Sikh Art Forum – Spirituality and the Art of Arpana Caur – by Mary-Ann Milford-Lutzker, Ph.D.

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Arpana Caur paints from her heart, and nowhere is this more evident than in her paintings that celebrate the life of Guru Nanak. Arpana is a devout member of the Sikh community, for whom the religious and ritual activities of the gurudwara are central to her life. Her faith has sustained her through national and personal tragedies––and it has given her spiritual fulfillment that is expressed so directly and sincerely in her art. Sikh topics are by no means the sole form of artistic output for Arpana, who has painted since she was a young girl. As she herself has stated, “I have always been interested in very hard social issues…and the problems between the haves and the have nots…if you are a painter how do you resolve the socio-economic gap?” i These are rhetorical statements and questions; however, they pervade Arpana’s life and infuse her art with refreshing sincerity rarely witnessed in the post-modern world that is driven by critical theory. It is, in fact, this spiritual yearning and commitment to preserving Sikh culture that brought Arpana’s work to the attention of Dr. Narinder S. Kapany––they are kindred spirits in their humanity and generosity.


Arpana was born in Delhi in 1954, seven years after Partition. Her family like millions of others had been uprooted from their home in what is now Pakistan, and made their way down to Delhi in India. She grew up in a world that was torn apart by communal dissension. Her grandfather, a physician, tended to the poor and the homeless, and as a young girl Arpana went with her mother to distribute rice, food and blankets to the destitute. Thus she grew up in an atmosphere of selflessness that would provide the background for her creative energy. The stories of Guru Nanak, of Sufi saints, of the Buddha, and of Sohni-Mahiwal occur throughout her oeuvre, as does the theme of contending opposition in her series of paintings entitled Between Dualities, in which the continuum that divides life and death, light and darkness, enlightenment and oblivion is the cosmic joke, and time is the metaphor for the universal soul.

Immersion Emergence by Arpana Caur

In Arpana’s painting Immersion/Emergence, the duality expressed is that of before and after, of searching and finding, and of ignorance and knowledge. In this diptych she evokes the idea of duality in the miraculous experience that Nanak underwent when he retreated from the world and was submerged under water for three days in 1499 at the age of 30. When he reemerged he uttered some of the most profound verses on the oneness of all beings. As with many myths and legends, heroes must undergo ritual separation, isolation and initiation in order to become inspired, mature leaders. Nanak’s immersion provides the catalyst for his revelation and insight that he expressed as Ikk Oan Kar (the One Divine Being)––there are neither Hindus nor Muslims, only Humans. This profound enlightenment provides the humanistic keystone for Sikh culture. In the painting on the left Nanak is submerged in the watery depths; he is described in blue, the same blue of the waves that wash over him. Blue symbolizes the infinite and contrasts with the intense red background, the color of passion, power and blood; these are the colors that become the transformative force that enters into Nanak’s being after which he is enveloped in the golden glow of joy and enlightenment, as he rises above the waters.

Immersion Emergence by Arpana Caur Nanak triptych


Arpana works in series, often repeating themes in diverse ways. In her triptych entitled, Immersion, Emergence, 2003, she describes Nanak’s spiritual quest in a powerful set of paintings set against a dense black background.ii In this triptych the element of narration encourages the viewer to follow Nanak into the waters and sit with him in his submerged state as he fingers his rosary, before emerging at the top of the right painting. The darkness of the paintings castes a spell giving a timeless quality to the period of Nanak’s immersion when the world itself seemed to die.

The Golden Saint Arpana Caur

Dancing Nanak by Arpana Caur

Endless Journeys by Arpana Caur

Endless Journeys by Arpana Caur - Kapany_Collection

In Bleeding Times by Arpana Caur 2002

In Bleeding Times by Arpana Caur

Compassion by Arpana Caur 2002 - Kapany Collection

The Golden Saint is a parable of good versus evil, of positive versus negative, and of playing with the complementary opposing forms of dualities, that records an episode that occurred in the Punja Sahib, wherein Nanak prevents a mountain from crushing him by merely holding up his hand. This is also a theme that Arpana has painted several times, and one that is derived from 19th century miniature paintings. Here Nanak robed in brilliant gold is showered with cascading flower petals as he holds out his right arm and pushes against a mountain top that is cleft by a blue running stream, over which hovers the ghost-like shadow of a man. Arpana’s paintings are inspired by the nineteenth-century miniature tradition of the Pahari styles of the Punjab Hills. They include the bold Basohli school, and the romantic Kangra and Guler schools that produced some of the most lyrical paintings in Indian art. Here the finger-like extensions of the rocky mountains are seemingly joined in the pious namaste mudra (greeting gesture), that recall the highly stylized slopes and colorings found in early Pahari paintings. It is as if they have recognized the great spirit of Nanak and are imploring him for forgiveness. The small figure of a woman in the inset red-bordered painting holds her hands out towards Nanak, echoing the sentiments of the mountains.

