carrying bodies that appear to be injured, unconscious, or dead. A herd of bright red gazelle flees as well. Fainter figures seem to sink beneath the ground, while other nude figures cover their faces in grief. Throughout the canvas, the words sita you i us appear over and over, as do words such as gone, lost, trapped, and missing. In the Sanskrit epic the Ramayana, Sita is abducted while her husband, Rama, hunts. Here, the crime is repeated many times over. In If you come this way (2021), Singh reflects further on sexual violence. From afar, the rich cobalt blue and reds and blacks appear abstract; the earthy-red shapes might initially be read as flowers. But up close they are revealed to be unclothed women lying in fetal position. Slivers of handwritten text appear among the thickly applied paint. Not all of it is legible, but words such as “rape” and “attack” can be discerned. Red paint around the women’s bodies suggests blood.
In a 2019 interview with Radhika Singh for the Indian newspaper Mint, Singh eloquently addressed the patterns that recur in her work:
Repetition is in nature itself, like in the trees, the leaves. Even the form of the raindrops is repetitive or evolution, where the human form is repetitive. Through my own process of repetition, I realised that a form cannot be reproduced exactly like another form. It can be similar, but not the same. After going through this process, I know that life is so precious. Once you have the form like a human being, and if you try to destroy it, it is a greatest sin, because you cannot bring back that form again. Therefore, symbols of life and death are bound to come into my work. We are surrounded by death all the time. You read about accidents and untimely deaths in newspapers. Many people lost their lives during the partition of India, as well as the Sikh and Gujarat riots. Death will always be with us.
Arpita Singh’s work is never didactic, but these three major paintings of the twenty-first century still powerfully communicate the outrage of war’s toll on innocent victims, whether in conflicts between groups or nations or perpetuated by men against women. This universal message may be one reason Singh’s art has resonated internationally, though she has also proven capable of arresting viewers with sheer aesthetic pleasure, as her distinguished nonrepresentational body of work proves. The eight artworks shown in this issue provide just a glimpse at Arpita Singh’s remarkable career.
C. J. Bartunek
Images © 2023 Arpita Singh. Images courtesy of Talwar Gallery, New York and New Delhi.