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Arpana Caur: A Bundle of Divine Energy

by INNI KAUR

 

 

My telephone rings in Delhi.

“Hi, Inni! This is Arpana Caur. Wanted to let you know that I will be at The Attic this evening for your talk, “Sikh Art Through The Eyes Of A Believer.”

“Oh! No! What am I going to do now?” I say to myself as I put the phone down.  I have three of her paintings in my presentation and to change anything at this stage is impossible.

I am a little uncomfortable.

It’s going to be difficult to have her in the audience for the sole reason that I am speaking about her art.

I resign to the fact that it will be what it will be.

I arrive at The Attic, which is absolutely charming. I must confess I had googled it. Come to think of it, how did we ever function before goggle?

A comment on the internet best describes The Attic, “If you wish to know about the Indian culture in New Delhi, India, then visit The Attic established by Amarjit Bhagwant Singh Charitable Trust. In this 'space for the living arts', The Attic hopes to create an intimate interaction between audience and artist, dancer and spectator, musician and 'rasik', creating a cultural ferment where each appreciates the needs and art of the other, leading to sessions and evenings of quality and enjoyment.”

Arpana Caur arrives and gives me a hug and says, “So looking forward to your presentation.”

I gulp and say something totally unintelligent.

I begin my talk.

To say that I’m a bit apprehensive would be an understatement.

I have over 60 pairs of eyes on me.

My first slide is the portrayal of the way the Ik Oankar symbol was displayed at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan. It transports me back to 2006 when I was involved with the exhibit, I See No Stanger: Early Sikh Art & Devotion. It was a wonderful time. I learnt so much.

A wave of comfort envelopes me.

I have my notes but I don’t seem to need them.

Words flow. Not quite sure from where they coming from.

I can sense the receptiveness of the audience. They are with me.

I arrive at Arpana’s paintings. Not totally sure what I said.

The presentation ends.

The audience is very gracious.

Arpana waits for everyone to leave before she approaches me. Her eyes are teary as she hugs me and says, “I’ve never heard anyone talk about my art the way you did. I just paint, you know. You must come and see my collection of Indian miniatures. You have to see my Museum.”

I hesitate.

My time in Delhi is very precious. I prefer to spend every moment with my parents.

However, I agree to visit her.

It’s International Museum Day, when I arrive at her Museum, looking like something like the cat dragged in. Recuperating from a nasty delhi-belly, I have no business being here. But there I was and she was thrilled.

She drags me to the Children’s Museum at Siri Fort. “It’s just around the corner. You know, they (the organizers) have invited children from area schools to participate in a painting competition. About a 100 children are already at the Museum, in spite of the fact that it is their summer vacation. And I forgot all about it until this morning. They’re waiting for me. I promise it won’t take long,” she chatters non-stop as we get into the car.

It is 11 am and the temperature in Delhi is 40C/ 104F. You can only imagine my condition.

We enter the Museum grounds and I am stunned. In this heat, quite a few children are sitting on the grass in front of sculptures and drawing. I walk over and chat with them. They are thrilled to have this opportunity to be at a Museum. The heat does not seem to faze them. Oh! To be that young again; on second thoughts, maybe not.

Arpana is the rock star here.

I watch her in action.

She smiles and chats with the children and marvels at their works. She introduces me to Mr. K.K. Mohammed (Head of the Delhi monuments under Archaeological Survey of India) and his team who, she says, “saved this plot of land from a greedy developer and was able to turn it into this amazing place.” She graciously acknowledges all their hard work, their vision and their perseverance, while they say, “Madam and her mother did it all.”

The art produced by the children is breath-taking.

Arpana is the judge of this competition.

She tries to rope me in, but is unsuccessful.

She refuses to hand out only three prizes. “They’re all so good. I cannot chose only three,” she pleads.

Negotiations take place and Arpana gets what she wants effortlessly. She ends up handing out twelve prizes plus another twelve consolation prizes.

I marvel at her negotiating skills.

She further presents scholarships from her personal finances to two amazingly talented brothers. I spoke with their father and learnt that he earns Rs. 6000 a month. The scholarship awarded is of a generous amount and will go a long way in supporting the children’s talent.

Our good-byes at the Museum take forever.

As we begin to get into the car, a man approaches us. She smiles and greets him warmly, “Congratulations! It’s because of you that we have this Museum.”

“This is Prem Singh, Inni, a third generation ASI watchman-cum official. He guarded this Museum and saved it from the land mafia and refused to be bought. He stood for years through the Delhi heat and cold with a stick, guarding this place? I feel he single-handedly saved this place.”

The man is visibly moved.

He folds his hands, bows his head and says, “It was saved because of you and your mother.”

We return to her place and go straight to her studio.

Glasses of cold lassi appear.

I hesitate.

“The water is twice boiled and filtered. It’s chaas. It’ll do you good,” she assures me.

It’s delicious. So delicious, that I ask for a refill.

Over lunch she shows me some of her new paintings.

A circular painting of Guru Nanak. Just spectacular.

“Universal Nanak - There is no Beginning, There is no End” - resounds within as I stand before it. I can feel the energy emanating from it. My Paatshah continues to walk and spread The Teachings.

“He’s your and my Hero,” she whispers. “You know Inni, while painting, I only listen to gurbani. Actually, I listen to gurbani nearly all day, especially when I am in the car.”

She talks, I listen.

