Baring the Soul

by Aakshat Sinha



The ones who heal others often seek healing too, for we are all human. Dr Prithipal Singh Sethi served as a Corona warrior during the crises but then contracted the dreaded infection and was homebound, isolated and mentally felt quite low. His daughter used her experience in emergency management to help him to cope with the isolation and fear. What also came handy during the tumultuous period was his continued ‘hobby’ of painting; a hobby that he’d acquired in the early 1980s itself. A self-taught artist, Dr Sethi is a practising General Physician with a flourishing practice in South Delhi. It was one of his patient’s attendants who called me on the morning of 14 October 14 2021 to make it a point to visit his exhibition at the Shridharni Gallery, Triveni Kala Sangam. The renowned Indian artist and in many ways a mentor to me, Arpana Caur, called me specifically to not miss the opportunity to see first-hand the soulful works by Ajeet Cour’s (her mother and celebrated author) personal doctor. I’m thankful for her call to intimate me of this budding talent whose works I might have missed, since I don’t venture out as much as I used to in the pre-pandemic days. Finding myself in the vicinity of the Triveni complex that very evening, I felt it was serendipitous or even ordained.


the artist at work


The gallery is housed in the picturesque Triveni Kala Sangam on the crossing of many important radial roads at the Mandi House. It is a frequented haunt of people from different walks of life – art students (obviously), students of the different courses at the centre, and visitors to the Triveni Café (from doctors to lawyers and even political figures and bureaucrats). It is the last category of people that brings chance conversations and meetings to happen at Triveni between art, artists and society.


Dr Prithipal Sethi’s first solo show, ‘Soulscapes’ displayed a big collection. Some of his earliest creations were also on view but primarily it featured his works from the recent past. He has exhibited his works earlier in various group shows and curated projects but this was the first time that he decided to announce to the world, and perhaps even to himself, of his pursuit of happiness through colourful expressions on canvas. Primarily, he works with oil colours which remain his preferred medium despite the limitations of the pandemic. The use of oil colours also allow him the luxury of working on the same work over a long period without the fear of it drying in the process. With a flourishing practice, he’s had to juggle his painting between appointments and at times working on a canvas tucked behind the patient’s screen at his clinic.


I had a long chat with him and it was a pleasure to speak to someone so refined, so measured in conversation. His sense of spiritual learning is reflected in his works and is perceptible from his poise and general demeanour. We spoke at length about his past that included him creating paintings as early as the 1980s. He shared his motivations and his struggles with time management. The pandemic period when he was consulting patients online and the challenging period of his own incarceration for the same disease provided him with an opportunity to focus more and more on exploring his own art.


The body of work speaks for itself, as most art should. Although self-taught, he has good command of the colour palette and composition, probably through practice and a developing sense of aesthetics. There are essentially three ways in which he applies the paint on the canvas. The blending property of oil colours is put to good use in most of the semi-abstract landscapes, seascapes and skyscapes that he creates. The use of bold colourful strokes as converging lines that come together and at times acting as counterpoints to each other without actually meeting is in complete contrast to the soulful, peaceful melodies that he captures generally. The third is the representational form with the use of semi-abstract human figures, as in the case of Migration 2020, which seeks to capture the plight of the forced/unplanned migration of labourers and migrant workers returning from the cities to their hometowns and villages.


Migration 2020, Oil in canvas, 39" x 39", 2020


The techniques apart, the works can be categorized into inner exploration and representation of the world outside. There is a definite comment that the artist wishes to make but I found the show too large and diverse for this to come out with the desired clarity. This was something that we spoke about as well. The help of a discerning eye and curatorial support to limit the number of works on display would have made the flow of the narrative tighter, stronger and provided for a better impact for any viewer. The actual exhibition display itself too could’ve been planned in a way such as to make the ‘better’ works stand out with greater freedom and more space around them for a soulful experience.


View of the displayed works with visitors in the gallery


Having said that, some of his works still stood out, for instance, his work, Sun Blessed Sea,’in particular shines above all the other works. A 2016 creation, the oil on canvas seascape with the beach, and the sky and sea beyond have just the right movement of the knife strokes to enhance the experience of the central ball of fire filtering through a hazy setting. The criss-cross lines and meandering colour tones make it a very spiritual experience, where I definitely felt connected with the self through the represented nature and its hues.


Sun Blessed Sea, Oil in canvas, 24" x 24", 2016


The work Butterflies are Free was displayed on the front wall as one enters the long gallery but the not- too-big work shouted out from afar and pulled me closer before I could even take a closer look at the other works. The sense of freedom captured in mid-flight is poetic, even cathartic. Dr Sethi has also made several paintings of the flora like the painting Gulmohar, which was completed this year itself – a lasting affection perhaps of drawing trees, leaves, and flowers in early botany classes.


Butterflies are Free


Gulmohar, Oil on canvas, 36" x 30", 2021


We spoke about his practice – both art and medicine – and the clinical precision in his medical practice in contrast to the experimental streak in his art. It was heartening to find such a senior man, both professionally and in age, who took in quite calmly my well-intentioned criticism. That he not only found time from his busy schedule at the clinic to make himself available at the exhibition and more so to seek and even initiate conversations around his art is something I hope that more artists would learn. The act of being present at one’s own show and to speak to the visitors proactively can only help bridge the art-society divide that I’ve spoken about quite often.


Clockwise from left top: Receding Storm, Oil in canvas, 36" x 48", 2010,

Eternity Now, Oil on canvas, 47.2" x 36", 2019,

Genesis, Oil on canvas, 36" x 30", 2021, and

Cosmos Harmony, Oil on canvas, 24" x 24", 2019


The journey of the individual continues and the artist shall continue to persevere at experiencing life and expressing it through his art. That is the bug that the artist is bitten with and no amount of medication will relieve the addiction but for the continued expression to unburden the mind, body, and soul.


The show ‘Soulscapes’ was held at the Shridharni gallery, Triveni Kala Sangam from 12 to 20 October 2021.

(All images are courtesy of the artist, Dr Prithipal Singh Sethi)



 

Aakshat Sinha is an artist and curator. He also writes poetry and has created and published comics. He is the Founding Partner of artamour.

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