The colours of an Artist

Ambica Gulati

Arpana Caur The colours of an Artist

Ongoing Series

Some themes have always been a regular subject of her works. These are day and night, Sohni-Mahiwal, Guru Nanak, the mystic Kabir and Lord Buddha. ‘Sohni is a symbol of courage for me. This is a real pair of lovers, not some mythical characters that you see in the movies. I have been to her hometown, Akhnoor, in Jammu in north India. Their graves are on the Pakistan side. A lot of people have visited those too,’ she explains.

Water is a recurring theme in her works. As Sohni sails on a pot of water through the river to meet Mahiwal, these lovers became unique to the series—Love Beyond Measure. ‘Anyone with courage is a Sohni. I saw the movie Bhag Milka Bhag (based on the life of Milkha Singh, the former track and field sprinter, also known as The Flying Sikh) and he is also a Sohni because of his extraordinary courage,’ says Caur. During the exhibition of Love Beyond Measure, Arpana created a river with blue pigments at the entrance. And placed pots, so that when people walked in they had the image of going through a river.

‘Everyone knows day and night, but no one sees day and night. In one (of my works) I have shown a yellow figure that is day embroidering the thread of night. Then there is the scissor, which cuts the black night. Day and night are constant dualities.’

Courage, reform, secularism has been the inspiring principles in series related to Kabir, Buddha and Guru Nanak series. ‘Kabir was a weaver. The body is just a garment. He wasn’t Hindu or Muslim. The paintings revolve around the brevity of life.’ The Kabir series are thirty-four works on large canvases made around 1993.

‘Guru Nanak and Mardana (the latter was the first Sikh and travelled across the length and breadth of India and Asia along with Guru Nanak) carried an entire universe with them. He went under the water for three days in Sultanpur and came out a different man. He travelled the world. He rejected the thread ceremony. Dr Narinder Singh Kapany, founder and chairman of the US-based Sikh Foundation International, has taken some of my works from the Nanak series. Guru Nanak travelled far and wide, even to Baghdad. In Sikkim, Nanak is known as Lama Nanak. There is a lake, Gurudongmar Lake, one of the highest in the world, where he put his dong and one portion of that lake never freezes. This series has been ongoing for twenty years.’

In the same breath Arpana goes on, ‘People have seen the calendar image of the roti from a rich man’s home. Blood flows from that and from that flows a simple man, and milk comes out. But as a contemporary artist, I have portrayed this in a starkly different manner.

‘When India turned fifty, I felt I should do something to honour this freedom. I did two paintings on Shaheed Bhagat Singh, the legendary freedom fighter,’ she smiles. An interesting one is called The Great Divide which shows Mahatma Gandhi on one side and Shaheed Bhagat Singh on another. ‘They had different means but one goal and that’s what I wanted to portray.’

The Spirit of Cause

But the spirit of connecting with the world and taking on a cause is an inherited one. ‘My grandfather, Dr M.S. Bajaj came from Lahore when my mother was thirteen. An acclaimed doctor, he lived in Chamberlain Road there and supported the freedom movement. Meetings were held at his home. He wore khadi when in Lahore. My mother’s dupattas were also made of khadi.’

The doctor was a man of principles and courage. ‘My grandfather liked the mountains and would often travel to Pahalgam or Simla for two months with the family. It was during one of those holidays that the partition happened. He was adamant that he would go back and get his parents and in-laws to India. Everyone told him that he was committing suicide, but he paid no heed. He got them back safely and the Guru Granth Sahib that was kept there. Now, we read from the same Granth Sahib daily.’

Honouring this courage, Arpana dedicated a painting to her grandfather in which he is carrying the Granth Sahib in a bag and bringing back more memories along with it. ‘The lions at the back are in Madhubani style, an art form from Mithila in Bihar and Nepal. This (the painting) was used by Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, in his book. It is a six-foot painting and my gallery lady in Mumbai sold it in 1997. My mother has never forgiven me for selling this. I even did another one of my grandfather holding me. It is in some museum since 1980.’

While she might be shy to discuss personal affairs, she’s not reticent when it comes to expressing social concerns. Arpana has taken the bold step of coming forward for saving the environment and heritage structures many times along with her mother. ‘They (the authorities) were going to cut down all the trees along Siri Fort and along the colleges, Kamla Nehru and Gargi during the Commonwealth Games. I knew the principal of Kamla Nehru College and when they came to cut the trees, the students had all gathered around and they wouldn’t allow the trees to be cut.’

This is not the only incident over the years. ‘There used to be a toilet for the drivers and others in the parking for the Siri Fort auditorium which draws a lot of public because of the (cultural) events. A lot of VIPs also come here. The authorities demolished that toilet during the Commonwealth Games saying the road had to be widened. They actually didn’t need to do that. We fought for eight years and now it’s been rebuilt.

‘My mother has fought many times for saving heritage structures. The old wall at Siri Fort is a fourteenth century one and is under classification A. But the land mafia is out to grab areas around the monuments. We had to work hard to get this wall restored. Even near Dilli Haat, a shopping complex in south Delhi, there is a cluster of tombs where people would burn effigies of Ravana during the festival of Dussehra. My mother wrote to the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) and one day she found many unburned effigies at the ASI office. Even in the structures in Masjid Moth, (built during the reign of Sikander Lodi of the Lodi Dynasty) she found concrete pipes and cables and wrote to the ASI about it.’ More recently, Arpana landed at the protests held for saving trees in Delhi that were to be cut down for giving a facelift to the city.

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