Wherever water flows it carves its way through terrain, dividing and separating. Arpana uses water in many of her paintings in a similar way as a formal device to divide her compositions. In the highly original painting of Dancing Nanak, the sinuous lines of the blue river of life are echoed in the curves of Nanak’s dancing body. Flames erupt from the curves of the river like festering sores, reminding us of the eternal duality that exists between fire and water. They also remind us of the continuing tensions in the Punjab, the region of the five rivers that throughout its history has been an area that has witnessed waves of invading forces making their way down into the rich plains of India. This same area witnessed the greatest transmigration of people in the world’s history in 1947. It was a tragic event that continues to be played out today in the political tension between India and Pakistan, and Arpana inserts both the ambiguity and the duality of the continuing political tensions into this painting of Nanak. The joyous dance of Nanak, who danced in the way of the mystic Sufis to express his spiritual devotion, is tempered by the flaming river­­––a reminder of the insolvency that can overwhelm the human spirit. In the Shivaite context the dance becomes the catalyst that destroys ignorance and the demonic powers of darkness in order to restore life. Fire burns, destroys and cleanses in order to bring forth life. Water also possesses these dual powers of destruction and creation. In Arpana’s painting the rhythm of the dance gives visible energy to Nanak’s joy and his sense of hope.

Endless Journeys is a series of paintings that depicts Nanak’s wanderings throughout the Punjab and his pilgrimages to Hindu and Muslim sacred places, spreading the message of One God (ikk oan kar), the equality of all men, the rejection of the caste system, and the futility of physical existence. He is accompanied by his two faithful followers, Bala, who was Hindu, and Mardana, a Muslim who played the rabab (lute) as music for Nanak’s devotional songs. In one painting three large footprintsiii enclose the three wanderers: Nanak robed in gold walks with his staff, Bala follows with a water bottle, and Mardana walks behind clasping his rabab.

In the painting owned by Dr. Kapany, Arpana has drawn one large golden footprint that appears to float in the firmament. Enclosed within it is the radiant figure of Nanak walking with his staff. His companions are no longer with him; he walks alone, intent on his quest to spread his teachings.
In an almost identical painting entitled, In Bleeding Times, 2002, the golden-robed figure of Nanak continues to stride forward, but now the footprint is black. It is backlit by an ominous red glow as it floats against a dark grey-black background. An even blacker arrow impedes Nanak’s progress.iv It seems that communal tensions and violence will never cease.

The reality of reoccurring warfare is expressed in Arpana’s iconic seated figure of Nanak.v In this magnificent painting, as also in the In Bleeding Times series, Nanak is seated in the posture of royal ease with one leg bent vertically at the knee. His body floats upon a black background and is contoured by a golden glow, inside of which soldiers are fighting each other and hunting animals; blood is pouring from the lifeless carcass of a tiger. Within Nanak’s right arm is the tree of life with its blue leaves, the same tree that appears in the footprint paintings of Nanak’s peregrinations. The stylistic tradition of painting figures within figures, and figures formed of figures, is one that was popular during the period of the Deccani Sultanate in the 17th and 18th centuries. Then it was more of a visual conceit and a decorative conundrum. Arpana has exploited this normally playful approach to imbue her rendering of Nanak in the fullness of his compassion.

At the heart of Guru Nanak’s life and teachings was his consummate sense of humanity and compassion. In her painting entitled, Compassion, 2002, the large, golden head of Nanak appears from the firmament like the rising sun. Pouring from each of his eyes like waterfalls are two streams of water that bathe three seated female figures below. In his great compassion, Nanak is shown bathing away the sins of the world in order to restore life and hope. The small figures are Arpana, who is herself wholly embraced by the love and teachings of Nanak. This painting, perhaps, more than any of the others speaks to Arpana’s own sense of being Sikh. In a series of paintings that has celebrated the miraculous and legendary life of Nanak, Compassion, brings the Sikh experience into the present and into the personal and private sphere of experience.

Wounds of 84 by Arpana Caur - Kapany Collection

Arpana lived through the riots of 1984 and witnessed the horrors of communal hatred that was perpetrated upon the Sikh community. Her passion and compassion rise out of her own experiences and as a result her art rings with great empathy for the condition of mankind. In Wounds of 1984, Guru Nanak stands half naked, half robed in a white cloth, again against a black background that castes the pall of endless night over the painting. He is watched by figures to the left who peer out of compartment-like buildings. But the question remains: Who is the standing figure? Is it Guru Nanak? Is it Arpana’s grandfather who fled with his family from Pakistan to India in 1947, as millions of others did? Or, is it Everyman? In the right panel, a seated woman, Arpana, holds up a blood-stained cloth that flows across the canvas like a silver river.

