Arpana Caur: The “Multi-aware” Artist
Updated: Nov 21, 2020
Arpana Caur is one of India’s pre-eminent visual artists. Born in Delhi in 1954, she has been exhibiting her art since 1974 and has held shows in all major Indian cities and also in London, Glasgow, Berlin, Amsterdam, Singapore, Munich, New York. Her works have been displayed in the Stockholm and Copenhagen National Museum, Osaka Print Triennale as well as in Delhi Print Triennale. Her paintings are part of the collections of the Museums of Modern Art in New Delhi, Mumbai, Chandigarh, Patna, Dusseldorf, Singapore, Bradford, Stockholm, Hiroshima, Peabody Essex Boston, MOCA LA, Brooklyn, Bharat Bhawan Bhopal, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Lalit Kala Akademi, Swaraj Archive, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. For its 50th anniversary in 1995, she was commissioned by the Hiroshima Museum of Modern Art.
Since 1981, Arpana Caur has worked on large non-commercial murals in public spaces in Delhi, Bangalore, Hamburg and Kathmandu. A 40-year Retrospective Exhibition of her works was held in the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bangalore, in 2016 with Swaraj Archive. She has won several accolades for her art. She is a recipient of the Gold Medal for painting at the VIth International Triennale 1986 and also the AIFACS Award. She received the Lalit Kala Grant and was bestowed the ‘Eminent Artist’ title. She has been filmed by BBC, Stockholm TV and many Indian TV channels. For more about the artist, you may visit her website www.caurarpana.com
1. When did you decide and what prompted you to become an artist? Please give a brief account of your challenges and struggles in your journey as an artist. Any role models?
AC: Every human being is an inborn artist. It depends largely on the family’s support – both financial and emotional – whether you are able to pursue this urge. When I began to exhibit in 1974, Delhi had only three public and two private galleries. My first group show came as a pleasant surprise. I read about a Husain-curated show in Triveni Gallery, sent off three canvasses and they were selected! The German Cultural Counsellor Putkamer saw my works, came looking for me to my home and put up six canvasses in a group show with giants like Swaminathan and Ramachandran. This gave me courage to do a solo in 1975 on the advice of BC Sanyal, whose wife Sneh was part of IPTA and a friend of my mother, Ajeet Caur. Only one person would come to the gallery to see the show, and my friends began to tease me about this ‘one person show’. But a few appreciating lines by Keshav Malik and KK Nair in TOI and HT lifted my disheartened mood. This was followed by a visit by Maria Souza (Souza’s first wife) who offered me a solo in her gallery Arts 38 in London in 1979 and helped me get a scholarship to pursue an advanced course in painting at St Martins, London; she even offered me a room to stay. My mother left me there and returned to Delhi. Being a reserved person, I felt lost and homesick that I followed her back after two months. I was of course scolded by Mom and Maria, who both love me dearly, for not getting a ‘foreign stamp’ which was so fashionable those days.
A solo in Mumbai’s Jahangir Art Gallery in 1980 was the turning point. It was a sell-out with a huge number of reviews. The buyers included Husain, Gallery Pundole and Chemould, Jehangir Nicholson, Dubash, Godrej and Taj. This gave a big boost to my confidence. Most of Chennai, Delhi and Calcutta (now Kolkata) artists went to Bombay (now Mumbai) to earn for a year or two mainly due to the large-hearted Parsi collectors residing there.
2. What art project(s) are you working on currently? What is your inspiration or motivation for this?
AC: I’m mainly working around subjects that date back 20 years which I've not yet exhausted like “Day and Night” (a theme I’ve never seen painted before). Time is an abstract notion and this was a challenge, so a yellow embroiderer, a black one cutting the thread of life, and so on. Dualities interest me – even linear against organic forms. My subjects range from urbanization and issues related to the environment, to Buddha, Nanak and Kabir, and the eternal love story of Sohni Mahiwal. Some series pertained to events like the 1984 Sikh massacre or the 1987 Widows of Vrindaban which I worked on after a visit there where I witnessed the shocking sight of shaven windows. In the lockdown I worked on “The Last Supper” because I believe we have massacred nature.
I also do drawings and gouaches beside my very large-sized canvases, which I’ve been doing from the time I began my art practice. In the early years when nothing sold and my studio became overcrowded, I would paint over an earlier work since I could not do without painting.
