When artist Arpita Singh’s daughter Anjum was in school, the two would make up many stories to tell each other. Some of them are still part of their conversations 40 years later.

“Toby was one such character we made up," says the 78-year-old, New Delhi-based artist. “He would get up to all kinds of mischief. I made small books about Toby for Anjum and even wrote ‘Winter Poems’ by Toby. When my daughter got her report card, I had to make one for Toby, too—he wasn’t very good at studies," she laughs. Toby came up recently when Anjum, now 48 and an artist, was visiting the US to view an exhibition. Singh asked if she was going alone. “Anjum said, ‘No, Toby is going with me.’ So I wondered aloud about buying him warm clothes," says Singh. To that, Anjum replied, “No, Toby shampoos when we go out and then he doesn’t wear any clothes at all." Singh, dressed in a simple maroon cotton sari, black blouse and black slippers, grins broadly as we chat sitting in south Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery, where the latest solo show of her drawings, watercolours and sketchbooks opened last month.

The Toby narrative is illustrative of Singh’s playful nature. “Life is like a dollhouse. We are all always playing musical chairs. Playfulness is my language, not my subject," Singh says. It also reveals Singh’s ability to explore an idea at great length. Exploration without a fixed destination is a motivation for her art. So vague is the destination at the starting point that Singh says she has never consciously set out to make a middle-aged woman—a figure that occurs often in her works. The woman, she says, emerges as a form, as a table or a chair might, from her brush. What drives Singh is the urge to put a mark on blank paper. From there, she abandons herself to where the lines, the electrocardiogram-like zig-zags and the smudges, might take her.

Gallerist Arun Vadehra says: “She (Singh) is one of the most spontaneous artists in the country. Whether it’s the car, the aeroplane or the military tank (all recurring images in her works), it comes automatically to her. It’s not as if she has to make an effort. She reacts to her surroundings, to events she reads about in the news. They preoccupy her. The human evolution preoccupies her, which is why you see the skeletons (in her works). She puts down (on paper) what is in her mind without being bothered much by what it means. Of course, it happens to convey a powerful meaning."

Sometimes Singh responds directly to events in the news through her art. A 2015 watercolour-on-paper work, titled Palmyra-Tailors & Drapers, is a comment on the killing of Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad three months ago by the Islamic State network in Palmyra, a Unesco World Heritage Site. An overcoat hangs slightly off-centre in Palmyra, with the hands visible at the end of the sleeves. A severed head floats some distance away, recalling the manner of Asaad’s execution as well as recording the event. She leaves meaning-making to the viewer. “You may not know about what happened in Palmyra and still read into the painting," Singh says.

More often, however, the trigger for her works is less obvious: Man Riding Paper Tiger is not a reference to the famous line by Satyam Computer Services Ltd founder B. Ramalinga Raju about riding a tiger, in his 2009 admission to cooking the books—the pen and ink work predates Raju’s letter by seven months. Singh’s paper tiger is a stand-in for different types of violence. “We live in a society full of violence. We always carry a fear inside. We are insecure because we know life can end or be dishonoured at any moment," says Singh.

Singh is interested in getting to the root of violence and speaks of experience and memory as inheritable. “Inherited memory gives you form, not the exact situation which may have been faced by my great-great-great-great ancestor. I may have just inherited the shock or delightfulness of it," says Singh. Indeed, where the memory of violence is inherited, it is divorced from specific incidents.

There is abandon, but also marked deliberation, in Singh’s art. Just as you begin to concede that lines take on a life of their own when she is sketching, and forms emerge, she says: “You only find the things you are searching for (in your paintings)." She is obsessive about the “integrity" of the colours she puts on paper. For her, colour and light are a reflection on the quality of the object on display. “I mix my own colours. For example, I make grey by mixing Indian red and ultramarine. If the red is a little more, you get a very happy grey. If the ultramarine is more, you feel like weeping when you look at it."

Singh says that in her art she searches most often for connections—for example, between different populations, cultures and languages. She looks for these connections also in books, like Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness In My Mind, which she is currently reading.

Sitting across from her, it’s easy to forget that Singh is one of the most highly valued Indian artists—an auction of her 16-panel work Wish Dream by Saffronart in 2010 fetched $2.24 million ( 14.8 crore).

Our conversation skittles from Toby to the artists’ adda at Triveni Kala Sangam in the 1970s where she regularly met Jatin Das and J. Swaminathan, among other painters. “It’s where I met Gulam (Gulammohamed Sheikh) for the first time. I think he was going abroad on a scholarship then," she says. It’s also where Swaminathan told her he loved her figurative works and hated her abstracts. “I told him it was something that was in me, and which I had to let out," says Singh. “Back then, you could criticize other people’s work."

Singh talks about her home studio, which is under renovation, and how she doesn’t talk about art at home with her husband, Paramjit Singh, a year her senior at the DCA and a well-known painter himself. “Paramjit is interested in watching sports and films. I like watching tennis," she says, “because in tennis you can see how far the human body can go. I like Novak Djokovic."

Within 10 minutes or so, our conversation has started resembling one of Singh’s paintings: There are ideas piled upon ideas, she nudges them to find connections and acquire new meanings.

“Arpita’s is not a direct narrative style," says Roobina Karode, director, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi. “If you talk to her for a while, she will tell you how she was fascinated by Kantha embroidery.

“She has developed an alphabet for the text she uses in painting. She used to be an abstract painter and played with textures and patterns in early works like the Flag series. These things haven’t been forgotten; they have become a language to her. Every little element she puts on a painting has a role. That’s why you have to see her work as a whole once and then minutely, bit by bit," Karode says.

Singh sees her job as being akin to witchcraft. “Anything can change into anything. A sun can be a custard apple also. That is the game. It is my job to convince you it can happen."

Arpita Singh: Works From 1990-2015 is on till 2 December, 11am-7pm (Monday-Saturday), at Vadehra Art Gallery, D-40, Defence Colony, New Delhi.

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