Artist Arpana Caur says that it is very hard to capture ‘a being as elevated as the Sikh Guru’ on canvas with a painter’s limited skills. By Uma Nair
Artist Arpana Caur celebrates and commemorates Guru Nanak with reverence and great fervour. Her organic and minimalist strokes done in tensile thread like contours speak about art’s many sojourns. And her brilliance lies in her weaving of tensile and tactile tales with elements she takes from Nanak’s life.
No one loved Nanak more than my friend Khushwant Singh who had a painting of him by Caur in his room. Khushwant was a dear friend of Arpana. In 1998, when I asked Caur about Nanak in front of Khushwant, she said, “Nanak is a spiritual master who guides and defines our lives. The stories are unending and when you practice his teachings, it becomes like a tale that turns into a testimony. It becomes a part of who we are.”
She was the only contemporary artist at that time, who was creating modern imagery of characters with miniature formats entwined. “Ajanta, Ellora and Pahari miniaturists flow through my veins, just like many other stories that have always stayed in my mind. Whenever I think of Nanak, it’s a journey that goes deep into the roots of my own existence. Its like finding a fragrance.”
One look at the many artworks of Nanaks that she has done over the years show that she always sought to achieve near perfection. Khushwant used to say that Caur’s Nanak was like a reminder to invoke Lord’s blessings for strength. Caur’s images have graced many books. The finest being Nanak: The Guru in collaboration with author Khushwant’s daughter Maya Dayal. Apart from that — Hymns of the Sikh Gurus, which unfortunately is now out of print.
So many Nanaks
Caur explains her oeuvre over more than four decades. “It is very hard to capture ‘a being as elevated as Nanak’ on canvas with a painter’s limited skills. My solo on Him was almost 20 years ago. There were ‘Baba Nanak, Guru Nanak, Peer Nanak, Lama Nanak’. I have been to many of the innumerable places he went on foot, (Baghdad, Sri Lanka, Dhaka, Kashmir, South India, Leh and Sikkim). He, of course, went to many many more.”
It is clear that you cannot create so many Nanaks unless you have deep devotion for him. “I love him because of the life affirming things he did. He did away with the caste system. He said ‘Nako Hindu Na Musalman’. He considered women as equal to men and said so in his verses that too 550 years ago. He was an ecologist and has even praised nature in his verses. He was against feudal oppression. He shared and asked all to share their earnings with the needy. He was a great poet and was against rituals (sacred thread, pilgrimages etc) and believed only in humanity. Love, and service to everyone.”
Surreal and stark
In most of her paintings, Caur’s depiction of Nanak in a minimal, organic form, is what excels. Her backgrounds are surreal and stark. She plays with different backgrounds but it is the darker ones that have a deeper resonance. The stark black backgrounds draw attention to the contemplative expression on his face and the prayer beads in his hands even as she lines the silhouette with grace. Surrounding him are lined details in blue and white and these trace abstractions and reflect perhaps his many journeys as well as his thoughts. She creates a metaphor of the many journeys that he undertook during his lifetime not only around the India but also to Afghanistan, Iraq, China and Tibet.
According to Caur, she added shards of colour and light, in white, grey and blue to create a transient feel of spirituality. Each Nanak in Caur’s hands is unique and deeply contemplative.
Tuesday, 12 November 2019 | Uma Nair | in Vivacity
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