Painting the Pain of 1984 – Arpana Caur

Arpana Caur’s series World Goes On captures the horror of the violence and the callous response it evoked, says Soumya Menon

Painting the pain of 1984 - Arpana Caur
Artist Arpana Caur stands in front of her canvas "The Wounds of 1984"
Painting the pain of 1984 - Arpana Caur
The Wounds of 1984, Arpana Caur,2000 oil on canvas, 100x70 in(diptych) Kapany Sikh Arts Collection
Painting the pain of 1984 - Arpana Caur
The above painting titiled So What! recieved the Triennale award in 1986. (TOI photo)
Painting the pain of 1984 - Arpana Caur
Water, which Caur often uses to symbolize death, is often seen as a river or stream at the bottom of the paintings. The subjects of the paintings always consist of a dying or suffering figure, onlookers who are indifferent to the suffering.
Painting the pain of 1984 - Arpana Caur
Caur's explores the inevitable tragedies of life, the isolation of people in despair, and the apathy of the world around them. Painted in deep, resonant colors, the works are usually divided into three defined areas of water, earth, and sky.
Painting the pain of 1984 - Arpana Caur
Although the composition of the works might seem to suggest a dreamlike feeling, the undertones of oppression and trouble make clear that the situations depicted are grounded in reality.

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Greatest works of arts are inspired by sorrow. And the trauma of 1984 and the catharsis that followed set the canvas for Arpana Caur.

Today one of the top names in Indian art, Caur had been caught in the crossfire of hatred that swept Delhi after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. But she is a survivor. Rather a fighter.

Her family nearly lost everything, but remained undaunted. “My mother and I would pile up blankets and medicines in our car and go to the riot affected colonies and refugee camps. It was chaos everywhere, but we never thought of our safety.”

The trauma of 1984, however, gave greater depth and life to Caur’s creativity. Her series on the riots, World Goes On, captures the terrible self-absorption and imperviousness of the civil society to the horrors unleashed by mob violence. The series, perhaps the only one of the ’84 riots, won her the Triennale award in 1986.

Caur has blended her passionate response to the violent political reality, with a philosophical approach. Simplicity is her mantra: an account of what happened carries a most effective message.

The series which begins with images of tortured bodies, heaps of corpses and inconsolable widows exhaust themselves in a stark comment: a man unaffected by the violence around him. The attitude of selfish self-absorption becomes the recurring image in the series.

“My paintings are an expression of my pain. It was so inexplicable, so barbaric” Caur says.

Set on a backdrop of vibrant red and orange on overwhelming canvases, the series does more than leaving you with an after thought.

But the dark images have some shades of light as well. Birds and trees in full bloom form the backdrop to many gruesome images. “Nature always runs its course, finishing a cycle. Gods don’t participate in human tragedy, they just watch,” Caur explains.

Painting the pain of 1984Water recurrently appears as a symbold of death in Caur’s painting. (TOI photo)

This is not her first series on the riots.The Missing Audience series captured the emotions running high amidst growing violence, immediately after the riots. The brutal beast that man becomes in such times is portrayed in terrible colours as are the reasons for it – violent repression.

Though the message is palpable, no lessons were learnt. “Even after all this time, there is no justice. It almost seems like that life has no value in India.”

Caur, however, hasn’t forgotten. Even in her 2003 series of Nanak, some latent messages of 1984 remain. “Why always depict something so tragic? We have to move ahead. Guru Nanak, Kabir and Buddha are who the world should look up to,” she says.

So her portrayal of “the first medieval thinker” has novel interpretations that are entirely Caur. Moving away from the typical depictions of calendar art, Caur depicts a dancing Nanak in Baramaha, Nanak snipping a thread with scissors (a symbolic distancing from the established path); a foot symbolising the wandering ministrels and saints.

A dancing Lord Ganesha, Krishna Leela or Buddha have permeated art’s pantheon. But how many gallery hoppers recollect seeing Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, in a painting? “Communal violence and secularism are opposite forces. If they balance each other out, it might bring solace to the wounded,” she adds.

Reams have been written about the 1984 riots, but Caur’s canvas say more than what thousands of words could.

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