Working with a language that is older than words

Working with a language that is older than words

By PAYEL MAJUMDAR | | 28 November, 2015
Arpita Singh.
Renowned globally as a central figure in the contemporary arts space in India, Arpita Singh speaks to Payel Majumdar about the role of intimacy in her latest paintings and sketches.

A  requisite  for Arpita Singh’s art is that it should  draw the audiences in using expressions that are understated and don’t reveal too much. At the Vadehra Art Gallery, Singh’s sketches, composed over the last 25 years, have been displayed next to each other. Curiously, her sketches don’t seem dated. While the subject varies, there is a uniformity in the way they are expressed, a uniformity that flows like a thread through all her otherwise disjointed and various subjects portrayed on the canvas. As an artist, Singh has a deft hand, marking each subject in her unmistakable style, something that has made her one of the most celebrated painters in India and an artist to be recokned with the
world over.

Q. The Vadehra Art Gallery has your work, composed over the last 25 years, displayed here. In what ways do you feel that you have evolved as an artist?

A. I have definitely changed my technique over time. The whole process [of creating art] changes very slowly, so one cannot say with absolute surety that this part of my art is from a particular period of my life and that from another; one can’t really say that this aspect or that has changed.

Q. There is an intimacy in your sketches. Do you agree that it takes time to get familiar with your work?

A. I agree with that. The challenge with visual art is that every artist has her/his own language, a new jargon. You have to be familiar with that, otherwise you won’t be able to understand, like you won’t be able to read a book before learning a language. By looking at a group of paintings again and again, you become familiar with the process, and with the thought behind it. You either start enjoying or rejecting it.

Q. How has your creative process changed over the years?

A. With me, it always begins with an abstract idea before I begin sketching or painting. Then, you want to make it  [your artwork] perfect, in the sense, that you need to be completely satisfied with the form. When you begin making your next work, you want to repeat what you have done, but at the same time, you want to try different things with it. This is natural, and this is how nature progresses.

Q. Have you thought of experimenting with other forms?

A. I sketch every day. That is what helps you develop your art. I only work with canvas or pen and paper, because I feel that I haven’t done enough with these forms to engage in another form. Sometimes, I feel like working with clay, but it isn’t such a strong urge that I should give this up for that.

Q. How has the contemporary art community changed today from, say, two decades ago?

A. The art world has changed tremendously. Previously there was no market for art, but now there is a flourishing market. Previously, no one bothered about selling their art, because they were doing it for themselves; there was no market for their art. They were making something and that was the end of it. Things are way more different now. With different materials available, even the way art is made has changed.

Q. The artworks on display at this gallery retain the torn-edges effect from your diaries.

A. When I took my sketches to get them published, I tore them out of my notebook. The framer liked the idea of these torn pages, and I said I’ll keep that. It also reminds people that this is a torn page from somewhere, it lends itself immediacy. This exhibition is very intimate, like reading someone’s diaries. I use script, mostly Roman but also Devnagari. It can be something completely arbitrary on the surface, say someone’s birth date, that I wrote on the page. These are all very personal drawings, only some of them are for larger concerns. However, while the script put on the artwork may be completely arbitrary, I feel that there is a deeper connection: that if it were not there, that portion of the work would not have been completed. Sometimes, it breaks the flatness of the texture, you can break the flatness with the script. All art forms are deliberate and instinctive at the same time. I begin a work of art without having any idea. When it progresses, it becomes clearer what I am doing.

“I sketch every day. That is what helps you develop your art. I only work with canvas or pen and paper, because I feel that I haven’t done enough with these forms. Sometimes, I feel like working with clay, but it isn’t such a strong urge that I should give this up for that.”


Q. Do you think context is important for people to understand your work?

A. It depends. Earlier on, there were artists, writers and musicians meeting together for a conversation every day, and there was an understanding that was built among them. This sort of understanding spreads, and you have a society where one language prevails. I feel that now that thing is not there anymore, but still, young collectors have emerged, which is a good addition. The more you mix with people, the more this understanding develops. Almost all our friends are either writers, or lecturers or in the media, and it is easier to communicate. But that old culture doesn’t exist anymore — where the atmosphere was more intimate and where people had the license to criticise one another.

Q. How important is solitude for an artist? And how much time do you spend in your studio these days?

A. To be alone is very important because then you are just with yourself. It’s important to have a space of your own, and not just as an artist. Working is relaxation for me. Generally if I’m painting in my studio, I put in three hours in the morning. After lunch, if I feel like it, then I work for another one-and-a-half hours or more. Previously, I used to work five hours a day.

Q. Are there any artists whose work you can relate to?

A. I admire Tyeb Mehta, Atul and Anju Dodiya very much. FN Souza, Ram Kumar, and among the younger ones Bala Subramaniam, Sheila Makhija. We know artists from all over India, so we always pay them visits. Previously, there used to be workshops where artists used to meet and work. Nowadays it has become a business.

Q. Which country do you think has a prospering arts and cultutre scene?

A. We in India had a very prospering scene but somehow it got interrupted. Art culture means that everybody in the society is involved with the arts and understands it, that it permeates all the layers of the society. Frankly, in our society, no one really understands art these days. But in other western cultures, I remember one of my gallery person was a doctor in New York. I asked him why he had opened a gallery. He used to say that whenever he went for an international seminar, all participants would discuss the artists of their respective countries with much reverence; and whenever someone mentioned Indian art, people would mention miniatures or temple art, but no one would ever speak about Indian contemporary art. So he decided to open a gallery to promote Indian contemporary art.

Q. When did you decide to be an artist?

A. Everything happened in my life by chance, as though it were fate. The principal of my school sent me to art school for instance, and I had no idea there was something like that before going there. I have got everything from Delhi Art College, for it taught me how to see life differently. Everywhere you will find like-minded people, and we would go for landscape and sketching. After passing out, we made a group called the Unknown, where we would go and sketch together and hold group art shows, because no one had enough pull to have an art show on their own at that point of time.

Arpita Singh: Works From 1990-2015 is on till 2 December, 11am-7pm (Monday-Saturday), at Vadehra Art Gallery, D-40, Defence Colony, New Delhi.           


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