– D. Ayas and N. Ginwala, 2021
Arpita Singh was born in Baranagar, Bengal before the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. She studied at the School of Art, Delhi Polytechnic, and after graduation worked as a designer in the weavers service centers in Calcutta and New Delhi for four years. years. Over the years, Singh has developed a highly distinctive visual language characterized by a rich layer of color, powerful brushwork, and the employment of evocative metaphors and motifs drawn from his personal experiences.
The time spent at the Weavers Service Center particularly influenced the evolution of his artistic vocabulary and his creative process. Many of his paintings use the stylistic devices and methods of cantha, a Bengali craft based on embroidery and textiles, practiced mainly by rural women. As the individual points of kanthas, her brushstrokes embellish the entire surface of the canvas with detailed shapes and figures, and are only held in check by the ornamental borders she paints around their edges. Abandoning perspective to emphasize figurative relationships and patterns, his works also cite this textile tradition in their depictions of scenes of daily life, particularly of women.
It is through its female protagonists, surrounded by objects both mundane and otherworldly, private and public, peaceful and violent, that Singh’s compositions subtly address difficult social and political subjects while maintaining a sense of general grace and quiet luminosity. The artist “absorbs the complexities of the world and represents them in her own way through the sensual use of paint and brush, signaling joy, wonder, menace and melancholy in a complex kaleidoscope of human emotions” (E. Dutta, Arpita Singh Illustrated Postcard 2003-2006, New Delhi, 2006, p. 1).
In Singh’s paintings, scattered motifs like guns, airplanes and calendar page numbers embody “the comings and goings, the inevitability and implicit danger of parting and reuniting, and the inevitability of dead. It makes the past and the distant co-present, in anticipation of separation, travel or death” (S. Bean, ‘Now, Then, Beyond, Time in India’s Contemporary Art’, Contemporary Indian art, other realities, Bombay, 2002, p. 54).
The current batch, Woman picking flowers from 1994, is one of the artist’s most important paintings, unequivocally defining his work of the 1990s and firmly cementing his place among India’s most respected modern artists. Here, Singh sets his protagonist in a garden, created from thick swirls of cornflower blue and mauve paint. Generally understood as a sheltered domestic space, this setting amplifies the vulnerability that the naked, aging body of the female figure already conveys. Bent over, she is absorbed in the task of picking flowers, perhaps to celebrate life or mourn death, two markers of the incessant passage of time. Obviously, the only element of this dense composition that transgresses the thresholds of its painted border is the torso of an armed man in the lower right. Dressed in black, he points his gun directly at the unsuspecting woman above him. In the upper center are two idle planes in the border, partially obscuring the word “GARDEN” that Singh inscribes there, perhaps warning of another possible violation of the separable boundaries between the private and public worlds of woman.
Writing about this painting, Yashodhara Dalmia notes: “In Woman picking flowers, we have a naked woman bent over a flower bed at the bottom of a lake garden. As the eye scans the shimmering blue, interspersed with brown triangles, which could be sex symbols, it rests on a man pointing his gun at the woman on the opposite side. The motionless and silent aquamarine blue with the sinister figure holds the moment in suspense. This sense of violation is expressed in many [Singh’s] paintings from the 90s” (Y. Dalmia and S. Hashmi, Memory, metaphor, mutations: contemporary art from India and Pakistan, New Delhi, 2007, p. 143).
Describing Singh’s visual vocabulary as fluctuating between playful and painful, Deepak Ananth observes that in his paintings as Woman picking flowers, “the poetics of free association also becomes politics, and it is the secret tension between these registers that constitutes the enigmatic force field of Singh’s work over the past twenty years. The gestalt figure/ground is transposed like a chiasm of pleasure and pain; the surface remains as delightful as ever, but the deeper structure of the paintings is keyed to motifs of desolation and death […] Mortality stalks Singh’s pictorial world. Gunmen lie in ambush or roam with impunity, casually aiming at everyone. Women, more often than not, are their unsuspecting targets. A naked woman leaning in a field choking with blue flowers, unaware that a man dressed in black is pointing a gun at her: an “X” indeed marks the spot, or rather a dark triangular spot (apparently a flower pot, but of a suggestively anthropomorphic aspect) to which the gun is cocked” (D. Ananth, ‘Profound Play’, Arpita Singh, New Delhi, 2015, p. 38).