Muses & mom

Painter’s canvas: Subjects closest to her heart have inspired Arpana Caur’s paintings, among them her mother

Day and Night

Unlike many of us, unhappy with the names we’re forced to live with, Arpana Caur had the option of changing hers. Says the artiste who is counted among the most powerful voices in the contemporary art world, “It was only because mummy, being far ahead of her times, felt this is something I should have the option of choosing.” So, around the age of 15, just before the XI Board examination forms were being filled up, her mother Ajeet Caur, a well-known figure in Punjabi literature, told her that she had the option of choosing another moniker for herself, if she wanted. “She did not want me to feel bound by a name that reflected a particular community or religion. ‘You can call yourself anything you want ­— Maria or Fatima. Or even Amrita.” The last one, being the name of the legendary early 20th century painter Amrita Sher-Gil, who was among the early influences on Caur’s work. In fact, her first work on canvas — Mother and Daughter — done as a nine-year-old reflects that. “So, I was sure that Amrita would do for me. But, at the last minute, decided on Arpana.”

Chatting live

Sitting in the artistic environs of her Delhi home close to the historic Siri Fort, over a cup of coffee and murki and chana’that she says is her home’s specialty, Caur is ready to embark on a journey into the different chapters of her life. But, to the quick question (the inquisitive and inevitable one for any journo) that one feels compelled to ask — “So, what was your name before Arpana?” — she replies with a charming laugh and a shake of the head, “No, don’t ask me that — that’s a family secret.”

And then she is suddenly quiet. Some lines of worry appearing on her forehead. Her mother has not been keeping well. “She’s had 44 eye surgeries in the last few years,” she informs talking about her once-feisty mother who brought her up single-handedly right from the time she was a little girl. Interestingly, the thought of studying art never really struck Caur who went on to read English literature from Delhi University’s Lady Shriram College instead. “Painting was something I was doing on the side, just as a hobby,” she smiles.
To make ends meet, her mother battled tough times by teaching and, on assignment by the USIS, translating American classics into Punjabi. “So that used to run the house,” says the soft-spoken artist.

Pointing to a photograph of a painting depicting a Sikh man carrying a holy scripture on his head, she says, “That’s my depiction of him as he also carries a huge bag of memories alongside. He was a tough man who had braved the rigors of the Partition. And the Guru Granth Sahib that he got back from Lahore is the one we worship and read everyday.”

Largely self-taught, the thought of money coming in through her art never really crossed her mind. “I never really judged my work that way,” she smiles. But at a group show in Bombay in 1980, the first buyer of her work was none other than the stalwart artist M F Husain. And she made a princely sum of Rs 3,500. “That was a great feeling and perhaps, really the turning point for me. Also, I got some amazing press, but being very shy I could barely talk to anyone,” she remembers.

Back home

It was this shyness that, despite being offered a scholarship in the advance course in painting at St Martin’s College of Art and Design in London a year earlier, she got back home within two months. “I was so homesick, I just couldn’t stay away,” she reveals. And it was just as well. For, away from any formal instruction and direction, she let the world and events around her dictate what went onto her canvas.

Like the experience of her early displacement and seeing her mother take on the mantle of a protector is probably what gave even the humblest of her female characters an innate strength and authority. Take a look at her depiction of the Sohni-Mahiwal story. “I have also been to Sohni’s hometown, Akhnoor, to imbibe the spirit of the place,” says Caur for whom the heroine of this tragic love story is the epitome of human courage who plunges into the swelling Chenab waters to meet her lover, Mahiwal.

As a young woman, Caur has seen the horrors and trauma in the aftermath of the ‘84 riots when she and her mother would carry medicines, clothes and blankets, and drive down to the affected areas. The hatred directed at an entire hapless community, victimised for no fault of theirs, gave way to innumerable works. Her visit to the Krishna country of Braj resulted in the Widows of Vrindavan series. Her Sufi, Nanak, Kabir, Buddha and Time series, among others, are all, she says, “inspired by the thought process of the time they were created in — subjects close to my heart.”

What of accolades?

Having participated in shows and exhibitions across the world including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, Caur says her use of bold colours and style perhaps stems from her fascination for folk-art, especially the Pahari miniatures, some of which form a precious part of her personal collection. “Some of them got damaged when the area got flooded but we are having them restored,” she says. And then, on a happy note, mentions the joy at having received the Lalit Kala Akademi’s Triennale Award in 1986 (“that was another turning point in my life”) and how honoured she felt when the Hiroshima Museum of Modern Art in 1995 asked her to create an artwork to mark the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombings. “My work, Where Have all the Flowers Gone, came from there. I was so moved that even when I was addressed as ‘Mr Arpana Caur’, it did not matter,” she laughs.

A green activist who has been fighting local bodies for ruining the environment and the beauty of the Siri and many adjoining areas, Caur has filed cases in the National Green Tribunal against the cutting down of trees. She has often had to save trees by doing what the Chipko Movement activists did — hugging trees. Her concern with what humanity is doing to the environment around is reflected in her work in many ways, through the distinctive metaphor of a pair of scissors, for one. “It not just depicts Time and the way it can cut Man’s fate, but also his lack of concern at the depleting green cover and, of course, his responsibility in it.”

A round of her home that also houses her studio-cum-gallery, the Academy of Fine Arts and Literature, reveals another of her concerns — educating children from the marginalised sections. Young girls and boys are taught different vocations — from computers to stitching, embroidery, etc. “That’s my dream to see the next generation become proficient in some stream so that, if need be, they have something to fall back upon through tough times.”


Artist Arpana Caur

In between all her responsibilities, Caur tries to keep her mornings aside for painting. “I can’t see the colours properly after dark,” she smiles candidly. And with such a huge part of herself going into her works, how does she feel when paintings get picked up by buyers and need to go? “I have been practical about realising that their sale is essential — that’s what keeps my home and my varied concerns going. But, it’s my mother who gets emotional about each one of them,” says Caur talking about the time whenever, after sale, any of her paintings would be quietly packed and transported to the car, the senior lady would get wind of it and come rushing out. “And she says, ‘Ae keri painting jaa rahi hai chori-chori (Which work is being sent off on the sly)?”

And when Caur would intervene and pacify her, Ajeet Caur’s words would invariably be, “Yehi to meri favourite si (This one is my favourite)!”

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