The Naked and the Nude

Rohit Chawla
Rosalyn D’Mello is an art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover
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Arpita Singh’s work derives its meaning from her amazement with the mundane

SUNLIGHT FLOODS THROUGH the red-bordered doors of the balcony in Arpita Singh’s studio. It is mid-April; the impending heat of summer is still at bay. When I enter, I spot the 80-year-old artist seated on a chair, leaning towards the table, her fingers gently guiding her brush as she configures a new watercolour. Her white hair is unkempt. The fabric of her dress resembles the pastel-toned colour palette of her artwork. We slip into conversation with unexpected ease. There is familiarity. She is happy that I have finally made it to her studio, considering my brief history of unkept promises to visit. Her discomfort with technology has made it difficult to be in touch with her. Most of our conversations have unfolded at exhibition openings or talks. “Vivan [Sundaram] asked me how I am surviving in this time. I barely use my mobile. I don’t have an email address. I can’t operate the TV,” she says, pausing to laugh. “The only thing I’m interested in is when there is a tennis match going on, when Novak Djokovic is playing. Then I have to ask Paramjit to put on the TV for me. In the time when it was just black-and-white with just one channel, I could operate it. Now it is very difficult to remember what is going on where.”

She steers the conversation towards her daily routine, telling me also that she and her artist husband, Paramjit Singh, have separate bedrooms because he can watch sports till 2 or 3 am, while she is an early sleeper, preferring to head to bed shortly after dinner. “I get up at 6 am, but in summer at 5 am because I have to put on the water thing, because the filter doesn’t take water if the pressure is low,” she says.

Many might label this ‘small talk’, or misinterpret the mention of these ‘trivial’ matters as a prelude to the more decidedly significant subject of what constitutes Arpita Singh’s artistic practice. I indulge my own curiosity for such casual remarks about her routine, about the mundane details of her daily life, because I am instinctively aware that these lie at the itching heart of her art. These form the subtext for her recurring figure of the ageing female protagonist; an evolving image that mirrors her own bodily reality, cast across a unique spectrum of settings or engaged in activities not conventionally conceived of as poetic enough to be the substance of art. Take, for instance, a drawing from four years ago, dated April 2014, in which a woman’s contorted body is suspended between a state of unease and yet, satisfaction. The underlined title offers context. ‘Scratching own Back,’ it says in the bottom left, followed by the time stamp, her underlined signature, and a similarly underlined observation: ‘Supposed to rain today.’ Part of this female protagonist’s body is shrouded in pencil shading, while every inch of her being is single-mindedly concerned with relieving herself of the itch that has plagued it. Singh has inscribed the word ‘itching’ across every surface of her body; playing with the notion of synecdoche; the itch on her back assuming the significance of an all-over itch, an itch in her very being that can only be quelled by a creative manoeuvring of her limbs and torso.

I begin to delight not only in her small talk, but in every instance when she punctuates her speech with deliciously witchy, contented laughter during which her face seems simultaneously child-like and elegantly creased by age. The art critic Richard Bartholomew caught her in her an act of laughter decades ago, in a photograph where she is seated next to Paramjit Singh, her long-time husband, and a group of other artist friends. She’s wearing a sari, and her head is thrown back unabashedly and her thick, black-rimmed spectacles dominate her face, but do not distract from her wide-toothed grin. Another old photograph, probably dating to 1986, has her posing with three pioneering female artist friends, Nilima Sheikh, Madhvi Parekh and Nalini Malani, who’d banded together back then to mount two definitive shows under the umbrella of an all- women’s group; at Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal, in 1987, and in 1989 at Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai. Singh smiles directly at the camera, as does Parekh. Sheikh looks languorously into the distance, while Malani looks elsewhere.

Singh’s sense of humour, too, derives its substance from her amazement with the mundane. Just as I ask her how long she’s inhabited this particular studio space (a decade, she replies), her help comes in and places besides her drawing on the table, a glass of green juice. “Karela ?” I ask. She concedes. “Before it was mixed with other fruits also,” she says. “But you know how it is, something is available, something is not available, but karela is always available!” Again, she laughs, this time even more concertedly at the comical nature of her revelation. She tells me her diabetes is very much under control. “You drink this out of choice?” I ask her, bemused. “Yes,” she says and laughs again. “That’s amazing. Does it get better, do you acquire a taste for it?” I ask. “When there were plenty of apples in it, I liked it. Sometimes they put carrots and other things,” she says. She pauses our conversation and quaffs the drink down. “I feel like I witnessed a historic moment,” I tell her. We laugh together. “How many art critics can say they watched Arpita Singh drink karela juice?” I say. “Nobody can,” she replies.

What follows is a discussion about how she no longer eats red meat, hasn’t since her angioplasty in 2002; how, after the first three months after the procedure, she stopped going for regular checkups and has no real dependence on allopathic medicine; certainly a feat for a woman in her early eighties.

