Arpana Caur is a prominent Sikh artist born in Delhi India in 1954. Arpana grew up in an environment that was rich in art and music. Arpana's mother, Padmashri Smt. Ajeet Cour is an award winning novelist, whose influence resonates in Arpana's very essence.
She attended Delhi University and graduated with a MA in Literature. As a self taught painter, Arpana's influences came from her mother's writings, Punjabi folk literature, the Pahari miniature tradition and Indian folk-art motifs. Her art is a direct reflection of her personal experiences, inspired by local and world events.
Although she has previously focused on Indian women, capturing the essence of their day to day activities inspired by social, cultural and spiritual themes, her focus has spread to many other aspects of life including the environment, spiritualism (Nanak, Kabir, Buddha, Yogi and Yogini and Sufi series), time, life and death, the coexistence of past and present in India, communal riots, nuclear issues, peace, etc.
She was Sikhpoint.com's featured artist for their 2006 Calendar.
Personal life and outlook
Her maternal grandparents, mother and brother, eminent doctor Padma Shri. Vibhushan Dr. J. S. Bajaj came as refugees from Lahore. When India turned 50 in 1997, Arpana painted her grandfather bringing the Guru Granth Sahib on his head from Lahore to Delhi and this painting is what to this day has a prominent place in the Caur home.
Gurbani has always played an important part in Caur's household; recordings of Bani frequently plays as she paints and is an integral part of her life. Her family's upbringing was extremely secular in the true tradition of Sikhism with equal reverence for all religious faiths and reverence and respect for all places of worship; an old tradition of India.
The sharing of one’s earnings (Vand ka shako) is another virtue imbibed on Arpana by her grandfather, mother and her faith. She together with her mother have been running free School for slum women for 35 years. They also participate in several other projects related to widows and leprosy.
These projects are all sustained entirely from the earnings from her paintings without any grants from anywhere else. Part of her personal revenue also goes to two Saints in Sultanpur Lodhi and Khadoor Sahib who do immense amount of environmental work.
She believe strongly in the protection of the environment and of nurturing of nature by supporting trees planting and restoration of rural and urban environments. She also believes in the protection of heritage monuments and has contributed whenever possible to the widows of 1984 who are resettled in Tilak Vihar Delhi.
As an Artist
Arpana Caur has been exhibiting her paintings across the globe since 1974. Her solos apart from Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta, Bangalore and Chennai have been held in galleries in London, Glasgow, Berlin, Amsterdam, Singapore, Munich, New York and in Stockholm and Copenhagen National Museum. Her work can be seen in Museums of Modern Art in Delhi, Mumbai, Chandigarh, Dusseldorf, Singapore, Bradford, Stockholm, Hiroshima, Smithsonian Washington and Victoria and Albert Museum London.
She was awarded a gold medal in VIth International Triennele 1986 in Delhi. She was commissioned by Hiroshima Museum of Modern Art to execute a large work for its permanent collection for the 50th anniversary of the Holocaust in 1995, and by Bangalore city and the city of Hamburg to do large non-commercial murals in public spaces. Since 1981 she did three large non-commercial murals in Delhi and one in Kathmandu.
In 2005, at the age of 51, Arpana has become a well known and much celebrated artist around the world. For the last three decades her exhibitions have been shown across the world. She has participated in group shows in Japan, USA, Algiers', Singapore, Australia, Austria, Iraq, Cuba, USSR and Germany.
Reviews of her work have appeared time and again in Indian Press and TV and in the Guardian, New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Svanska Dagbladet, Dagens Nyhter, Die Welt etc. BBC and Star TV have made documentary films on her in the 1980's apart from a documentary by Sidharth Tagore.
For the past 5 years, three of her works including 'Nanak' and '1984' have been on display at the Sikh Art Gallery in the Smithsonian, Washington DC. She had done murals from 1981 to 2005 in India and one in Hamburg, all of them non-commercial, as a commitment to Public Art.
