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Lunch with BS: Arpana Caur

Speaking through her work

Kavita Chowdhury 

Aparna Caur
Aparna Caur

Just after wrapping up a month-long painting exhibition chronicling her artistic journey over four decades, artist Arpana Caur talks to Kavita Chowdhury about all the things that inspire her work.

It has been a week since her month-long painting exhibition, Crossing 60, concluded. To celebrate her 61st birthday, artist Arpana Caur exhibited for the first time her small works, chronicling her artistic journey over four decades.

Caur is known for large-canvas paintings (6 ft x 9 ft), several of which are part of permanent collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; at Düsseldorf; among the Rockefeller Collection, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.

We meet at her studio-cum-gallery, the picturesque Academy of Fine Arts and Literature, opposite the Siri Fort auditorium. Built painstakingly by her mother, Ajith Caur, the famous Punjabi author, as a centre for the arts, the academy also contains their personal collection of Indian miniatures (which is open to the public). Alongside, the academy offers vocational training for less privileged girls. Unlike some others in her fraternity, Caur isn’t too keen on socialising. In fact, there was no formal inauguration of the Crossing 60 exhibition and the invite unambiguously stated, “Delhi’s evening traffic is impossible. Please do come at your convenience.”

Caur suggests we lunch at Chopsticks, a restaurant next door. She enjoys Chinese cuisine; the place is also popular because of the eclectic films screened at the auditorium, she tells me. We head towards a quiet but well-lit corner in the spacious restaurant. Caur opts for the buffet menu with plenty of ‘healthy greens’. While she selects a plate of beans, sprouts and salad, I head for the non-vegetarian starters. “I believe in seeing green and eating green,” she says with a smile.

Incidentally, the little greenery to be found near the Siri Fort Sports Complex constructed during the 2010 Commonwealth Games, is courtesy the ‘activism’ of Caur and fellow residents like senior advocate M L Lahoti. She recalls how they went to court when 8,900 trees were destroyed in the Siri forest. “We fought against the authorities and won,” she says with pride. “We stopped them from constructing restaurants and food courts in the sports complex.” The anguish she felt then is reflected through a real peacock feather inserted in one of her smaller paintings, ‘Threatened Landscape’, a stark reminder of the peacocks in the area that were devoured by dogs.

I ask her about the strong feminist overtones in her work, and Caur says she prefers to be labelled “a humanist and not just a feminist”. Her work is dominated by large-eyed women in harmony with nature, depicted as ‘Dharti’, expressing anguish at the plunder of the environment or mourning the loss of loved ones in violence. Be it the grieving widows of Vrindavan or the simple housewife busy with her daily tasks, Caur’s figures are often seen as projections of herself.

She speaks animatedly about the plight of women scarred by violence. I ask her about her series on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in the capital, ‘Life Goes On’. She corrects me: “1984 was not riots but genocide.” She joins advocate H S Phoolka (who has been fighting to get justice for the victims) for the protests every year at Jantar Mantar on November 1. “I was not afraid even when I exhibited my paintings soon after, in 1985, with dead bodies figuring prominently in those works,” she says firmly.

In the midst of this grim conversation, she strikes a happy note, recalling how overwhelmed she was on being commissioned by the Hiroshima Museum of Modern Art in 1995 for an artwork to mark the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombings. “I did not even bother to correct them when they addressed me as ‘Mr Arpana Caur’. After all, ever since I was in school, my mother had taught us to observe a few minutes of silence for those who died in Hiroshima on August 6. I was in tears,” she reminisces. The outcome was a 12-feet triptych, ‘Where Have all the Flowers Gone’.

I am curious to know what prompted her to pursue art and not literature, especially because she graduated with English Literature from Lady Shri Ram College for Women and then did her Masters at Delhi University. She confesses to being a “self taught” artist, who was also profoundly influenced by the writings of her mother and Punjabi writers such as Krishna Sobti and Amrita Pritam. Ultimately, she says, visual art became her natural form of creative expression. Author Khushwant Singh, ‘Khushwant Uncle’, was a family friend and Caur even illustrated one of his books, Hymns of the Sikh Gurus.

Caur looks up to the centuries-old Indian miniatures, sculptures and tribal folk art for inspiration and makes it a point to visit the National Museum and the Crafts Museum, both in New Delhi, once a month. “My art might be abstract figuration, it might talk about contemporary issues but my form of expression, the imagery and style, is very Indian.” She says she was “hugely inspired” by artist Amrita Sher-Gil in her early years (it was to emulate her muse that she named herself Arpana) but outgrew that influence over time.

We move to the main course with Caur putting dome broccoli, mushrooms, corn and tofu on her plate. I get some meat and chicken dishes for myself.

The legendary painter M F Hussain was among the first buyers of her painting, picking one of her compositions in the 1970s.“When he (Hussain) died in forced exile, the art community gathered at the Lalit Kala Akademi. There, I set up an installation, ‘Do Gaz Zameen’, denoting the grave that was denied to him in his homeland. That’s the worst that can happen to an artist who loved his country,” says Caur.

Just as Caur sees herself attuned to nature, spirituality is a recurrent theme in her paintings, with Guru Nanak, Kabir, Buddha and even Mahavira figuring frequently in her works even as she acknowledges the influence of the Guru Granth Sahib in her daily life. As we move on to desserts, I observe that she picks sparingly at it, preferring fresh fruit instead. I am pleased to have a slice of the chocolate-mud cake and some honeyed noodles with vanilla ice cream.

My sweet tooth satiated, I ask her about her works that are my personal favourites — the ‘Day and Night’ series where women painted in shades of chrome yellow sit embroidering by day, juxtaposed against their own shadows, who snip off the thread with scissors at night. The scissors motif in contemporary Indian art is synonymous with Caur. Tracing the origins of the motif, she says she is inspired by Greek mythology where the ‘Fate’ motifs wield scissors to cut the thread of life.

The passage of time, she confesses, has always fascinated her and Time is a constant presence in her works. It’s evident that she became acutely conscious of it after her coronary bypass surgery — with the phrase ‘need more time’ inscribed along the edges of her works from that period (2008). Often using Warli tribal folk art (from Maharastra) in her works, Caur is one of the first artists to have celebrated and collaborated with folk artisans. She talks fondly of the wall paintings she executed with the Madhubani artist Sat Narain Pande.

We move to the situation in the country at this moment. I ask her for her reaction to incidents such as the mob lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq, a 50-year-old man in northern India, allegedly over rumours that his family had been storing and consuming beef at home. “Politicians use communalism to further their political agenda,” she says unhesitatingly. “I don’t think the real culprits will ever be punished.”

A dyed-in-the-wool Dilliwalla, Caur has seen the city transform from its laidback environs to the maze that it is today. But she says she is certain of one thing: “I would live and die here than anywhere else.”

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First Published: Fri, October 23 2015. 21:45 IST