The standard-bearer for narrative art in India
Born in West Bengal in 1937, 10 years before the Partition of India, Arpita Singh is now widely considered one of her country’s premier contemporary artists. Her oil paintings and watercolours are renowned for the tantalising stories they tell, often from a female perspective.
‘She’s the standard-bearer for narrative art in India today — a narrative tradition that dates back centuries to miniature painting,’ explains Nishad Avari, Indian art specialist at Christie’s in New York. ‘She’s undoubtedly the standard-bearer for women artists in India, too.’
Now in her eighties, Singh has been the subject of a major retrospective at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi. Her work can also be found in the collections of institutions worldwide, including the V&A in London and Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.
In 2011, Singh was awarded the Padma Bhushan, one of the highest honours bestowed on civilians by the Indian state.
Comparisons with Chagall, allusions to Indian mythology
Her art is never overtly feminist or autobiographical. Instead, it tends to be allusive and dreamlike, featuring free-floating, gravity-defying figures in the manner of Marc Chagall.
Often it alludes to Indian mythology, as with Ashvamedha (2008), a triptych that appeared in the South Asian Modern & Contemporary Art sale at Christie’s New York in March 2019. The title references an old Vedic ritual of horse sacrifice, in which a stallion was allowed to roam free for a year, leading kings to new territories to conquer, before being killed.
The action isn’t too easily deciphered but to the right one can make out male figures on motorcycles and horseback advancing to attack a territory of skeletal, female figures to the left. ‘There’s so much going on in Ashvamedha, as there is in all Singh’s paintings,’ says Avari. ‘She’s incredibly meticulous and detailed, which is partly the product of her early-career training in the kantha weaving method.’
After graduating in fine arts from Delhi Polytechnic, Singh worked for four years designing textiles at the government-sponsored Weavers’ Service Centre. It was there that she learned traditional methods of embroidery, including the highly treasured Bengali type known as kantha.
‘Essentially, this involved building up rich patterns from tiny, individual stitches, like the brushstrokes in an Impressionist painting,’ says the specialist. ‘It would have a clear impact on the sense of patterning we see in her paintings of the decades to come.’
Singh is in the vanguard of India’s second generation of modernists
Singh was a leading figure in India’s second generation of modernists, alongside the likes of Rameshwar Broota and Jogen Chowdury. They were all born just before, or during, the Second World War and came of age in the late 1960s. ‘They weren’t a movement as such,’ Avari says, ‘but were united by their dedication to narrative painting.’
The artists arrived on the scene in the wake of the Progressive Artists’ Group, which had been founded by M.F. Husain, F.N. Souza, S.H. Raza and K.H. Ara in 1947. These figures are considered the first generation of Indian artists to have embraced modernism. [M.F. Husain’s Battle of Ganga and Jamuna: Mahabharata 12 realised $1.6 million at Christie’s New York in 2008, and S.H. Raza’s Saurashtra realised £2.4 million in 2010.]
From surrealist landscapes to abstraction: three clear periods in Singh’s career
Singh is known for her exuberant colours, especially bright pinks and blues, as well as for applying her paint in thick impasto.
There’s often more than a hint of unease in her scenes, too. Sometimes this is achieved through menacing symbols such as guns and tanks. At other times, it’s through the creation of a strange atmosphere, such as that in her 1986 painting Women with Boats and Ducks (Painting 1), above, where a female figure can be seen floating on her back in uncertain waters.
Frail or exposed female bodies — usually naked — are commonplace in Singh’s art: in the 1994 watercolour Girl in White, for example, which also came to auction in March 2019.
Broadly speaking, Singh’s career can be broken down into three phases: a formative period, in the early 1970s, featuring surrealist landscapes such as Beginning of the Festival; a detour into abstraction from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, with works such as Untitled; and, finally and most durably, one of narrative scenes focusing heavily on female subjects, such as the aforementioned Women with Boats and Ducks (Painting 1) from the mid-1980s to the present day.
It is works from the final period for which she’s most famous and that generally achieve the highest prices.
The market for Singh’s work is growing
According to Avari, it was around a decade ago that the Progressive Artists’ Group reached an unprecedented peak in terms of market and non-market recognition. ‘It seems we’re now approaching a similar peak with Arpita Singh and her peers,’ Avari maintains. ‘Her prices are definitely appreciating: Singh’s auction record stands at $2.24 million. The Delhi retrospective and a recently published monograph suggest she’s now being taken very seriously after 50-plus years of a dedicated career.’
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There’s a relatively limited body of work from the Progressive Artists’ Group available — much is already in institutions. Singh, unlike those artists, is still producing art, and there is a strong chance of several masterpieces, which have been previously unseen at auction, coming to the market in the near future — especially if her market stays strong or grows still further.
‘It’s not an obvious thing to say about an artist who is 85 years old,’ says Avari, ‘but I suspect that Arpita Singh may be the next really big thing in Indian art.’