Awards and recognitions
Her awards, commissions and exhibitions include:
- All India Fine Arts Society Award 1985
- Research Grant from Lalit Kala Akademi Delhi 1984-85
- Commendation Certifi cate in Algiers Biennale
- VI Triennele India Gold Medal for Painting, 1986
- She has served on the Jury of National Exhibition, 1989, and Republic Day Pageants 1990, '91, '92.
- Nominated Eminent Artist by Lalit Kala Akademi.
- On Selection Committee of Republic Day pageants for Ministry of Defense, Govt. of India, 1995-98.
- On Advisory Committee of National Gallery of Modern Art Delhi, Lalit Kala Academy and Sahitya Kala Parishad 2001.
- Curator for 1986 "Woman Artist Exhibition" for the Festival of India held in the USSR.
Her charity work
Today her paintings support several projects for the underprivileged, including free vocational training in the Academy of Fine Arts and Literature of which she along with her mother the renowned writer Ajeet Cour, is the Founder Member. She supports a leprosy home in Ghaziabad, and ration projects for poor and old widows.
Artist's Statement: India is an exciting mixture of the old and new. Rural and urban India coexist in the strangest of ways. Even the capital of India, Delhi, my city, is dotted with medieval monuments and unwieldy urban growth, leading to a rich exciting assault of imagery that inspires my being. The Ajanta and Ellora and the Pahari miniaturists flow through my veins.
Myths linger in the mind, along with tales of freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh and saints like Nanak, Kabir and Meerabai. Spirituality takes us to unbelievable heights. Religious divisions tear us asunder. It is a land of contradictions, but always growing, never stale, always full of surprises. This pulsating, expanding milieu has given rise to a rich and colorful visual art of which I am a small part. An art which is bold and contemporary, touching universal socio-political or philosophical issues, without losing the fragrance of its roots.
- Academy Of Fine Arts and Literature
- 4/6 Siri Fort Institutional Area, (opp. Siri Fort Auditorium gate no. 2), New Delhi – 110049
- 011 2649 8070 / 4554 / 6542
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- Struggle of female artists is like walking on razor’s edge (A conversation with renowned artist Ms. Arpana Caur by Bhuneshwar Bhaskar)
Caur’s fictional and philosophical approach and experimentation with her art work has gained her a special place in Indian contemporary art.
Bhaskar: Please tell us something about your childhood and family background.
Arpana: I have been a woman of independent thought since my childhood. As a child I wanted to fly under the open sky and wanted know the secrets of nature. I always wanted to fathom the depth of water and height of the sky. I always use to be absorbed in contemplation. Most of my family members and relatives are doctors by profession. My mother Ajeet Kaur is a writer. It was because of her that I developed interest towards art. She always encouraged me and supported me. She made it very clear to me that I must follow the art form which attracts me the most. I must contemplate upon it and surrender my thoughts to that particular art form. I use to study in Shimla in my childhood. The natural surroundings of Shimla always enamored me I was in ecstasy while painting. At the age of 9 I made an oil painting “Mother and Daughter” which was inspired by the creation of Amrita Shergill. I would also like to tell you that in sikhs the names of men and women are almost similar. At the age of 15 I changed my name to Arpana and this was due to my independent thought process. I kept on painting but there was lack of self confidence. In 1974, (my first time in Delhi) two group shows were organized by German Embassy and for one the curator of art work was M.F Hussain. J. Swaminathan, Paramjeet Singh and many other well known artists participated in that exhibition. There my paintings were written about and appreciated which gave me self confidence. One day family friend Bhavesh Da (Sanyal) came to my place and he encouraged me to do a solo show of my paintings (it was 1975) and since then I kept on moving.
Bhaskar: Are you satisfied with what you have accomplished so far in this field? If yes, then how?