Sohni Mahiwal by Arpana Caur - Kapany Collection

Arpana’s use of color in her paintings sets up moods that encompass the whole range of human feelings from ecstatic bliss to despair that in turn draw upon rasa, aesthetic emotional sentiments that are experienced upon seeing a moving work of art, hearing sublime music, or being stirred by the exquisite movements of In her painting of Sohni Mahiwal that is in Dr. Kapany’s collection it is the vibrant palette that immediately draws the rasika, the viewer, into the world of Sringara Rasa, the first and most important of all the rasas. It is the rasa that expresses the depth of feeling between two lovers. It is the passion of the human heart for the divine. It also expresses transgressive love for the forbidden or the unattainable. Sringara Rasa is manifested in two ways, that of sambhoga, love in union, and that of vipralambha, love in separation; it is the latter that is so clearly portrayed in this painting of the two young lovers, Sohni and Mahiwal––the longing that occurs when lovers are apart. This is described by Sufis as ishq majazi, human love, for ishq haqiqi, love for God. It is the unrequited universal love of the ages of Laila and Majnu, of Heer and Ranjha, of Sassi and Punnu, and of Romeo and Juliet.

Sohni and Mahiwal were from two different worlds, she was the daughter of a potter, he was a rich trader from Bukhara. They fell passionately in love with each other. Mahiwal gave up his lucrative life and became a buffalo herder just to be close to Sohni. Inevitably their love for each other was discovered and her parents hastily married her off. At this turn of events Mahiwal renounced the world and became a faqir, hermit, living in a small mud hut across the Chenab River. At night, under the cover of darkness, Sohni would come down to the river to meet Mahiwal who had swum across it to be with her. Mahiwal injured himself in his selfless drive of love for Sohni, so she started to swim across the river with the aid of a clay jar; predictably, her absences at night were discovered, and one night her sister-in-law followed her to the river. The following night the sister-in-law replaced the clay jar with an unbaked jar that began to dissolve as soon as Sohni entered the water with it, and in mid-stream she drowned. Mahiwal was so distressed at seeing Sohni’s death that he plunged into the river and drowned as well, and so ultimately this ill-fated affair came to naught.

In Arpana’s painting the lovers’ worlds are separated by the fast-flowing blue and green waters of the Chenab that divide it diagonally. Transparent jars outlined in black float upon its surface as reminders of past trysts. Mahiwal, dressed in white, sits on the sandy-colored shore patiently waiting in the upper right hand corner. Yet it is Sohni that captures the imagination. She sits in the lower left corner of the painting, gazing over the river to Mahiwal. The rigid rectangle in which she sits acts as a constraint and a warning. The rows of jars against the black background add further ominous tones, emphasized by the broken jar that offers a premonition of what is to happen. Yet it is the crystal-like fingers that enclose Sohni that electrify her emotional state. In icing pinks, jade greens and creamy yellows the fingers of the crystals enfold her, opening up to reveal her radiance like an embedded jewel. These forms can also be read as clouds that will transport her to her beloved, if only in her imagination.

The Punjabi legend of Sohni and Mahiwal is the source of folksongs, plays and films based upon the life and love of a real potter who lived some five hundred years ago in Akhnoor by the Chenab River that runs through Jammu and Kashmir. The intensity of the love that is expressed in this romantic tale is that of vipralambha, love in separation. In fact the formal aspects of the composition serve to emphasize the tensions of the inaccessible. Even the unplugged electrical cord that winds up along the surface of the painting, like a snake rising from its master’s basket, seems to be seeking a socket that would allow the magic to happen, yet further serves to separate Sohni and Mahiwal. This is an incredibly powerful painting of the depth of human love for the divine, and the risks that are taken to seek fulfillment.

It is hard to extricate the painter from the paintings in the art of Arpana Caur.vii She lives her life as one called to profess her faith in Sikhism through her art and through her enormous generosity and selflessness. Her inspiration and her paintings are a guide for all of us.

Arpana Caur with Mary-Ann Milford

Essay by:

Mary-Ann Milford-Lutzker, Ph.D.
Mills College, Oakland, California
December 5, 2010

This essay has been updated from the original essay which was delivered as part of the Sikh Symposium held at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco on March 5th, 2003.

Click here for Arpana Caur's  Biography.


* Read the Authors Bio & Introduction to the series here
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