Arpita Singh

b. 1937 in Baranagar, India
Working in New Delhi, India
Showing at Asia Society Museum
On view October 27, 2020, through February 7, 2021
The Ritual

Arpita Singh, The Ritual, 1989. Oil on canvas. H. 66 x W. 60 in. (167.6 x 152.4 cm). Collection of Mr. Lal Dalamal. Photograph courtesy of RL Fine Arts

Born in 1937, a decade before the partition of India, Arpita Singh is part of the second wave of modernists, including Rameshwar Broota and Jogen Chowdhury, a group that followed the pioneering artists of the Progressive movement. Singh’s paintings and drawings pay tribute to the joys and sorrows of family life, where tensions and ties are often indicative of larger social and political formations outside the family. Frequently executed in heavy impasto and distinguished by her love of blues and pinks, her bright palette and seemingly whimsical imageries belie the often darker themes in her work. Her highly decorated surfaces are populated by people she knows—family, friends, and neighbors. These figures are often portrayed surrounded by objects of everyday life such as teacups, bouquets, dining utensils, and more.

Singh’s paintings of the late 1980s through the 1990s portray older Indian women with brutal honesty. Many works feature a female nude, exposed and floating alone in a colored background. In The Ritual and The Eternal Repose, the female body dominates the canvas, the rolls and wrinkles of her flesh softening her forms while forcing the viewer to confront her sheer physical reality. The Ritual is particularly enigmatic in composition, with its unexpectedly pink bodies enacting an almost aggressive but undefined ritual. The phrase “In the beginning the earth was a square,” is overlaid onto the strip of river or ocean to the right edge of the work and hints at a kind of primordial setting. In The Eternal Repose, Singh renders her female figure at almost the same miniature scale as the domestic objects floating around her. The multi-armed woman reaches out towards a series of figures, as if juggling the multiple relationships with family and friends that the modern Indian woman has to maintain. The reclining pose also recalls that of the god Vishnu, the protector, just like the modern mother figure has to protect and nurture her family and the domestic realm. In Amina Kidwai, the artist depicts a family who was a neighbor of Singh for many years and grew to become close friends. The work depicts Amina and probably her husband at tea surrounded by a floating array of plants, flowers, teacups and teapot, and birds. Amina’s daughter Ayesha was the frequent subject of Singh’s paintings during the 1990s. This younger woman, despite family opposition, married outside her community, surfacing the conflict between religions, cultures, and genders. The artist has spoken of how this family seems to her like a microcosm of contemporary India with its diversity, but also its fractures.

Supported by Peter Louis, Chandru Ramchandani