Feminine Fables
signed and dated ‘ARPITA SINGH 1996’ (lower right)
reverse painting in acrylic on acrylic sheet
23 3/4 x 23 1/4 in. (60.3 x 59.1 cm.)
Painted in 1996
Centre of International Modern Art (CIMA), Kolkata
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1997
Colours of Independence, exhibition brochure, Kolkata, 1997 (illustrated, unpaginated)
New Delhi, National Gallery of Modern Art, Colours of Independence, 7-28 September, 1997

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Lot Essay

Perhaps the most important practitioner of narrative figuration in recent decades in India, Arpita Singh’s artistic career now spans over five decades. It is no wonder then that Romi Lamba gravitated towards her oeuvre as he investigated and negotiated the terrain of figuration in modern Indian art in the 1990s. One of the most well-represented artists in his collection, Lamba followed Singh’s career closely for over a decade, acquiring some of her most sensitive and experimental works in various media (lots 501-503, 527 and 543-545).

Among the works by Singh in the Lamba collection, pride of place was occupied by the present lot, a meticulously executed reverse painting on acrylic sheet and tour de force of the artist's feminist visual vocabulary. Here, every inch of the painted surface is attended to by a host of symbolic motifs, each contributing to various strands of narrative that thread their way across the surface. All of the artist’s most significant forms and figures make an appearance, from the inanimate cars, planes and watches that mark journeys and the passage of time, to ducks, fruit, flowers, creepers and hands marked with red henna, which speak of fertility, rituals and the cycles of life.

Speaking about her inspiration and creative process, Singh notes, “I am a woman, I think as a woman, I see as a woman. My references are always feminine – this is the starting point [...] I pick up things as a woman would pick up, project them as a woman would project, build up the space around them or with them, as a woman would do. To be more precise, I, a woman, am talking about things now and here” (Artist statement, B. Bhattacharjee, ‘Arpita Singh, A Feminine Perception’, Arpita Singh, Kolkata, 1995, unpaginated).

Complementing the dense yet vibrant cast of characters here, including smaller figures of a seated man and a woman riding on one of the planes, are three larger female figures. At the upper center, a multi-armed goddess seated on a white flower cradles a smaller woman in her lap, while a mass of figures beneath appear to be attempting to unseat her. On the left, a woman backing the viewer holds a pistol in her hand, as if to protect the first. A third, older woman faces the viewer, holding a flowering creeper against her womb. All three appear powerful and protective, yet vulnerable in their nakedness, as they are subjected to incursions and departures that constantly rejig the balance of their private worlds.

Reflecting on the series of reverse paintings of which the present lot is part, Singh says, “The paintings on acrylic sheets are new [...] they are fun. You can’t call them a new experiment. It is better to call them a new fancy. K.G.’s [Subramanyan] work inspired me and I thought that I would try my hand at them. My treatment of space is a little different, perhaps because the acrylic sheet is very smooth. I seem to build up space with smaller forms and place them with some order. I think this is necessary to express my thoughts directly. The themes relate to the secret world of women with their rites and activities. The colours are more intense again because it is seen through the transparent sheet” (Artist statement, Arpita Singh, Kolkata, 1995, unpaginated).

Singh’s work has been exhibited around the world, including at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth; Mori Art Museum, Tokyo; Fukuoka Asian Art Museum; Guggenheim, Bilbao; Pompidou Centre, Paris; Royal Academy of Arts, London; Museo Nacional de Centro Reina Sofia, Madrid; Kunstmuseum Bern; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Peabody Essex Museum, Salem; Asia Society, New York; and National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi and Mumbai. In 2019, a major retrospective of her work was held at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi.

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