Ten years ago, when air pollution wasn’t even a speck in living room conversations, artist Anjum Singh created an artwork mimicking a smog-shrouded Delhi. Its materials – glass wool, magnets and paint on a metal sheet – felt calamitous in their slickness. The work was part of a deeply engaging show, The Skin Remembers, at Delhi’s Palette Art Gallery. Like many others, this work also sprouted from Singh’s experience of living in the capital.
“I suppose it makes sense that when one talks of pollution or infected food and water or chemicals or waste, a human lung or heart seems to be the point of contact,” she told me. “What goes in is what comes out, right?” The opening night was one of exuberance and celebration. Thinking back, I gasp with disbelief at the show’s unintended place as autobiography.
Four years later, Singh was diagnosed with cancer. When it returned for the second time, she sought treatment at Sloan Kettering, New York. The medication turned her palms black. The skin was remembering the toxins from the world’s most polluted city.
“Stop staring,” she told me, rolling her eyes in mock exasperation as we met in the city where she was being treated. Modern medicine can conjure medieval moments. In another century, I might have declared my friend poisoned. In a systems perspective, that was accurate.
We shopped briefly. In the first store, we protested because a white woman who came after us, was attended to before us. “We believe it was our turn, not hers, so can you please take us first?” Singh said.
The woman at the counter mumbled unpleasantly. The customer apologised and refused to be served till we were. Singh thanked her for seeing the situation for what it was.
At a second store, she sat down, exhausted. “You’ve come all the way, let’s get all this done properly,” she insisted, not leaving my side in the sub-zero temperatures. She did all this with catheters in both lungs that she would drain daily, on her own.
Anjum Singh’s short life was marked by glorious independence. As the only child of accomplished artists Arpita and Paramjeet Singh, she could have played the game. It is common: many children assume they’ve inherited their parents’ fame and networks, working them to their advantage. She didn’t take that well-trodden path. She studied at Santiniketan, then went to the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, in Washington DC, where she nurtured several life-long friendships.
Back home, she began building a very specific contemporary Indian vocabulary. Singh lived in South Delhi, with her anti-social cat, devoted to art making. She turned to fellow artists to locate workers to mould the industrial materials she observed around her. In her world and practice, artists supported each other. People remember her as part of Khoj, an artist’s collective, untiringly helping other artists set up their work at annual residencies.
Her own artistic choices underscored how subcontinental cities were predicated on manufacturers and traders. Magnets – key to some of her work – were imported by a wholesale trader in Sadar Bazar. Her smooth, ivory egg-shell fibre glass sculpture was created, after long trial and error, with the help of an industrial fabricator. Through her paintings and sculpture, she laid bare the circuits of colonised land and materials. In New York, she kept a journal, sketching between chemo and exhaustion.
Last year, Talwar Gallery hosted her finest show. I Am Still Here dwelt on the disruption rogue cells were unleashing inside her. Cells, tissue, blood – these became subjects of enquiry for Anjum Singh, the artist. In parallel, they became objects of intervention for Anjum Singh, the survivor. It was her last show – although she had another in mind.
She was the most magnificent of friends. The people she painstakingly cooked for at home at primarily one thing in common: their affection for her. At her place, you could meet writers, fashion designers, journalists, architects, academicians, doctors, stay-at-home moms and, of course, artists.
Aggressive cancer didn’t stop her from working hard and living generously. When my dog was diagnosed with incurable cancer, I hesitated to discuss it with her. Singh intuited that. She came over to help me take him to the vet for the last time. Moments before we carried him to my car, Carbon stuck out his little pink tongue and lapped at his water bowl. In that fleeting moment, Singh let a tear fall.