Arpana: (smiling) I am satisfied. I never believed it in the beginning but now I feel amazed when people admire my work. After understanding the importance of art, whatever I experienced in society, I projected it through my paintings. I felt overwhelmed when I won the gold medal at the Sixth Triennale International exhibition in 1986. I am continuously active in creating new art works therefore many research scholars are doing their M.phil and Ph.D on me. One can’t ask for more.
Bhaskar: Women have to face a lot of struggle to carve a niche for themselves in art field at national and international level.
Arpana: Initially there was a lot of struggle. At a point of time artists were not taken seriously and the state of women artists was not good. People use to think that painting is a hobby and I will not take up arts as my profession. Nor I will devote my entire life to art. After a span of time they realized that it was their misconception. When I won the Triennele award in 1986 their notions were proved to be wrong. In 1994 Hiroshima museum of modern art commissioned 10 artists from world over. I was also invited and the amount of seven lakhs was decided for my painting which created a lot of sensation in the art field. That painting is still part of the collection of that Museum. Initially people use to think that I am Mr. Arpana Caur (including Hiroshima Museum) and they were surprised to learn that I am Ms. Arpana Caur. The struggle of women is quite long as they have to walk on the sharp edges of two swords at a time. Struggle of women artists is like walking on razor’s edge. I consider myself lucky enough as that sword changed its side for me or its edge lost its sharpness !
Bhaskar: How do you view and manifest the positive and negative aspect of the synchronization of the social structure as female artist?
Arpana: I have opposed social inequality. In my childhood I use to see my mother helping beggars, poor people and orphans. Being sensitive in nature I use to get affected deeply by looking at their miserable life. Whenever I use to interact with them I use to feel depressed. I see many children on the road side at various areas of Delhi picking up waste. I feel bad about it. Since my early years of life these situations always affected me deeply and I effortlessly manifested them in my paintings. In 1970 I created a series on the theme ‘Naukarani’ and some of the paintings of this series were published by Faiz Ahmed Faiz in ‘Lotus’ magazine. Similarly paintings of ‘Umbrella’ series are also based on social inequality. In this some fair women are shown under the ‘umbrella’ while labour class women are shown with wrinkled and dark faces. I have also projected the pain and miseries of widows of Vrindavan through my canvas. I feel painful when I see such people in society and by projecting their miseries somehow gives me a little relief.
Bhaskar: What is your definition for Art?
Arpana: This is a very good question. Art manifests all the dreams, experiences and aspirations of one’s life. The essence of various experiences of life and its philosophy is art. It has a story, a philosophy and most importantly a secret which has various elements. In art one speaks but also maintains silence as it needs space. The drama of colors is very surprising. The form and color synchronization should be amazing. Art is the medium of expressing our feelings and experiences of inner self with an element of surprise.
Bhaskar: What is formless in art and what is its aesthetical aspect?
Arpana: Whatever is figurative or metaphorical, it is successful only when it is abstract. Westerners retain a photographical point of view while looking at a painting. They expect a Photostat projection. But the folk arts created in various parts of our country are abstract. The content of Indian folk art is indicative and symbolic in nature. I studied various folk painting styles. After in-depth study for several years I understood the formless state of art. Beauty has no limits, but I like beauty till an extent. Form should not be decorative. There is a special beauty of a form which is visible before its decoration, and this is what impresses me the most. Beauty is truth and that truth is artist’s own truth – ‘The soul Of the Artist’.
Bhaskar: The themes or the subjects of your art pieces are always familiar. Why do you give importance to these themes?
Arpana: I have always given preference to social issues on my canvas. I have taken up serious issues like Maya Tyagi rape case in 1979 as a theme along with these themes like ‘Naukarani’; ‘Shaher main akela’ etc. I could not resist myself when Maya was raped by police and I created a series of paintings titled as ‘Rakshak hi Bhakshak’. One of the paintings of that series is part of the Museum of Mr. M.F Hussain. In 1987, visited Mathura Museum and I felt terrible when I saw 10,000 widows in Vrindaban and I almost ended up vomiting. Then I did a series of paintings on these. In 1984 when massacre of Sikhs occurred all over India, I projected my experience through my paintings. I think an artist is always sensitive towards his or her society. Apart from that I have also created many paintings under the series titled ‘Samay’ as Time is a favourite theme, so is Day and Night. Today life of people has become very hectic and unmanageable. They are running continuously from one pole to another.
