New Delhi

Arpita Singh, My Mother, 1993, oil on canvas, 54 × 72".

Arpita Singh, My Mother, 1993, oil on canvas, 54 × 72".

Arpita Singh

Arpita Singh, My Mother, 1993, oil on canvas, 54 × 72".

ARPITA SINGH has a flower fetish. Blossoms creep up the legs of a nude female in Security Check, 2003; inscribe patterns on the household furnishings in The Lily Pond Carpet, 1994; and adorn the margins of A Man with a Telephone, 1992. They spring forth from vines or bundle into bouquets that enshrine her characters, creating intricate backdrops for the mise-en-scènes collected in “Submergence: In the midst of here and there.” Curated by Roobina Karode, the octogenarian’s first retrospective comprises more than 160 works drawn from six decades of artistic production. One of India’s foremost painters, Singh is best known for her playful narrative style, which offers up quixotic juxtapositions of flora and fauna with a cast of human characters.

With their wealth of detail, her densely wrought surfaces recall Singh’s stint at the government-owned Weavers’ Service Centre in the 1960s, a period that afforded her the opportunity to study India’s rich textile traditions, including kantha embroidery from her native Bengal. It was here that the artist honed her appreciation of pattern, gleaning lessons on composition and the strategic deployment of repeating motifs. Her paintings often sport the kind of ornate borders one might find on a sari; their embellished edges function as footnotes to the central narrative depicted in oil and watercolor. Unsurprisingly, then, Karode has titled a section of the exhibition “The Running Stitch,” foregrounding the role that patterns, embroidery, and fabrics play in Singh’s paintings.

Arpita Singh, Munna Apa’s Garden, 1989, oil on canvas, 62 1⁄4 × 68 1⁄4".

While her use of textiles and ornamentation could be considered feminist, Singh has never overtly characterized her practice in this way. She is, however, deeply aware of the power of women as transmitters of genetic material and, with it, collective memory. The artist draws many of her female protagonists from her own life: Those are her friends and neighbors in Munna Apa’s Garden, 1989, and Amina Kidwai with her Dead Husband, 1992, and her own mother in My Mother, 1993. There’s a vulnerability to these largely impassive female characters, whom Singh sometimes portrays in the nude, exposing their sagging, middle-aged bobs and bits and other frailties of the flesh. In contrast, her male figures—especially in the section titled “Men in Black”—resemble caricatures, stenciled clones of one another in matching dark jackets.

She is, however, deeply aware of the power of women as transmitters of genetic material and, with it, collective memory.

Alongside the floral motifs, the use of text adds to the sensory overload. A voracious reader, Singh has long been fascinated by the typeset and graphic images in newspapers. Early in her career, when she could scarcely afford to buy sketchbooks, she sought inspiration in the glossy catalogues available at foreign stalls at the India International Trade Fair. In her paintings, numbers, alphabets, words, and phrases compete for the eye with the human protagonists and their attendant verdure. Sometimes these messages evince an impish humor, but most often they appear to be random, their logic obscure to all but the artist. For example, Woman Smoking, 2005, contains the phrase WE HAVE GOT A MIRROR AT THE OTHER END OF COURSE, which Singh plucked from a magazine on railways. Her love of newsprint underlies the show’s pièce de résistance, Searching Sita Through Torn Papers, Paper Strips and Labels, 2015, which alludes to the Hindu god Ram’s hunt for his wife, Sita, who in the epic Ramayana is abducted by the demon Ravana. Singh cobbles together a map from the titular jumble of paper scraps, embedding the image with fragmented figures that hint at the psychological pressures facing her characters.

In her early works, Singh’s narratives unfold in the relative calm of domestic settings, but with the advent of cable TV in the ’90s, depictions of the Gulf War spilled onto her canvases. Battles rage in Whatever Is Here, 2006, while gun-toting soldiers storm through My Lily Pond, 2009. The artist’s own travels—in particular, a road trip to Shekhawati in Rajasthan—brought the great outdoors into her works in cartographic detail. In My Lollipop City; Gemini Rising, 2005, familiar landmarks from Delhi emerge amid a labyrinth of roads. But just when you think you know the entry points into Singh’s complex world, she tucks a sly caveat into the painting’s corner: THIS MAP IS FAULTY / DO NOT FOLLOW / IT.

“Arpita Singh: Submergence: In the midst of here and there” is on view through June 30. 

Meera Menezes is an independent curator and writer based in New Delhi. She is the author of Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde: Sonata Of Solitude (Bodhara Arts and research foundation, 2016).