A year ago, Anjum Singh had returned to the space she grew up playing hide and seek in. As a kid, the only daughter to artists Paramjit Singh and Arpita Singh, such galleries had been second home. Last September had marked her last solo show at Delhi’s Talwar Gallery, second since she was detected with cancer in 2014. The canvas was an image of her struggle with her illness — the tumour, cells, blood, red, black, figuring in the works. I Am Still Here, it was titled, as if a prelude to the final innings of a brilliant career finally cut short last week.
Anjum Singh earned a BFA at Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan, and received an MFA from College of Art, New Delhi, in 1991. Her works are in the collections of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Delhi, and have been on view at Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai, and at The San Jose Museum of Art, California.
I Am Still Here deepened Anjum’s investigation into the dynamic, unpredictable and internal world of the body. The works brought into view the intricate systems, the currents, flows and exchanges occuring beneath the skin.
Art critic Bhavna Kakkar says the exhibition was a thematic shift from her works that had, up till now, centred around ecology. “Her earlier works tackled the themes of urban ecology and environmental degradation. Building on a career-long exploration of chaos in a city, her recent works marked an artist’s struggle with mortality,” says Kakkar, adding, “I Am Still Here was praised as one of the best shows of her career.”
Having inherited artistic legacies of her illustrious parents, it surprised no one when she took up art as a career. “She was born into the art circle. She must have imbibed so much,” says Prayag Shukla, art critic and a friend of the Singhs. What’s noteworthy, he says, is that she followed her own path. “Her works bore no influence of her parents. This is a very remarkable quality. Her last work was about her own body, what was happening to her. It wasn’t just about her art. I was looking at how she must have seen life during that phase. The works were not experimental. They were very real, very honest.”
Flower but not, Alien, Cobweb in my head, My Body — Candy Floss, Heart (Machine), Broken, Bleed Bled Blood Red, Blackness, Samples, Turbulence. The titles of the works in that exhibition spoke of her frame of mind, her reflections of herself and her now-changed realities. In a conversation with Meera Menezes at the launch of the show, she said she hadn’t wanted to paint about her illness per se, but was going through so much, all her experiences, musings and doubts ultimately came to the canvas. Her impressions from her hospital visits, the tubes, the blood, the apparatus, all found their way into the works.
Earlier, in 2014, when she returned home after being diagnosed with cancer and a brief stay in the hospital, she was surprised to see the canvas she had left unfinished. While she had been painting a mushroom growing out of a pavement, it seemed like a tumour to her now. That piece introduced the show.
Deepak Talwar of Talwar Gallery, which hosted the exhibition, says it was not easy for Anjum to carve her artistic space in the shadow of two giants of Indian art, but she was tenacious and pursued her art with openness and youthful exuberance. “In her last exhibition, she delivered her most beautiful, bold yet poignant body of work, totally her own. Little did we know she was delivering her swan song,” he says. Photographer Gauri Gill, who was Anjum’s junior at Delhi College of Art, says: “I was so moved by my friend Anjum’s brilliant, brave exhibition last year. It was deeply experiential and rooted in her suffering of the last years, and yet so delicate, lucid and transcendental.”
In the various obituaries that have been published over the last few days, Anjum’s smile has leapt out of every photograph. That is how she was, her friends say. This is how she will be remembered. Some time back, she had told her parents to not mourn her death, but remain cheerful, as they are. As if she is still here.