Bhaskar: You have created many paintings on the theme ‘Sohani’. Who is ‘Sohani’?
Arpana: Sohani was a real person 500 years ago, but for me any person irrespective of gender is ‘Sohani’ who can dare to jump in the water. Those who can take risks are Sohani. Those who know how to struggle in life and reach the pinnacle are Sohani. I think every person is a pot and world is clay. In the end we all have to merge ourselves in that mud. I always get inspired by this couplet: “Visham- Visham Rahe Vishmaad, Jin Dekhya Tin Aya Swaad”
Bhaskar: You have also given importance to Nanak, Buddh, Kabir etc. Are you inspired by their teachings and thoughts ?
Arpana: In my childhood my house use to resonate with hymns and gurbaani of the Gurus and since that period I have carried a very different image of Nanak in my mind. All of these eminent personalities have given a new dimension to our society. They tried to evoke a thought of living guileless life among the general masses. Their philosophy is still very relevant in our society. I want to understand their philosophy of life. I have visited various places related to life of these mystics like birth palce of Kabir i.e Kashi and Boudhgaya in Bihar etc. Since then all these images started taking place in my canvas. It is not feasible for me to convey their message to general masses as artists in general don’t have many viewers and art is a subtle language.
Bhaskar: Please tell us more about the concept of using scissors.
Arpana: I am using scissors since 1988. When I was in process of creating ‘Samay’ series I used scissors a symbol. According to our ancient texts when our life span gets completed then Yamaraja cuts our thread of life. Satish Gujral started calling me ‘Kainchi’ (scissors) !
Bhaskar: You have used various folk forms like thread, tree, scale, human figure, cloud, water and you have taken folk art to a new dimension. Kindly give us more information on this context.
Aparna: I like the circle of Warli Folk Art as it indicates time. Thread ties everybody in one bond and sometimes it also breaks the bond. These creative elements of Folk art produce magic on canvas as a secret is created. I have experimented by marrying Folk art and Contemporary art on one canvas. First time in nineties I asked Godna artist Satya Narayan Pandey to draw folk images. Then I painted in my images. Like that together we created many art works and it had our joint signatures for the first time. It was a new experiment and gained a lot of attention. In the same way to indicate death, I have used the image of water since 1984.
Bhaskar: You have mostly used even colors in the background of your paintings. Usage of these colors is symbolical or aesthetical?
Arpana: Black can be used in the background in order to make images look more luminous. Even colors create space which has its own language and images can breathe easily in that space. Colors have their own quality and characteristics. I like moving towards light from darkness. Apart from that to create surprises there is different synchronization of colors. Sudden prominence of certain color maintains the curiosity of the viewers.
Bhaskar: Indian art is not only expanding but it is also creating place for itself in the Art market. Nowadays price of the art piece decides the significance of the artist. How fair is it?
Arpana: Market has supported the artists and they are becoming financially sound. Previously one had to take up some other profession to earn a living, but now the situation is better. Now artists don’t have to worry in this regard at least. Evaluation of the artist on the basis of the price given to his/her art piece is not fair at all. Art cannot be measured by any criteria. An artist creates with his/her passion. This should not be the criteria to evaluate the creativity of an artist. Apart from the efforts of artists role of media is also important in this regard. A painting gains attention of thousand people when it is published in a news paper or a magazine. When a Mural or a Sculpture is created in a public place they tend to catch an eye of the passers by. This results in awakening the general knowledge about art among the masses.
(Courtesy: Samkaleen Kala, No. 35, Edited by: Dr. Jyotish Joshi, Lalit Kala Akademi, N.Delhi)