By Sonia Dhami-
Amongst the multiple reasons of the heart and mind, which draw me time and again to return to my motherland, is to get to meet Arpana Caur. Despite her exalted position as one of India’s leading contemporary artists, she always maintains a humble and modest demeanor.
As my friend and I entered the beautiful red brick building, she received us with her trademark warmth and love and took us up to her studio on the fourth floor, which opens onto an expansive terrace. Amidst the call of the peacocks and birds flying in the skies above, we marveled over the dense tree cover surrounding Siri Fort Auditorium. Arpana explained to us the legal battles that she & her mother, the celebrated author Ajeet Cour, have had to fight to keep the authorities from brutally cutting down these very trees just to make way for the ubiquitous modern malls and restaurants, one sees sprouting unchecked in towns over India.
Arpana’s life has been fuelled by activism around the many causes she & her mother have taken up. Whether it is filing legal cases to fight for protecting the environment or distributing blankets to the needy, or running vocational training courses for poor students or exhibiting art –folk, contemporary & miniature, in their in four in house art galleries, the mother-daughter duo have freely given of their time, resources and above all love.
Her art is celebrated in museums around the world. It reflects her lived experiences and thoughts on social issues that surround her. The legendary love story of Sohni Mahiwal, is one classic that she repeatedly paints by placing Sohini in a contemporary context. “Day & Night” is another series that she continues to return to.
Recently some of her sculptures have been installed in the city of Patna in Bihar state. This city holds great significance for Sikhs, as it is the birthplace of Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Guru. Proclaiming the power of the pen and sword, a giant sculpture draws the visitors as they reflect on the multi-disciplinary personality of Guru Gobind Singh, who was an accomplished poet as well as a courageous warrior for truth and justice. It is located in Prakash Punj, a museum and theme park dedicated to the life of the Guru, and built by the Bihar Government to commemorate his 350th birth anniversary.
Another installation is a large roughly made iron cage with a pair of kadhawa’s (wooden sandals worn by saints in India) which commemorates the bodily and mental pain endured by the Guru Teg Bahadur Sahib, the 9th Sikh Guru, when he was brought to Delhi in a similar cage and beheaded at the site where now stands the Sis Ganj Gurudwara in Delhi. Such works help amplify the universally important messages that our saints teach us both through their lived lives as well as their articulated teachings.
She proudly shared photographs of the installations while talking about the opposition she has to regularly face from many closed minds. Her commitment and resolve to push onwards and upwards, hopefully changing minds and hearts along the way, is truly inspiring. Her bold artistic reflection showcasing the martyrdom of the 2 younger sons of the Guru Gobind Singh at the hands of the Mughal authorities arouses deep emotions in the viewer. Initially installed in the museum space of the Gurudwara Rakhab Ganj in Delhi, it was hastily removed by the very people who had earlier given their consent cowing in the face of misplaced criticism. Another version of the same piece, duly approved by the SGPC (Sikh Gurudwara Prabhandhak Committee –the custodian body of historical Sikh gurudwaras) is now ready for installation at Prakash Punj.
Artists down the ages and across the world have faced misplaced righteousness from so-called custodians of faith and religion. Michelangelo, the great renaissance artist was also not spared. Some members of the clergy of the time objected to his famous mural “The Last Judgement” in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. The then Pope was knowledgeable enough to support the artist & his work and today it is one of the most visited paintings in the world. The dark ages in European history refers to the period when the church held an iron grip on the production of all art allowing only those that passed its moral, religious and cultural agenda’s. Sadly, similar censorship continues to exist even today. Perhaps it always will, but fortunately, there are artists like Arpana, supported by enlightened leadership, who will also continue to persist and prevail.