The colours of an Artist

Ambica Gulati

Arpana Caur The colours of an Artist

But she did not begin painting for acclaim or for reaching a peak. Born in 1954, Arpana Caur began to draw from the age of three. ‘My mother told me that I would doodle on walls and newspapers. But my first canvas was at the age of nine. I drew a mother and daughter and I still have that painting,’ she says.

‘As my mother is a single parent, I saw her struggling to keep us afloat. She used to teach during the day and do translations at night. I recall the American Centre had given her a big fat book by Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady that she translated into Punjabi. I wanted to help with the household. So I thought that I would get into teaching and painting would be a side thing.’ But life had other plans.

‘I always liked life-sized figures but there were neither galleries nor a good market for art. My first group show was in 1974. M.F. Husain was selecting works of young artists for a show in Triveni Kala Sangam in Delhi. I submitted three canvases and all were selected. I got a small write-up in the Evening News brought out by the Hindustan Times. A German cultural counselor happened to see my works and he came home with his wife. It was not the era of mobiles or the internet. They were holding a show of Indian art at the German Embassy. I exhibited five or six works. And those also got a few lines in the Hindustan Times. Then my first solo was held in 1975.’

Since the art market was non-existent in Delhi, only a single visitor would come by in a day. ‘I would sit for the entire day, hoping someone would walk in and buy. It was actually a solo/one-person show. I sold only one painting to an old gentleman, Mr. Kohli, who lived opposite Max Mueller Bhawan in central Delhi. He came walking with the support of his cane and servant and brought it for rupees eight hundred.’

Growing up with a mother who was a writer, Arpana was influenced by literature and went onto complete her post-graduation in that very subject. Art, for Arpana, is a self-taught skill. ‘My dream was that my mother shouldn’t have to work so hard. My work was noticed by F.N. Souza’s (the legendary artist that founded the Progressive Artists Group in Bombay, now Mumbai) wife, Maria Souza who had a gallery near Madame Tussauds’s in London—Arts 38. She invited me for a solo show in London. It was 1976 and we decided upon 1979 for the show. By that time, my mother had started a trade magazine. And Aeroflot used to advertise (in it). Instead of giving money, they gave us tickets. We stayed in a really cheap place in Southall. Both Maria Souza and my mother agreed that some kind of certification in the art from London would get me some push in the art world. There was nothing in India and over four hundred art galleries in London. Maria got me a scholarship at Central Saint Martin School of Art and Design. My mother returned to India and I stayed with Maria whose daughter is just two years older to me. But I was so painfully shy that my eyes wouldn’t lift from the road while walking. I was so homesick that I was back in Delhi in two months without completing the course.’

Shyness has been Arpana’s friend since childhood. ‘I always had books in the bathroom over the flush. Whenever there were visitors, I would put my chair in the bathroom, read and wait for them to leave,’ she says with a smile.

The Series

‘In the 1970s, I did a whole series on socio-economic disparity titled Labourers. These two worlds never meet. In one painting, you can see the maidservant looking after the fat, fair children. She is thin and dark while the children are fair and overweight. The umbrella over a lady signifies protection. One of my works from this series is on display at the Government Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh,’ she adds.

Museums are Arpana’s weakness. ‘They are visited by thousands and the work will be seen by so many. This is why for museums I am always ready to negotiate a reasonable price, which is normally one-tenth of the normal price of my works.’

Coming back to the subject of socio-economic disparity, Arpana adds, ‘This difference or gap will always remain. And we all have our own way of dealing with it. My mother started the school for slum kids. This is one way of sharing our earning. We have had our share of financial constraints in life earlier. I used to see this disparity on the road, children would be begging at red lights. My mother has ensured that earnings from my paintings also go into various activities such as the school, for langar, (community kitchen) for the river cleaning drive that Baba Seechewal had done at the Kali Bein river where Guru Nanak used to bathe.’ Baba Balbir Singh Seechewal, is a Nirmala Sikh who has led a nation-wide campaign for anti-river pollution for the Kali Bein river that flows through Punjab. The river then joins the Beas and Sutlej at Harike. It is believed that Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism attained enlightenment after bathing in the Kali Bein river.

Sikh Genocide

The year 1984 was a turbulent one for Sikhs, especially in Delhi, post the assassination of then prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi by her own bodyguards. Vicious riots unleashed and Delhi witnessed close to 8,000 unofficial deaths. And that’s when both mother and daughter went around relief camps. They worked there with those that had been severely affected with their homes and livelihood decimated.

In fact, because of the mother-daughter duo’s relief work, they too were harassed and asked to vacate their rented home in south Delhi’s Niti Bagh. ‘In six days, we had to vacate and we were actually two homeless women. For six months, we slept in the living room of my mother’s friend. Then we saw an advertisement for a flat in Jamia Milia (a predominantly Muslim area). We called up the number given in the advertisement and the gentleman, Dr Refaqat Ali Khan said he had read my mother’s books and seen my paintings and just gave us the flat key. He didn’t ask for anything and we stayed there for ten years. His late wife, Masooma Ali, did the translation of my mother’s autobiography, Khanabadosh, for HarperCollins.’

And from the experiences of that genocide emerged the series World Goes On. Among those lying in the permanent collection, one shows a man drowning with unconcerned onlookers that are doing nothing to save him.

‘I didn’t know how to portray death. But water has always fascinated me. And that’s how this came about.’ The series was shown in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. ‘It was widely praised in the media, but it didn’t sell. There was tragedy and death. I received a gold medal in the Triennale (for the series).’

Then in the same decade, Arpana began work on another series: Widows of Vrindavan. ‘I had gone to do some research at the museum in Mathura which has thousands of years old miniature paintings. But I saw these shaven-head widows,’ she sighs. At that time, there had been no coverage of the plight of these widows nor any films been made. This was 1987.

Ambica Gulati
Armed with an experience of two decades in journalism, Ambica Gulati is a storyteller. She loves meeting people, exploring places and is turning into a photo geek. She has been part of an eminent coffee table book 100 Legal Luminaries of India, worked in magazines (Life Positive, Swagat, Outlook Traveller), written on food, culture wellness and more, and is bored when stationed in one place for too long. Follow her on