Art and activism go hand in hand for Arpana Caur, who is showing in Kerala for the first time.

Arpana Caur, one of India’s best known contemporary artists, is showing in Kerala for the first time. And she’s delighted at the fulfilment of a dream. Kerala, she says, knows her mother, Ajeet Cour, better than her, through her literary works. Several of Ajeet’s novels have been translated into Malayalam, she says.

Arpana was in Kerala 22 years ago and then, more recently, to draw on the Millennium Canvas, the longest in the world, that was unfurled in Kozhikode. Kerala has been a literary draw for Arpana ever since she first came here. “Every one wants to come here once in a life time,” declares the Delhi-based artist, soaking in the waterfront images of Kochi. Her show, ‘Painting Is Not Dead’ opened at Gallery OED in Mattancherry earlier this week.

The title of the show is a hotly debated subject in the current art scene with new mediums relegating old fashioned painting to the back. Has painting been given the short shrift? Arpana, who is accomplished in both the old and the new, says: “It is not the case of one versus the other. Each has its own validity. The art world is wide enough to accommodate all kinds. I did installations 20 years ago, but I like the fact that a painting survives the painter. I like the old fashioned joy of holding a paint brush, of feeling the weight of paint on the tip of a brush. In this show I am saying ‘I am a painter and I enjoy painting’.”

Ten years ago when she visited ‘Documenta’, an exhibition of contemporary art that takes place every five years in Kassel in Germany, she was surprised to find only five painters in a group of 120 artists. “It was a highly intellectual show that left emotion a bit untouched,” says Arpana whose works are a fine blend of the intellectual and the emotional.

Arpana’s initiation in art was through literature. Her growing up was secular to the extent that she had the freedom to choose her name and religion when she attained maturity. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Indian mythology, poetry, scriptures, and history… all are inspirations that enrich her canvas. Her narrative of the legendary Sohni is told and retold by her in striking colours, capturing heart wringing moods.

Such interventions bring in the emotional touch that she drapes in intellectual elements of symbols, metaphors, text and even objects. The scissor, thread and yogi are some of the recurring leitmotifs; the swimming posture of Sohni inspired by a 200-year-old work by Punjabi artist Nainsukh. Folk art is another inspiration. The abstraction of sculpture is skilfully transferred on to her canvas. “For figuration to be successful it must have abstraction. I like the figure to be there and not there,” she says about the nebulous forms on her canvas.

Her favourite work she says is the Day and Night series, a subject untouched by any other artist. An everyday phenomenon, Arpana captures the shift in time by drawing a woman in yellow embroidering and a woman in black cutting a thread.

Her first show in Delhi in 1975 was at a time when a gallery had a visitor a day. But even then Arpana managed to sell her works in a show curated by M.F. Husain. In 1980, she and her mother carried rolled canvases of her works in the train, unrolled them out and showed the works at Jehangir Gallery in Mumbai. “Husain sahib and Kekoo Gandhy bought all my works. I came back empty handed,” she reminiscences.

As a sensitive artist, Arpana is a gentle activist. But, she says, some issues make her angry. She fights them in the courts and through her works. Her paintings on environmental issues began in 1988, when she made the first in a series titled ‘Green Circle’; Sita being the daughter of Dharti (earth) is the active metaphor. Recently Arpana went to court when an old forest in South Delhi was cut for the Commonwealth Games. The dead peacocks ravaged by dogs feature in her works called ‘Ghosts’. Restoration of monuments is another cause that she actively fights for. This has led her to develop a deep and close bond with Malayali archaeologist K.K. Muhammad.

Here in Kerala, she is revelling in the beauty of the land. “When I go back I will remember that black boat and the water… the magic of Kerala. The moment will stand out like a gem,” she says looking at the simmering water.

The show ‘Painting Is Not Dead’ hosted by Gallery Veda, Chennai, and Gallery OED will conclude on March 23.

Women, art, identity

“For a woman art is a way to discover her identity,” says Arpana . In that process some women artists paint only women’s issues. Arpana explores six to seven subjects such as spirituality, time, environment, heritage and gender issues.

“Twenty years ago when Sotheby’s and Christie’s started auctioning Indian art, women artists began commanding very high prices. Unfortunately the economics of art becomes the measure of its worth. It was then that people started taking women artists seriously. In the last 30 years, the scene regarding women in art has completely changed. Women are successfully running galleries, bringing out art magazines and are present in large numbers as professional artists,” says Arpana with pride.

Arpana’s mother brought out the first directory on Who’s Who of Indian Women in 1975. It was a Government of India project and was released by the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

For International Women’s Day Arpana has made an installation to be displayed by the Sahitya Cultural Parishad in Delhi called the ‘Delhi Bus’ (left). It is a severe indictment on the egregious state of safety for women using public transport in the Capital.