Visual language is different. You see and understand. The thing you have made, it never used to exist before. So it is important that I could make that thing

IN 1994, NILIMA Sheikh made an important observation in the catalogue essay published alongside Singh’s show of work produced between 1992-94 at Vadehra Art Gallery, Delhi, about the complex contours of her recurring female figure. ‘The woman of Arpita’s new watercolours has grown, to fill the paper sometimes. In some paintings she seems to grow larger than the daily-life arena where she had juggled her size and place with members of the repertory. She is the large mother holding her golden girl-child in the soft warm pink and blue-brown folds of her flesh as she would have inside her womb- cave, heir to the legend of Yama-uba the mountain woman that Utamaro illustrated,’ Sheikh wrote. ‘But most of all Arpita’s new protagonist brings to mind Jeanette Winterson’s Dogwoman in Sexing the Cherry—large, caring, frontal, mythic, urban and funny, stepping across history to belong to other times. She may also be pockmarked, diseased and probably mad, an outcast, a red, looming bairagin on the outskirts of a medieval town. She has also grown older. Of late, Arpita paints the ageing woman as icon, as protagonist, sometimes naked baring the postmenopausal sexuality of her body.’

Singh has been almost unassuming in her practice of feminism, quietly engendering the evolving gospel of feminine irrepressibility through countless drawings, watercolours and oils on canvas. She is apologetic, though, when I ask her if she has been working on anything new. “I feel bad that you have come here and I don’t have so much work to show you,” she says sheepishly. I reassure her that my coming here marks for me the beginning of a series of dialogues and revisits. She smiles and tells me she has a few watercolours she’s been working on, which she allows me to see. Then, unexpectedly, because I asked, shows me her ‘reject’ pile; which is fascinating, because the compositions are astounding, and to any eye that isn’t hers, it’s hard to comprehend why these works didn’t ‘make the cut’. She tells me more about her obsession with connecting all the fragments within her more cartographic work. “I make things; small forms, and then I try to connect them so they become like routes or roads, slowly it becomes like a map. Because I don’t like to leave anything separate. Everything should be connected. It gives me great satisfaction,” she says, going on to speak of the significance of ‘routes’ as a metaphor for bread crumbing, at attempt to retrace our steps; the Hindu ritual where the priest recites a prayer that embodies a description of a route for returning. “The desire to go back to from where you have come, that is undying in a person,” she says.

Because her maternal instincts and urges are currently preoccupied with her daughter (also an artist) Anjum’s health, she has found herself staying away from oil. “Oil is a very tedious medium,” she says. After her first show at Kunika Chemould Gallery in 1972, she completely stopped painting. “For seven and a half years, I did only drawings,” she says. “I thought I must have some free movement, and I did only black-and-white drawings, and that too with only the elemental things, a dot and a line. I just repeated them, repeated them… so all my abstract drawings, they say abstract, but it was like practising handwriting. Because I didn’t have any intention to do any abstract work, I just thought I must understand how space is, what space is. After that I really had a sort of idea-free movement, as if I could do anything.” It is when she is unable to reach a conclusion in her work that she chooses to reject them. “You can’t just go on working, you must reach somewhere,” she says. Intriguingly, she keeps her reject pile quite preciously, as if encoded within their failure is a secret route she holds on to, because it could help her trace her way back to an idea.

“I think mostly, when I start a work, that there will be some problem that I will be wanting to solve in a different way,” she says.

“You still feel after all these years of art-making that there are problems to solve?” I ask.

“Yes, otherwise why should one make work?” she responds.

“And how do these problems present themselves?

“Why do you make things? First of all, it is not that you know something and you want to make it or you want to remember something. It is not like that. It is that there is some restlessness. Say, I am feeling restless and I’m making a teapot. What is the relation between my thinking process and the teapot? There must be something of which I don’t know, but for me, the most important thing is I could make this teapot in this way. So that is the statement. It’s not that I have some philosophical things to say or something like that. But whatever I make, that is the thing. This language is totally visual, and it is nothing, like when you say ‘a tree’, you understand what is a tree, because everybody knows what is a tree. It is a universal thing, the language, whatever we speak. But visual language is totally different. You see and understand. The thing you have made, it never used to exist before. So it is very important that I could make that thing.”

Singh uses text to play with that which a word connotes, and its semantic intersection with the visual image she presents, which, until the moment of creation, was non-existent. Words are mnemonic devices, too. “It has something to do with my memory,” she says. “I make the thing, it stirs something in me, maybe I remember something, and immediately I write it down.” One of the works she shows me features an eclipse, and so, the word ‘eclipse’ features repetitively, as does the word ‘Saturn’. It is a combination of both word and image associative strategies; one she has been using for decades, ever since she discovered how her use of the knife to break the flat surface of oil paint led inevitably to shapes resembling alphabets.

The cumulative effect of all these technical, emotional and visual manipulations is a foregrounding of the body, particularly the feminine body, in all its exquisite frailty and strength; its interiority as well as its exhibitionist self. Sheikh put it beautifully in a single line in her 1994 essay, echoing a feeling first articulated by art historian Geeta Kapur in her illustrated lecture in 1993, titled Holding Out: Women Painters at Work delivered at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda: ‘The vulnerable body is the body of resistance, holding out.’