Our conversation turns to the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms. “For six months I worked at the refugee camp. I didn’t paint. What was there left to paint? Everything was dismal. Nobody cared. For months on end I would go to Trilokpuri. In the beginning of every month I would go there to buy rations for some families. You know, I would buy the rations from the small shops that were beginning to come up there. It was my way of giving them some business but, more importantly, giving them hope,” she says.

I’m awe-struck. Not because she worked at refugee camps but at her compassion and wisdom. I don’t know if I would have had that wisdom, which is so much a part of her.

She talks lovingly about her Art Gallery. “What I like the most about my Gallery, is that it provides a special space to the young and upcoming artists, to the socially marginalized sections of society and also to those who are physically challenged. It’s a small space but an important one, I feel.”

Who is this woman? I marvel as I listen to her.

She then takes me on a tour of her Gallery.

There is much to see, but my legs can barely hold up.

“Before you leave, let me show you the Miniatures,” she insists. “They are in the basement.”

The collection is indeed remarkable.

One miniature painting catches my eye and I linger.

She walks over and says, “I love this one too. It’s mine till I am alive. After that it goes back to the family whom I bought it from.”

I don’t know what to make of her.

People call me ancient, strange, unusual, etc. 

I truly don’t know what they would call her.

All I know is that a river of goodness flows from her.

“Arpana, I must leave now. I’m withering.”

“Yes! Yes! You don’t look so well. Let’s walk out through the basement door, that way you won’t have to climb the stairs,” she replies.

As I walk towards the door, I see about 20-25 young girls sitting in small groups.

Some are sewing; some painting and some are applying henna.

I give Arpana a questioning look.

“I run a small school for the girls from the slums. The school runs from 10 am to 5 pm, six days a week. The girls from the nearby slums walk down. The ones further way come by the 11 am bus (provided by her) which then takes them back at 4 pm. Then another bus brings some more girls at 2.30 pm and takes them back at 5 pm. We teach them vocational skills and also supply all the materials (cloth, beauty aids, copies, pencils, computers, etc.) needed for their course work.

"The school has been running for eleven years. Most of them find some sort of work after they finish. This is Jasbeer Kaur, the Principal our school,” she adds, as she bends over and starts talking to a girl about her painting.

I’m speechless.

Exhausted as I am, I sit down and chat with Jasbeer Kaur. She tells me that the school runs classes in sewing, embroidery, English and Hindi (writing and speaking), computers, classical dance, painting, soft toy making, batik, tye and dye, block printing, manicure, pedicure, facial, body massage, hair styling, henna, waxing, threading, bridal makeup, fashion designing, yoga and pranic healing.

It also provides free medical consultation to the girls by a visiting doctor. The very underprivileged girls are given a sewing machine as a gift when they qualify. Diplomas are given at the end of each course. Some of the girls get jobs in beauty clinics, she states proudly.

Arpana has overwhelmed me and totally inspired me.

Her humility, her unassuming ways, her graciousness and her total lack of self are awe-inspiring.

Goodbyes are said.

She hands me four books on art as I leave. “I know you’ll enjoy these books.”

She is generous beyond belief.

As I drive back home, I think about her.

It’s hard not to.

A life immersed in prayer, honest work and effortless sharing, is my take-home message.

I feel very blessed to have had this opportunity to spend a few hours in her company. 

She is a rare jewel and she has my deepest admiration.

 

The Academy of Fine Arts and Literature, located at 4/6, Siri Fort Institutional Area, Hauz Khas, Opposite Siri Fort Auditorium Gate No. 2 Parking, New Delhi -110049, India, is open to the public from 9 am to 7 pm daily.

[Inni Kaur is the author of the recently released children's book, Journey With The Gurus, which is available at  www.JourneyWithTheGurus.com]

July 23, 2011

 

Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), July 23, 2011, 8:01 AM.

Inni, what a deadly combination of you two - and water finding its level. There is little chance of my visiting Arpana or The Attic but you caught hold of my hand and took me along on a virtual tour to see and hear what you saw. You have an uncommon skill to paint in words because you do not follow the default format by keeping with aplomb the prerogative of scholarship. I have not googled The Attic. But, am reminded of a friend who has named his wife 'Google Kaur'. Because when asked one question, he gets ten answers. You both are blessed. And, with the circular painting of Guru Nanak that has no beginning no end - "kaho naanak sab tayree vadi-aa-ee ko-ee naa-o na jaanai mayraa" [GGS:383.12] - "Says Nanak, this is all Your greatness; no one even knows my name." Keep writing and Arpana ji, keep painting.

2: Kirpal Singh (Daytona Beach, Florida, U.S.A.), July 23, 2011, 10:24 AM.

Amazing eye-opening article about two gursikhs and their exchange. This is dedication to "sarbat da bhalla" as envisioned by our Great Gurus.

3: Harinder (Uttar Pradesh, India), July 23, 2011, 9:34 PM.

We need a million Arpana Caurs. She is our Michelangelo. "Art is your emotions flowing in a river of imagination" ~ Devin, Los Cerros.

4: Manjeet Shergill (Singapore), July 24, 2011, 6:14 AM.

I had the privilege of meeting Khushwant Singh and Arpana Caur when I first visited Delhi. I was first introduced to Amrita Shergill's works at the National Gallery by Khushwant Singh. Meeting Arpana was an overwhelming experience - someone who is intelligent, kind and has so much to share. I love Arpana's works and I think sikhchic.com should continue to show her works from time to time - for more to enjoy and appreciate.

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