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Artist Profile3
Understanding Arpita Singh’s narrative, perspective and practice
‘Wish Dream’, a monumental mural (16-piece; 24-by-13-ft) by Arpita Singh done almost a decade ago, fetched Rs 9.6 crore (close to $2.25 million), breaking a few records in the process. Incidentally, she became the first female artist of her generation to find a place into the top bracket until now dominated by the likes of SH Raza, Tyeb Mehta, FN Souza, and MF Husain. It was the highest ever price for a work by an Indian female artist, overtaking Bharti Kher's ‘The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own’ (a fibreglass & bindi elephant sculpture). Made up of several captivating canvas panels, it took Arpita Singh a year to complete the piece. Given the commission in 2000, she was inspired by the phrase in a Tibetan play.

Described as a figurative artist and a modernist, Arpita Singh still makes it a point to stay tuned to traditional Indian art forms and aesthetics like miniaturist painting and folk art. The way in which she uses perspective and the narrative in her work is steeped in the miniaturist traditions and a reflection of her background. For an artist who effortlessly merges everyday life and allegory, expressionism and ornament, who harks back to historical folk and miniature painting, her formal approach is at once unassuming and painstaking, somewhat femininely gauche and pensively poised.

The colors are vibrant; her palette mostly dominated by pinks and blues. Her paintings seem to be bursting at the seams with teeming life forms and objects or motifs as icons of contemporary life. Soaked in subtle shades of watercolors and oils, Arpita Singh simulates a dream-like realm, or perhaps a scenario recreated while hallucinating. Her compositions involve both unique and ubiquitous characters placed within the pictorial space. They are deftly propped against a collage-like backdrop, ramified by emotions, events and time graphs. Her work oscillates within textures, yet organic – fecund, timid, enwrapping – and cohesively classical,” Uma Nair mentions in a recent essay (The fabric of her life; The ET).

Describing her enchanting persona, the critic mentions: “At once enigmatic and elusive, there’s a little girl in Arpita Singh who peeps from behind the soft giggle and the intricate squiggles on her cautiously created teeming canvases. Her mind teems with ideas and dreams, and in birthing them she has produced a varied body and influential body of work. Modesty and charm are the companions of her palette. Her works have the individual identity of a diary entry in which recurrent realities and dreams are jotted down in a fashion of additive responses.”

The artist is also known to put across a contemporary woman's point of view. Her paintings reveal their inner world, their perspectives and aspirations. Both comic and the tragic (elements) are interchangeable and interwoven in her works. An element of tension inbuilt in them reflects a realm - part naïve and part real - as she portrays the space of women in the societal structure, the growing intolerance, violence and social injustice. The artist often deftly inserts simple objects, such as guns, flowers, telephones, to convey her viewpoint. Offering an insight into her practice, art critic Gayatri Sinha notes: "Arpita Singh has pushed the visual lexicon of the middle-aged woman further than almost any other female artist. The anomaly between the aging body and the residue of desire, between the ordinary and the divine and the threat of the violent fluxes of the impinging external world gives her work its piquancy and edge. At the same time she critiques the miasma of urban Indian life with suggestive symbols of violence that impinge on the sphere of the private, creating an edgy uncertainty.

Arpita Singh first studied at Delhi School of Art under the keen eye of artist Sailoz Mookherjea, before joining the Weaver's Service Centre in Kolkata and Delhi. Since her first solo in 1972, her work has been featured at major art venues in Indian and internationally. Among her selected solos are ‘Picture Postcard 2003–06’, Vadehra Gallery, Delhi; ‘Memory Jars’, Bose Pacia, New York (2003); Bose Pacia (1997); Gallery Chemould, Mumbai (1997); and CIMA, Kolkata (1996). The recent major group exhibitions she has featured in include 'The Modernists', RL Fine Arts, New York; 'Paper Trails', Vadehra, Delhi; 'From Miniature to Modern’, Rob Dean Art, London with Pundole, Mumbai; 'Symbols and Metaphors', CIMA (all in 2010); 'Bharat Ratna!', Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; 'Progressive to Altermodern', Grosvenor Gallery, London; 'Kalpana: Figurative Art in India', courtesy ICCR at Aicon, London (all in 2009).

Her recent noteworthy participations 'Art Celebrates 2010: Sports and the City', to coincide with the Commonwealth Games; ‘Modern India’, courtesy IVAM and Casa Asia at Valencia, Spain (2008-09); ‘Expanding Horizons’, a traveling show courtesy Bodhi (2008-09); 'Moderns', Royal Cultural Centre, Amman, Jordan courtesy LKA, Delhi (2008). She has won several awards, including Kalidas Sanman, Madhya Pradesh (1998-99); an award at the 1987 Algeria Biennale, and one from the Sahitya Kala Parishad, Delhi.

New Delhi based Vadehra Art Gallery has just showcased a new series of works, entitled 'Cobweb' at The Museum Gallery, Mumbai. A curatorial note elaborated: “The concurrently candid and suggestive, colorful albeit melancholic quintessence of her works compels the viewer to pause and wander through a complex maze of ideas, imaginations and conclusions. Each one narrates a journey from the artist’s soul to the world outside, from the memories of childhood to transitions of youth to deeper understandings derived from age and experience. Her paintings, akin to blueprints of an urban experiential map, are charted out of metaphors, myths, fantasy, reality, conscious stances and subconscious utterances. They are like personal journals, only that their pages are filled with visual anecdotes instead of words.” Surrealism was abundantly evident in them as much as ubiquitous people, characters, hawks and a typical touch of humor.

Each of her drawings, watercolors on paper, and oils on canvas has a story to tell. Just to state that her work is a plain narrative would be a gross understatement. Afflicted by the problems that are faced each and every day by women, she paints the range of emotions that she exchanges with these subjects – from sorrow to joy and from suffering to hope – providing a view of the ongoing communication she maintains with them. Enveloped by generic patterns of struggle, survival, dislocation and existence, her oils on canvas, drawings and watercolors on paper initiate a dialogue suggestive of an understatement. Juxtaposed with modernist techniques, she foregrounds other painterly devices, incorporating skillful patterning, decorative motifs and historical sources.