Once during a conversation, artist Arpita Singh had said, “Encountering the blank surface of a canvas or paper fills me with anxiety. It represents a challenge and the first mark I make on it is always exciting.” The first mark she makes tickles her curiosity, prodding her to explore the way ahead through the mysterious, empty rectangular space of the canvas or the paper. Indeed, the exhilaration of making marks on the blank surface was so inviting that Arpita spent close to eight years in creating abstract drawing by doing just that.

Art historian Deepak Ananth writes in his book Arpita Singh: “The most accomplished instance in Arpita Singh’s essays in ecriture is the untitled series of drawings she made in the 1970s, a breakthrough achievement in the way her formal concerns are thematised...”

This brilliant interlude of abstract drawings in her six-decades-long journey as an outstanding figurative artist bears testimony to a radical phase of experimentation. Now, a collection of about 35 of those drawings will be mounted at an exhibition titled Tying Down Time at Talwar Gallery, New York, from May 6 to August 11. Many of the works at the show are being exhibited for the first time. They had been carefully collected and stored by Arpita’s husband, the well-known landscape artist Paramjit Singh.

How does the much-awarded artist, who is a Fellow of the Lalit Kala Akademi and a recipient of the Padma Bhushan, Kalidas Samman and Gagan-Abani Purashkar, feel about these works being shown decades after they were created? Singh, now 80, responded hesitantly: “An artist is both egotistic and humble at the same time. Showing a body of work implies a statement.” An artist cannot help but wonder what the response to the statement will be, but at the same time, she is confident of its validity.

Credit: Arpita Singh. Courtesy: Talwar Gallery

The mediums used in these drawings are greatly varied – ink, charcoal, watercolour, pastel, poster colour. Equally dazzling is the variegated use of brush and pen to create an array of abstract forms. The lines range from fine to bold and aggressive. There are delicate, lacy, curlicued lines which emerge as a hazy woven texture, thickly daubed lines, lines and marks that form a mosaic of sharp shards and plenty of markings and rubbings.

The visual ideas sometimes reflect forms as earthy as man-made structures or a sketch map of an unknown location, or the plotting of planetary movements sometimes delicately balanced and at other times frenzied. The references to woven textures are many, and possibly stem from her stint as a designer at the Handloom Board in the 1960s.

Credit: Arpita Singh. Courtesy: Talwar Gallery

These abstract drawings, fresh and timeless even after decades, play a seminal role in Singh’s oeuvre. The repetition of the basic elements of dots and lines became an integral part of her art language, in the paintings she did from the 1980s. The colours used in these drawings point to a lightening of the palette, which evolved into a mesmerising use of colour later. It was from there on that texturisation of the surface became significant in her work.

Credit: Arpita Singh. Courtesy: Talwar Gallery

Singh is both serious and playful in these drawings, as she is in her approach to her art. Unlike abstract artist Nasreen Mohamedi’s work, there is no mysticism in Singh’s imagery. Singh approaches the surface on two levels: one, she has the child-like curiosity of what effect she can achieve from the handling of her material and medium, but on a deeper, more serious level, she is grappling with understanding the mysteries of creation.

It is also this driving urge to understand reality and what lies behind it, that has prompted Singh to move from phase to phase in the making of her art. She finished her training from the Department of Fine Art at the Delhi Polytechnic in the late 1950s. From the first group show which she participated in, in 1961, as a member of The Unknowns, she was singled out by critics as an artist of great promise. From here on, Singh embarked on a long journey as a figurative artist, although in the initial stages, she had painted a few semi-abstract forms.

Credit: Arpita Singh. Courtesy: Talwar Gallery

So where does the abstract phase fit in? Singh says that in the early 1970s, she felt very restless with what she was doing. At that time, she painted interior scenes with chairs, carpets, bottles flowers and figures. She applied her warm, sensuous colours in a flat way. She felt she was reaching a dead end and wanted to move away. So she began experimenting with the most accessible and affordable material – paper – and the repetition of the most basic marks led her on to an exciting terrain. It was during this abstract phase that she made her most startling discovery on the true nature of form – that it is made up of a repetition of its parts.

Describing the visual impact of such repetition, the great theatre director Ebrahim Alkazi once wrote in an Art Heritage catalogue, “Arpita Singh achieves a richness in suggestion through the repetition of images as multiple reflections or as a system of inner rhymes so the self-same motifs in different positions or different relationships take on a different connotation...”

Credit: Arpita Singh. Courtesy: Talwar Gallery

When Singh moved back again to figurative painting in the early 1980s, she often used repetitive strokes to create a background, to paint garments and drapes wrapped around the figures, which she continues to do till this day. Representations of everyday reality and abstractions co-exist in her paintings.

During the 1990s, Singh explored the intricacies of the female identity. She did a series of erotically charged women flaunting their sexuality in Feminine Fables, painted woman as a mother in works like Woman with a Girl Child, and painted woman as a protector in the gun-wielding, widowed figure of Devi. This was also the decade in which Singh painted the poignancy of ageing bodies with their slackening flesh and resignation on their faces.

Credit: Arpita Singh. Courtesy: Talwar Gallery

From 2000 onwards, new elements surfaced in Singh’s paintings. Her interest in the history of world cultures and translocation of people brought about a fresh imagery. She began to appropriate myths of various communities of the world, as well as impacts of global political developments, like the destruction of Palmyra and the torture of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Many of these paintings portrayed man’s violence on other humans. This was also the period when Singh began doing large, mural-like paintings. The first, Wish-dream, measuring 24x14 feet, was sold at an auction in Delhi for several crore rupees.

The rich assortment of motifs and metaphors which Singh uses in her paintings is mined not just from her own experiences, but also her thoughts and ideas on larger issues like female identity, civilisational history, displacement of people, exercise of hegemonic power leading to conflict and violence and the enduing presence of myths in our lives. But these larger ideas are also rooted in her consciousness and connected in subtle ways to her life. Yet her imagery is not a direct reflection of her experiences, but an enigmatic passage wherein she works out her thoughts and emotions.

Art historians and writers have commented on the wit and whimsy in Singh’s paintings. Her playfulness is evident in the toy cars whizzing through the street, aeroplanes which look like birds, plump blossoms and fruits, eccentric letterings. But below the smiling enjoyment lurks a darting stab of anxiety. Men with guns weave in and out of the painted space. The lettering may hint at a poignant truth.

Death and loss have been constant leitmotifs in her work. Her images have been shaped by childhood memories of partings, dislocations and journeys. Thus the subliminal melancholy offers an acute counterpoint to the joyous profusion of colours, motifs and symbols. The fractured reality caused by the sudden death of her father when Singh was a young girl may have been why she introduced symbols of loss and negation in her paintings. But it may also have to do with her philosophic view of life, where creation and negation go hand in hand.

Singh fulfilled the promise seen in her earliest works, to emerge as one of the most important artists of Independent India. Not only did she acquire a distinctive language in the way she used rich layerings of colour, strong brushwork, simplification of form, but also through the changing imagery over the decades. She retained in her oeuvre some identifiable sensibilities which imbue her work with depth and complexity.

The price of Singh’s paintings has been climbing steadily but the monetary value of her paintings is not of such critical importance. What is most significant is that Singh has left a mark on the visual imagination of generations.