Her flight delayed by Delhi’s infamous smog, artist Arpana Caur arrives a couple of hours later than scheduled in Bengaluru, where her retrospective show ‘Four Decades: A Painter’s Journey’ is to open the next day.
When we meet at a hotel lobby, an apologetic Caur offers me a ride to the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), the venue of a retrospective spanning 40 years of her work. In the taxi, Caur and Vijay Kumar Aggarwal, founder of Noida-based Swaraj Art Archive, from whose collection the entire show germinated, excitedly look out for familiar sights. She spots Kanteerva Stadium — “I have done a mural there” — and as we approach Cubbon Park, Caur announces that she will close her eyes. The taxi passes a government building on whose facade she had painted a Roerich-inspired landscape mural, now covered with a dull tile cladding. “Jija Hari Singh (former Director General of Police) had requested me to do the mural saying all she could give me in lieu of payment was the best wall. I readily agreed.”
At NGMA, Caur can barely contain her excitement. It has been a very long time since she last saw some of her old works exhibited. “Artists can only dream of finding such patrons,” she says, referring to Aggarwal’s initiative in collecting her works, often from international auctions or museums. This includes one of her largest works on canvas, a triptych called ‘Resilient Green’ (69” X 204”, 1991), the property of a Japanese museum. The idea of a retrospective is yet to sink in. “It feels like my swansong,” smiles Caur. “What else can I do to top this? I am 62; how much longer can I go on?”
On this sombre note, we walk into the large gallery where curators Prarthana and Priyanka Tagore have been busy hanging up works segregated according to themes and series rather than chronology. Playing on loop is a film on her made by the curators’ father Siddharth Tagore in 2004. “I did not give him dates for two years because I didn’t want him to lose money.”
This empathy reflects in Caur’s personal life as well. With her mother, Padmashree awardee and writer Ajeet Cour, she supports a leprosy home in Ghaziabad, an institution in the memory of her late younger sister, that trains women in vocational skills, and an open library with over 1,000 books.
Caur’s engagement with issues and people translate on to her canvases. In 1987, she visited the Mathura museum to see its collection of sculptures only to find it closed. She decided instead to head to the Vrindavan temples, where she saw large groups of widows, a sight that made her cry. The series ‘Widows of Vrindaban’ stems from that unexpected sight: “instead of seeing gopis in Krishna’s temple, I saw the widows”. Then came the series ‘World Goes On’ on the 1984 Sikh riots, for which she uses the word ‘massacre’. The tragic fate of Gond artist Jangarh Singh Shyam from Bhopal is also the subject of her art. The acclaimed Gond artist was invited to a museum in Tokyo on a six-month contract but he took his own life. Caur’s paintings show falling Warli figures and astronomical charts to highlight the forgotten incident.
We are standing in front of ‘Outside the Blue Gallery’ (1970), a grim work that has gaunt hungry figures in the foreground of a blue gallery. This is one of her few early works that Aggarwal bought. His personal favourite is a small painting from 1990 that Caur had done for a show on Gandhi on the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s first overseas trip after being released from prison. Caur wanted to portray something different; so she painted a rotund image of Kasturba holding a pink heart with Gandhi in it. “While there are many paintings of Gandhi, Kasturba rarely makes an appearance,” says Aggarwal.
Caur has often admitted that her main sources of inspirations are “Indian miniature painting and my mother”. The latter’s influence inspired a series based on literature from Punjab and one on spiritual themes. “Mom’s life itself is an inspiration,” she says, recalling how she struggled as a single mother to bring up Caur (Caur’s parents were separated).
Indian miniature painting influences her brushstrokes and compositions. She points to a spiralling form of water in an oil painting titled ‘Water Weaver’ rendered in miniature style. She credits the idea for that particular series to the late Professor Ramchandra Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, who used to lecture every Saturday at her institution. “He called me from a public phone one day and said the image of a woman weaving water was his millennial gift to me,” she laughs at the memory.
Caur’s love for miniature painting has led her to source an extensive collection of antique miniatures. When the basement of her privately-owned museum flooded in 2013, more than 100 such paintings were damaged. The paintings are still being painstakingly restored.
Over the years, there has been a visible change in her style. Smriti Rajgarhia, Director of Swaraj Art Archive, feels that while Caur’s early works were mellow, she has been taking a stronger stand on issues in recent times. “The colours are brighter and the background is getting flatter. The later works are less detailed, as Caur is veering towards minimalism.” Even the idioms have changed. She previously used scissors, rulers and bones as stark repetitive motifs.
Rajgarhia and the curators pause in front of a portrait of Raj Kapoor and Nargis from the iconic rain song scene in Shree 420 . Isn’t the face of the heroine more a self-portrait, I ask. “Self-portraits abound in her work,” Rajgarhia says, and many observers see glimpses of Caur in her works, but she refutes them.
An unprecedented 200-odd people turn up for the opening. A young artist calls to say that he has yet to recover from the shock — ‘stunned’ is the word he used — of seeing a personal email from Caur inviting him to the event. “I have never met her nor does she know of me.” But for Caur, her primary target audience is artists. As she puts it, “They will tell me accurately how my works are.”
Jayanthi Madhukar is a freelance writer who believes that everything has astory waiting to be told.
(Four Decades: A Painter’s Journey, 10 am to 5 pm, till December 4, National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru.)