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Shambhavi Singh with her work at the Talwar Gallery. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint.
Shambhavi Singh with her work at the Talwar Gallery. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint.

Reaper’s Melody: Earth song

In her new show, artist Shambhavi Singh redefines her relationship with nature

The pristine white cube of a contemporary art gallery gets tinted by the earthy hues in Shambhavi Singh’s new body of work. In Reaper’s Melody, the artist returns with paintings and prints that grow out of her abiding interest in nature, especially as it is manifested in the landscape of rural Bihar, where Singh was born and continues to spend chunks of time.

“My relationship with nature has never been very nostalgic," she says, as we regard a set of smoky, grey canvases arranged in a grid across two walls. “But the villages I keep going back to act like residencies for me. I absorb the nuances of life there; I see the way the inhabitants forge close connections with the natural order, living in houses made of clay, making a livelihood by tilling the land."

The grim paintings, Singh explains, refer to a particular variety of cloud that is seen over certain parts of Bihar. “These formations are called hathiya (elephantine) and usually stretch up to the horizon," she says, breathing life into the scene before us. On closer inspection, the livid stretch reveals streaks of orange piercing through it, reminiscent of freshly harvested red soil. Earth meets sky, prosaic reality is infused with sublime poetry in the intense yet understated palette of colours.

Often executed on a large scale, Singh’s work tends to be deceptively detailed—not so much by way of layering as by the scattering of minuscule shapes across dense backgrounds. Black, which dominated her early work, is still a part of her repertoire, though the frequency of its occurrence and significance has shifted.

“Earlier, I wanted to paint empty dark spaces, as I experienced them in the villages, where life went on without electricity," says Singh, “But now my relationship with the colour has changed. I try to capture the darkness of human behaviour, especially in the way it has affected the lives of young girls in rural areas, through it."

One encounters a striking outburst of black in one of Singh’s earlier works, Red Kali, which is part of this show as well. Yet another grid of canvases arranged on two adjoining walls, it invokes the goddess by juxtaposing a triangular shadow against a blood-red backdrop. “If you look carefully, you will notice other dimensions to it," Singh says, pointing to delicate marks, as inscrutable but arresting as scratches on the surface of a rock.

Part of her earliest training, Singh confesses, was in the art of looking. Her father, a painter and the inspiration behind her choice of career, would tell her to observe the varying intensity of light through the day, the trajectory of a falling leaf, and the gradual change of colour and texture of the natural world as the seasons rolled on. “Later, the stories of Rabindranath Tagore and Munshi Premchand made me alert to the lyrical possibilities in ordinary things," Singh adds. “The films of Satyajit Ray, especially those shot on black-and-white, enriched my eyes as well, pushing me to venture into a dark and difficult palette."

In 2012, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York acquired one of her works to display it alongside contemporary masters like Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor, Takashi Murakami and Ai Weiwei—a rare distinction for an artist from this part of the world. It was, Singh admits, a turning point in her career, though maybe not as much as her encounter with printmaking a couple of years earlier.

In 2010-11, Singh went to the Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI), where she got exposure to printmaking. “I learnt to make pure cotton pulp and use it in my work," she says, pointing to some of the sculptural installations at the show. In spite of her investment in non-figurative work, the experience pushed her art in other directions.

The 8ft-long “water garland", hung from the topmost floor of the gallery and stretching up to the basement, is a towering example of Singh’s departure from her signature style. “I conceived it as an orchestra of iron, sunlight and water," as she puts it.

In the basement, among four canvases depicting gigantic fingerprints (a reference to identity politics), lies a cluster of sickles, arranged on the floor like crop in a field. The arrangement alludes to Lonely Furrow, Singh’s earlier body of work, influenced by printmaking, but also organically linked to the imagery that recurs through the medium she describes as her anchor—painting.

Reaper’s Melody is on till 3 January, 11am-7pm (Sundays closed), at Talwar Gallery, C-84, Neeti Bagh, New Delhi (46050307).

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