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Aditi Singh’s meditations on paper

The artist's new body of work is about paying attention to the rhythm of the natural world during extensive walks

'Untitled' (2020), ink on Washi paper. Photo: courtesy Aditi Singh/Chemould Prescott Road
'Untitled' (2020), ink on Washi paper. Photo: courtesy Aditi Singh/Chemould Prescott Road

There is a sense of intense movement in Aditi Singh’s works. It feels as if the ink is swirling and pulsating on paper. In Ballad Of Blue (2020), the gradations of colour gyrate and swish, almost as if the artist is exposing the anatomy of a wave. In the triptych Red Mountain (2020), Singh allows the ink to take a form of its own, at times coming together as a raised form, and at other times spreading uniformly across paper.

This body of new work, Somethings Are Always Burning, is about paying attention to the rhythm of the natural world. The drawings and paintings are drawn from Singh’s extensive walks in Nepal, the Sierra Nevada mountains in the US and The Lake District in the UK. The objects and elements of the landscape become backdrops against which the artist articulates and meditates on her thoughts. “I am a meditative walker, and that is what first brought me to collecting, and subsequently drawing from the natural world,” says Singh. “Picking up rocks, shredded corals, an open eye of a halibut, looking into the veins of leaves, bleached from summer gold to ashen grey by dust and pollution…it is (as much) an experience of raising one’s awareness as it is of imaginative enlargement.” The works are on show at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, as the gallery reopens its doors after renovation and the lockdown-induced lull.

Walking has made Singh attentive to her breath and body within a certain space. As the eye hones in on certain forms, the artist’s mind begins to leap and make connections. Back in the studio, she begins to ask questions about what a circle means in nature—is it static, does it keep turning? It is these ideas that she translates as line, colour and movement of the hand. Very often, her work is marked by a repetition of strokes and shapes, as an expression of the rhythms gleaned from nature. “You can step into a painting and simply flow, or you can enjoy working out its vagaries,” she says.

For her, symmetry is about understanding change without changing. Singh refers to the book, A Beautiful Question, by the Nobel laureate physicist Frank Wilczek, which talks about the world being full of beautiful ideas. “But these are subjective and might not coincide with everyone’s idea of beauty. But it is that intersection that is interesting. Walking allows me to revisit elements, some which remain the same, and some that you come back to with new eyes. And that is what I translate into my work,” she adds.

For Singh, ink and paper are a natural choice of material. “What happens in a closed room between the paper and the hand is ultimately rather mysterious to me. I am at a place where I see painting not as something to do, but choosing paper and ink is paramount to how an image unfolds,” she explains.

Singh works with different kinds of paper, each adding its inherent qualities to the work. Yupo, for instance, is highly non-absorbent, with a slick surface. Ink tends to slide off it. Every mark is deliberate, every line delineated. “The lightest paper that I have worked with is Washi, which at 30 GSM is like a whisper in the air. It is super absorbent. Every mark sinks into the paper. All your vulnerabilities are there to be seen,” she says. The Japanese Kozo paper, which takes three months to be made, too is high absorbent.

Working with these two kinds of paper is like working with two different beings. Each demands attention of a different kind; while one liberates colour, the other contains it. Light is seen in different states of motion. “Ink is a marvellous medium. It doesn’t allow you to hide in any way, and makes my hand work in different ways,” says Singh.

'Untitled' (2019), ink on Yupo paper. Photo: courtesy Aditi Singh/Chemould Prescott Road
'Untitled' (2019), ink on Yupo paper. Photo: courtesy Aditi Singh/Chemould Prescott Road

The artist has titled a work on Theodore Roethke’s Genesis. In March, poet and painter Gieve Patel, who has written about Singh’s work in the past, will recite the poem as part of the show’s online presentation, A Table In Wilderness. For Patel, it was a natural choice of verse. The poem, written in the earlier part of Roethke’s career, deals with aspects of nature which dwell within both the abstract and the concrete realms. “It talks about specific natural phenomena, but makes a broad impact by equating nature with universal forces. Aditi’s work has a similar dimension,” he says.

It’s interesting to note that Patel and Singh are kindred spirits when it comes to their practice. There is a certain musical element in Patel’s cloud drawings and well works, which resonates with the meditative quality in Singh’s paintings. “I think that is one of the reasons I warmed to her work the first time I saw it,” says Patel. “It was in 2006, when I was showing in New York and she was working there as well. She called me to see her work and I responded immediately to it. We share a similar interest in nature and natural forces,” elaborates Patel. In 2008, for Singh’s solo at Chemould, he wrote about the attentiveness in her work, and the fact that even the empty spaces blaze with energy. Patel believes it has a lot to do with Singh’s overall personality as well, which is calm and meditative. “She practices yoga and meditation, and enjoys the outdoors. The attentiveness comes from that. One of the first few works that she showed me was based on a half-dried sunflower. The way she worked on that single image for hours and what she achieved shows an extraordinary focus,” he says.

'Red Mountain' (2020), ink on paper. Photo: courtesy Aditi Singh/Chemould Prescott Road
'Red Mountain' (2020), ink on paper. Photo: courtesy Aditi Singh/Chemould Prescott Road

This time, Singh is also showcasing the “horizon line” paintings she has been working on since 2014, after her uncle died of a heart attack. “(Artist)William Kentridge said in one of his lectures, ‘the line is going to lead you, it is going to be the dog that is pulling you on the leash.’ It is a true statement and I have about a thousand and more horizon works, and they keep coming, in the last two years almost every day,” she says.

More than an obvious narrative, she believes in having confidence in the material and seeing the associations it can provoke. “Uncertainty is what gives me comfort, it has allowed me to say, ‘I don’t know what this is, I can’t give it a name, but not knowing is in fact the interesting part,’” she says. “It has become my way of confronting forces between material, dream and imagination. And loss.”

Somethings Are Always Burning can be viewed at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, till the end of March.

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