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Book Review: Punjab in Painting

Punjab has a long, diverse and discontinued history of painting. From the walls of temples and havelies to the pages of manuscripts and folios; from the court of princely hill states to the streets and bazaars of small towns, artists, artisans and craftsmen evolved a specific language and idiom that can be described as Punjabi painting. Distinct for its love of colour, simplicity of expression, inventive compositions and complex narrative these works – diverse in scale, medium, quality and function formulate the corpus that illustrates the nature, culture and temperament of a people which are connected through language – more than rendering the landscape of that region. Many modern artists from Punjab consciously have tried to explore that diction in their art, with the most prominent figure of Amrita Sher-Gil, who established a local vocabulary in the first half of twentieth century.

However that local aesthetics was not a narrow vision, since it included and was inspired from the mainstream art of Europe, and a blend was formulated in her canvases. This link is evident in the works of many artists active on the both sides of border after 1947, mainly some Indian Punjabi painters, such as Manjeet Bawa, Premjeet Singh, Arpita Singh and Arpana Kaur.

Recently a monograph on Arpana Kaur is published, which brings forth the critical insights and responses to the work of a Punjabi painter known for her distinctive, personal and poetic imagery. Arpana Kaur: Abstract Figuration is a collections of essays by some of the leading writers and critics of Indian art, such as Yashodhara Dalmia, Gayatri Sinha, Uma Nair, Georgina Maddox, Robina Karode and Rajiv Mehrotra. A number of international authors like John. H. Bowles, Nima Poova-Smith and Ernst. W. Koelnsperger have also contributed in the monograph. All these texts are attempts to contextualize and analyse the art of Kaur, which is deeply rooted in the traditional narrative structure of Punjabi and Indian aesthetics.

Looking at her work reproduced in the volume (published by Academy of Fine Arts and Literature, New Delhi) one discovers the link that exits and binds her work from different periods. The construction of space, placement of figures and rendering of different characters reveal a unique way of looking at the world, but on a deeper investigation, the uniqueness of her imagery seems closer to folk tales and popular Punjabi poetry. Flight of fantasy witnessed in those verbal forms have a parallel in the canvases by Kaur, in which a stream emerges from the chest of an old man, a large feet is composed of a sage and trees, or a woman includes heads of men inside her body. Along with these excursions in imagination several other canvases confirm how the artist takes liberty with the known world and manipulates and reorganizes its ingredients to fabricate a narrative that suggests situation rather than a scenario. For example in the Tree of Suffering, Tree of Enlightenment’ an ordinary man’s lower half becomes Buddha’s torso. An uncommon combination that indicates multiple conditions of man.

This aspect of suffering appears frequently in her paintings, but Arpana Kaur has adapted visual of a female as her main symbol to portray that condition. In many works, the woman is sliced, chopped and dismembered – mostly with the presence of a large pair of scissors and measuring tape. But contrary to general or quick assumptions, her work can not be confined into the category of feminism. As answering Yashodhara Dalmia’s question: “Would you call yourself a feminist?” in her book Arpana Kaur replies: “No. Because the themes are more wide ranging. Time was my predominant theme always from the 70s. And time is not confined to a woman’s way of thinking but it’s a phenomenon that every human being confronts, like day and night, life and death. These have been my favourite themes.”

Fascination with time is apparent in her other works too, which are created for the book The Man Who Always Wore a Watch, written and illustrated by her (and included in the monograph). With clocks, pair of scissors, flames, fires and flowers she has constructed a narrative in which one enters as easily as one accesses a piece of poetry from the soil of Punjab. Her paintings, like poetry multiple interpretation and the recent book is one such attempt in deciphering the work of an artist who has managed to transcend many boundaries like language and image; and borders, both between India and Pakistan, and other territories.♦

Arpana Caur: Abstract Figuration. Academy of Fine Arts and Literature. 216 pages

 

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