Singh belongs to the vanguard artists of the 1960s and 70s. Tying Down Time at the Talwar Gallery in New York is a title that invites interest and intrigue-specifically because you realize that Arpita Singh was an abstractionist in her early years, searching her own identity in the monochromes of strokes and shadows between the years 1973-1982.
A quick look at some of the monochromes suggests her dalliance with abstraction was by no means short, because if you look closely at her figurative studies that propelled her to be Indian art's high priestess, you can see glimpses of these abstractive elements in the way she fills the attire of her forms as well the backgrounds with strokes and dots and dashes.
In an interview with me in 2005, when I was writing an essay on her seminal work “Wish Dream”, she spoke about her art and individuals in life. “Somehow, I have always had the belief that a primitive force exists within us. As individuals, we have to satisfy this instinct; we cannot escape it. As an artist, I try to distill into each of my lines my own stories of darkness.”
When she recalled the intensity of life, and the throbbing phase of colours and inbuilt cadences, she suddenly felt exhausted and “unable to move on”. She explained, “For about eight years, I practiced lines and grids and repeatedly made dots and patterns. It was like practicing handwriting,” she explained, “before I found my voice once again.”
But those repetitions in the lexicon of lines and dots and dashes proved to the body of her pictorial universe that she has primed over the past four decades. The ludic impulse has been her way of negotiating the vicissitudes of female subjectivity even as it acts as a superior ruse for confronting the complexities of the world on her own terms.
The freshness of her childlike vision is the elation of a painter who never ceases to marvel at the formal possibilities of her elected medium and the effect it might be made to yield. Being attentive to language and to the world: this is how Arpita Singh has always conceived her vocation as an artist.
Look closely at the mediums used in these drawings: there is the power of black ink, charcoal, watercolour, pastel, and the humble poster colour. Equally elegant is the versatile use of brush and pen to create an articulation of abstractions that fill the sheet. One does recall a brilliant evocation in her book brought out by the Vadehras and Penguin, called ‘Sunset at Kasauli.'
LANGUAGE AS EDIFICE
Go back to the figurative works that she excels in: the verticality of the figure will also reflect her deeper nuances with abstractions elements. Language, for Arpita Singh, is the edifice of all thought. “I have always been fascinated by the common roots of various languages, by the mystical formation of the Roman alphabet with the sudden coming together of two lines, by the way in which two things meld into each other and form an original,” she said to me.
In this historic unveiling at Talwar Gallery she draws attention to the finesse and felicity of the lines, which range from fine to bold as well as a cornucopia of mild aggression. She reminds us of Paul Klee who took the line for a walk—in her case the line is dictated by her mood; it could swing like a pendulum on a balmy afternoon-from a detailed delicacy, to a lacy, curlicued creation.
The impact of these drawings varies from the handling of lines—forming a hazy woven texture—or an incantation of thickly daubed lines. In one work, you are looking at a mosaic of sharp shards threaded by markings and rubbings. These intensities recur in her present day works—the short, staccato, repetitive strokes created with the pen and the brush is part of her lexicon even today. It is as if her affair with lines never left her; they coalesce to converge or condense, to create dense fragments that seem fragile on close up, but look like textural terrains from afar.
Tracing the past as well as foreshadowing the future, the works in Tying down time point to Singh's engagement with textiles, a result of her time spent as a designer at the Weaver's Service Centre in Delhi during the 1960s. Calling on and then expanding the structure of warp and weft, Singh's works make use of the relative openness of the page—becoming records of a remarkable period of freedom in her practice, spurred on by the desire, excitement and uncertainty of experimentation.
These works in Tying down Time create an aesthetic bridge linking Singh's early work with her better-known figurative paintings since the late 1980s. They also allow a rare insight into the formal foundations of Singh's oeuvre, revealing both a serious curiosity about line, depth and space, and a playful improvisation—a willingness to suspend certainty in the search for new.