New Delhi: Arpita Singh is still an old-fashioned idealist at heart, unruffled by the hype of her work fetching millions at the auction mart. The 73-year-old painter says her art is constantly evolving and recalls how she was once inspired by a tea carton.
Singh made history this month by selling her "Wish Dream", an abstract figurative composition, for $2.24 million at the Saffronart international online auction but says the record does not mean much to her "personally".
"It doesn`t feel anything. The price at which the work sold is natural, if you consider the prices at which my works are selling now...However, the auction record proves that our society still supports art. Financial support is important because artists can carry on with their work without depending on other sources," Arpita Singh told reporters in an interview.
Rising through the harsh environment that characterised the evolution of contemporary Indian art in the 1950s, Singh`s career was one of change and gradual growth. She transformed her artistic language at least four times in her career.
Born in a West Bengal village in 1937, Singh studied at the School of Art in the Delhi Polytechnic under Sailoz Mukherjee in 1954-59. Women were the primary subject of her art - set amid the domesticity and tension of daily life.
She began her career as an artist with semi-abstract studies, even adopted idioms from the Bengal folk style to paint her women before moving to a more complex canvas combining abstraction, expressionism, and figures sourced from reality to comment on the power of women. Her canvas reflects grid-like elements and she uses layers of pigment to create "surreal surfaces" on paper.
"After I graduated from Delhi Art School, I knew I had to work and had to be dedicated to my art because our generation was not fashionable. In 1959, (the year she finished college), I was doing semi-abstract compositions in oil. Gradually, my work became figurative. I exhibited for the first time in 1972 at an exhibition sponsored by Roshan Alkazi. Organising exhibitions was difficult in the 1950s because we had to rent out space. And there were few sponsors," she recalled.
Arpita and fellow artists like husband Paramjit Singh, R.K. Dhavan, Eric Bowin and others formed a small group and collected money between themselves to exhibit their art, she recollected.
"All of us had to teach in schools or work to support ourselves...Money was always a constraint," Singh said.
The domestic environment that preoccupied women artists of Singh`s generation manifested itself in a rather quaint way on her canvas.
"I was painting small format water colours. One day I came upon an empty box of tea in the kitchen. It was a Brooke Bond Red Label tea box coloured in bright shades of red, yellow and silver. I reacted to the colours in my head...and my colour palette started changing as well as my approach to art. I started using flat surfaces and sharp outlines almost like the popular bazaar calendar art...the empty tea pack became a special thing for me," Singh recalled.
The artist then remembers encountering a creative block. "I remember changing a complete painting - a smooth composition into a very rough one with multiple textures. I changed my language," she said.
Singh`s works became figurative in the mid-1970s. "The change was conscious. I decided that I wanted to concentrate on drawing," she said. The result was a large body of black-and-white drawings.
"I did not have much money to experiment with multimedia. So I settled for figures in black and white," she said.
"I outgrew figures and attempted basics like dot and lines. I spent eight years drawing dots and lines. People said they were abstract drawings. And then one day, I was seized with the urge to put a little colour in the dots and lines - small strokes of orange and yellow - and coloured flags," she said.
The lines, dots and the primal colour palette gave the artist freedom to negotiate on the canvas with ease.
"I could recognise the signs that could push me a little ahead. The dot was a ritual - like a mantra - that removed my movement block on the canvas. Now the dots and lines are receding. And I`m drawing subjects from everyday reality, from newspapers and from people around me," she said.
She refers to her composition "Evening Sky", when asked about her significant work in 2010. "It is an artistic interpretation of a rare conjunction of Venus and the moon," said she.