Sohni, Oil on canvas, 50 inches × 68 inches, 2020
Painting is Not Dead, installation with long table, canvas, drips, syringes, colour blobs, and small figures of Gandhi, Bhagat Singh and Netaji in three syringes, Chennai, March 2013
Mural in Kathmandu, 16 feet × 10 feet on the outer wall of SAARC Secretariat Building, 2009
Mural in New Delhi, 40 feet × 12 feet, Outer wall of Lady Irwin School, New Delhi, 2000
3. Contemporary art has become very diverse and multidisciplinary in the last few decades. Do you welcome this trend? Is this trend part of your art practice?
AC: I welcome every multidisciplinary trend. My mother being a writer, I’ve been influenced by literature and folklore and the poetry of the Sufis and Sikh Gurus which I grew up with and these have been reflected in most of my series.
In my view ‘multidisciplinary’ also means ‘multi-awareness’ of one’s heritage and environment and standing up for them – for our monuments and trees that are being swallowed up mercilessly by powerful builder lobbies.
I have illustrated three books, done about five installations, some sculptures and about 25 etchings apart from drawings and gouaches.
My biggest drawback is I’m not technologically aware! I really don’t feel that I belong to our digital times and have just about managed to survive without WhatsApp, SMS and the computer.
4. Does art have a social purpose or is it more about self-expression?
AC: The environment is one of my major concerns and this does get reflected in my art. I do feel all of us should work on the theme. When I saw Delhi getting rapidly urbanized, I did my first environment painting titled Green Circle in 1988 – a little girl drawing her own green circle around her in the middle of the crazy graffiti of traffic, construction and industries that Delhi has become – a take on Sita’s circle of protection as well. I’ve done several non-commercial murals on this subject for free in Delhi, Mumbai and even in Kathmandu – wherever I was offered walls which offered a large enough public viewing. Delhi’s first piece of street art (which I did in collaboration with German painter Sonke Nissen) was done 20 years ago on Canning Road, between India Gate and Connaught Place, with viewers like milkmen, bus and auto drivers who fortunately understood it. While my own work has mystery and abstraction, figurative public art has to have clear communication.
Green Circle, Oil on canvas, 56 inches × 70 inches, 2007
5. Where do you create your art (workplace / studio)? What is your process?
AC: I create my art in my heart and mind. I respond to the environment, life and death, the brevity of life and either create my own images or borrow them from mythology. I look to our miniature tradition for inspiration. I’ve also in the past used folk motifs from Godna and Warli in my art for ten years to acknowledge the contribution of my lesser known brothers and sisters in remote villages.
I have a whole library of art books (which is open to all) and I’m never tired of looking at their visuals.
6. To what extent will the world of art change in the post-Covid period – both in terms of what is created as also the business of art?
AC: The art market slumped due to various factors pre-Covid, including certain decisions, such as when art materials at 12% GST became difficult for struggling artists to procure. Post-Covid, the market has totally collapsed. Collectors have been offloading most works (except those of the Masters) for very low prices. This doesn’t really bother me – price has never been an issue for me. I’m a strong believer in museum and public collections and to these I have offered my work for very little.
7. Tell us about any other interest you may have besides your art practice . Does it get reflected
in your art?
AC: I’m devoted to my very frail 86-year-old writer-mother who needs constant care, though there was a time when she set up all on her own a whole institution, the Academy of Fine Arts and Literature. I have great interest in India’s rich cultural heritage and have travelled a great deal to study ancient civilizations: Hampi, Mahabalipuram, Himalayas, Patliputra, 10th Century Raja Raja Chola temples, Ajanta and Ellora, Konarak and Puri, Bodhgaya, Nanak’s pilgrimages, and even Iraq, Egypt, Spain, Turkey, and Greece. I love Delhi's monuments. I've travelled half the world to view museum collections; I have also visited a number of Indian museums including at BHU, Alwar, Jaipur, Udaipur and other major cities. I listen to a lot of Gurbani while painting. Gurbani includes the recitations of the Sikh Gurus and also those of Kabir, Farid, Namdev, Jaidev and even Surdas, which very few are aware of! I love walking among trees everyday and praying as I walk, to thank HIM for this beautiful life.
(All images are courtesy of Arpana Caur.)
The artamour questionnaire is a regular series of interviews with visual artists across disciplines, who share their views about art, their practice and their worldview on a common questionnaire template. Like, comment, share and subscribe to stay updated.