In September last year, Anjum Singh’s solo, I am Still Here, opened at Talwar Gallery, New Delhi, to an overwhelming response. The artist had been showing her deeply autobiographical works, stemming from her fight against cancer, after a long time. As she walked around, one couldn’t miss the beaming face, aglow and enthusiastic. It is that smile that one remembers the most as the art world grapples with the news of her passing. “Today Anjum left us after a six-and-a-half year courageous battle with cancer. She leaves a void that will forever remain so, but her art, her smile and tenacity to fight will remain, in our hearts and more…” reads the statement by Talwar Gallery, which has had a long association with the artist.
Her demise has cast a pall of sadness within the art world. Ashok Vajpeyi, managing and life trustee, The Raza Foundation, put out a post on Facebook, hailing Singh as a distinctive painter of the younger generation, with an intense aesthetic vision and innovative zeal. “Her parents, the well-known painters Arpita Singh and Paramjeet Singh, have suffered a grievous loss. The Raza Foundation is with them in this tragic moment,” he wrote.
Born in 1967 in New Delhi, Singh did her bachelors in fine arts from Santiniketan, West Bengal, followed by a masters from College of Art, New Delhi, in 1991. With prolific artists for parents, it seemed only natural that she veered towards painting.
“But I remember having no particular ambition of wanting to become an 'artist'. This was something that one simply did,” she mentioned in a conversation with art collector Shalini Passi on her digital platform, MASH, just before I am Still Here opened. “While phrases like 'hard work' and 'no shortcuts' were hammered into me, individuality of expression and free dialogue was greatly encouraged. Yes, for many years I felt substantial pressure because of my parents being in the same profession—at the forefront of it, no less! And my parents recognized it as well, and perhaps that is the reason they kept sending me away for my art education—where they hoped I would be free of this pressure and evolve on my own. And I think it worked well for me.”
Nearly everyone who knew her well remembers her passion for painting and for her family. Roshini Vadehra, director, Vadehra Art Gallery, calls her a “warrior”, whose fierce love for work and life will be remembered by all. She got to know Singh after joining the gallery in 2004 and calls herself privileged to have worked closely with the artist on a large solo exhibition in 2009. “I also have great memories of showing her work at Grosvenor Vadehra in London in 2007,” she adds. “Anjum was always passionate and loved working on a large scale in both canvas and sculpture.” Over time, Vadehra noticed her work becoming more intimate and sensitive as she dealt with her illness. They always enjoyed looking at her work together and discussing her personal and professional journey. “More than anything today, I have lost a friend, who made me laugh and inspired me with her immense strength and love for life.”
Ever since cancer “engulfed” Singh, every line and splash of paint on her canvases have had an inextricable link with the lived experience of her body. “For Anjum, art was akin to a diary-writing process, capturing her emotional and physical experiences. I believe her deep-hued palette spoke of her process more than any other,” says Passi.
Singh’s works created after her diagnosis with cancer in 2014 are indeed marked by rich hues of reds, oranges and pinks, an allusion to her investigation of the internal worlds of the body. It became difficult for her to keep her art and life separate. The visual language stemming from this intermingling of professional and personal worlds was immensely cathartic. In fact, her last show, I am Still Here, showed a deepening of the exploration of the body, with cellular structures, blood samples and the anatomy of the heart making appearances.
Works such as Bleed Bled Blood Red from 2015 brought into sharp focus her interpretation of the flows, exchanges and breakdowns that occur within the body. All of her works were shorn of any self-pity, and were marked by a brutal honesty and objectivity. “With tints, washes, daubs, stains and drips, Singh suggests the pulpy, soft mass of living flesh, the trickle of dripping discharges of body fluids, the mysterious workings of body fluids, the mysterious workings of human physiology,” wrote art historian Ella Datta in the article "The Agony and Ecstasy of Anjum Singh", which was published in the Hindu Business Line in November 2019. “Through this collection of paintings and works on paper, she has transformed her personal afflictions to a more universal level of human experience.”