The Souzas and the Subodhs have long been the stars of the art market. Now, it's the turn of the women to shine. Just six months after Bharti Kher's elephant sculpture notched up a jumbo price of Rs 6.9 crore, Delhi artist Arpita Singh has established a new record. Her mural, titled "Wish Dream", fetched Rs 9.6 crore ($2.24 million) at a Saffronart online auction on Thursday. With this, the 73-year-old has become the country's top-selling woman artist worldwide.
It's perhaps fitting that it is Arpita Singh who has turned the spotlight back on female artists. The unbeautiful middle-aged woman has always been a central figure on her canvases. "Glamorous women with hour-glass shapes are for film and television. I paint real women," Singh had told TOI in a recent interview.
"Wish Dream" is one of Singh's most significant works and took over three years to complete. It's made of 16 individual canvas panels and has echoes of Buddhist thangka paintings and kantha work. It was originally commissioned by the late Nandita Judge (nee Jain). "When Nandita asked me to do the work, I said no because it seemed so huge and daunting," says Singh. But she did take it on and inspiration later came in the form of a Tibetan play based on the Ramayana.
The mural has two women as pivotal figures, both elevated to goddess-like beings that seem to hold together and direct the rest of the painting's diverse cast of characters and everyday objects such as cars, planes and guns. Explaining the symbolism, Singh says, "It shows the wishes and dreams of a woman within our society and how these are related to other women through ritual. The most important ritual is wedding, so you'll find a woman standing and a man holding her from behind with both hands.
As for records, Singh, who looks more like the aunt next door than an artist who sells for crores, says she isn't affected by commercial success. "I have been painting since 1969 and I still love picking up the brush everyday," says the artist who created quite a controversy in the 1990s when she painted a pistol-wielding Durga trampling a man instead of a demon.
Since then, the disconcerting guns-and-roses tableaus have been part of her oeuvre. And though the bouquets have taken their time, they seem to have finally come.
It is not that female artists have exactly been going cheap, but they were not in the all-male charmed circle of sky-high prices. Both Kher and Singh are changing that. Says Dinesh Vazirani, CEO of Saffronart, "A whole generation of women artists hasn't got recognition."