Arpana Caur, self-taught modern painter of international repute, has rendered Sohni Mahiwal on canvas for more than a decade through female eyes. As with most Punjabi painters, Sikh Gurus and spirituality are recurrent themes in her art, although much of Arpana Caur’s work is women-centric. The Delhi-based artist is currently working on a series, ‘Love without measure’ that features Sohni as a symbol of love and indomitable female spirit confronting social norms rather than as a reproduction of the celebrated Punjabi love legend. The multi-linear narrative includes contemporary social realities, folk-memories of love legends, history and mythology. The title of the series itself suggests the immense potential of Sohni as a symbol of love and resistance. I have visited Akhnoor near Jammu, where [Sohni] was born,” says Arpana. “Only a daring being [could] cross that river. She is the ultimate symbol of human courage.” The title of the series itself suggests the immense potential of Sohni as a symbol of love and resistance.
Most paintings in the series feature tools that symbolize social norms: scales, rulers, compasses, parallelograms, scissors, squares and T-squares. The juxtaposition of Sohni with tools of measurement and standardization underlines that her spirit is beyond the comprehension of society. The legend of Sohni-Mahiwal is mostly represented through the last scene of the story in which Sohni, desperate to meet her lover Mahiwal, is struggling to cross the flooded Chenab (Jhanan), with the dwindling support of an earthen pitcher. This earthen pitcher, representative of the social support, remains Sohni’s constant companion in creative expression. Even as Sohni hoped to save herself by clutching the pitcher, it dissolved and left Sohni to die. The pitcher can also be associated with Sohni’s father, Tulla, who earned respect and wealth by making beautiful earthen pitchers. How could the symbol of a father’s honour stand by his revolting daughter? The association of the earthen pitcher and Sohni transcends the legend into an ever refreshing tale of women fighting patriarchy. Arpana explores the potential of this concept and broadens her canvas to depict Sohni’s intensity and individuality.
Arpana paints (1) a pitcher, two differently coloured pieces of footwear and two bleeding legs heading skyward on a brownish canvas. It is apparent that Sohni-Mahiwal have been forced to die by the society. Their footprints remain fresh thereafter and continue to capture the popular imagination.
In ‘Love Beyond Measure’ (2) Sohni is floating on a red canvas. There are drawing scales above her body and in front of her. The shadow of the scale and a splash of water around the pitcher beneath her establish that the red canvas is the Chenab. The shadowy figure on the bottom could either be her reflection or an imaginative undercurrent of Mahiwal. In this painting, Sohni is blue and the water red – suggesting violent environs. Sohni advances towards the inevitable end, unable and unwilling to come to terms with social norms. The pitcher that represents social control exercised over the individual seems to be the only illusion in her conscious choice. Sohni’s unfazed spirit immortalizes itself in an inspirational status.
Reminiscent of a scene from Fazal Shah’s painting where he tries to capture the thought process of the drowning Sohni, Arpana (3) paints Sohni floating through drawing tools on a black canvas – hands stretched forward as she looks over her shoulders. Her posture is abstracted from the work of 18th-century painter Nainsukh of Guler, and Sohni seems to be trying to make her way through scales, compasses and triangles by confronting them singlehandedly. A scale divides her trunk in two parts. Part of her body below the scale is blue whereas her bust above the scale is in natural skin tone. The part in blue seems to be where the earthen pitcher has eroded into darkness. Her belly has disappeared into that darkness. This is fitting, as social norms often exercise their control over women through the belly and the womb. In the painting, Sohni symbolizes consciousness of free spirit whereas darkness symbolizes the confinements imposed by society.
In ‘Love Beyond Measure’ (4), Arpana paints the unchanged fate of Sohni over a period. Even as the thatched dwellings of the medieval period are replaced by skyscrapers, Sohni continues to struggle against the waves of the Chenab with the illusive support of the earthen pitcher. The straight lines of buildings that replace measuring tools seem to signify modern measures of social control. The buildings, the pitcher and the waves match in colour, which represents the totality of the social construct Sohni is struggling against. The space for Sohni is shrinking between buildings and violent waves. Her choice is to pursue her own pursuit. The wave forming a line between Sohni and her reflection looks like a flying bird – a symbol of the essence of life, sensitivity and weakness. The human body is supposed to be the nest of a bird called life, and here, the bird is leaving the nest.
In yet another painting (5) that highlights the relationship Sohni had built with the society, Sohni is jumping from darkness into the river. A scale and a pair of scissors mark the banks of the river. Sohni, the scale and the scissors cross each other and divide the canvas into six parts. Sohni’s trunk is in natural skin tone but her lower body is black and appears to be covered in white cloth. The scale and the scissors represent social norms that measure and cut an individual to a prescribed size and form. Here again, the darkness represents the society that forces the individual to live within its norms. Since Sohni is rooted in society, her lower body matches it in colour. This colour also fills the gap created by the absence of the earthen pitcher.
Sohni (6) floats with the earthen pitcher and a scale divides her into two parts. Her trunk and her lower limbs float separately. The white image seems to be her shadow as well as companion. The struggling Sohni appears to be lost in the thoughts of her faceless companion, Mahiwal. Awkward turns of her neck underline her difficulties as well as her indomitable spirit. The society tries to scale Sohni through her belly and her womb, exercising control over sexuality and fertility. Living by the scale seems to be society’s condition for offering its support. Sohni vehemently refuses to accept this condition and is willing to forfeit the support of the society – even her life is the cost of this support.
A complex narrative with neither a beginning nor an end, another painting (7) is a tribute to the immortal spirit of Sohni who symbolizes extreme sacrifice and saintly conviction. The painting also exposes the contradictions inherent in being a member of society. The pitcher and the earth-coloured canvas represent immense possibilities and choices; however, Sohni pays for her choices with her life. Sohni faces adversities rather than possibilities. The scales of society become strict norms curtailing her inner and outer growth.
In what is arguably the most complex painting of the series (8), a rainbow divides the black canvas diagonally while a spiralling wire with a bi-pin plug divides it vertically. In Arpana’s vision, “The plug symbolizes the connection with divine love through human, even romantic love, as in the Sufi and Bhakti traditions.” But alternatively, the spiralling wire may represent modernity. This plug thus becomes another form of the regulations imposed by society through modern technological means. A cubical inset on the left bottom becomes a separate canvas despite being part of the bigger one. In the inset, Sohni stands tall on the waves of the Chenab. A reflection of her bust looks beyond the boundaries of the inset. Arpana here transcends the boundaries of history, myth, metaphor and folk-memory to interpret the legend of Sohni as representative of womanhood continuously struggling against social norms, masculinity and patriarchy. The look of Sohni, her clothes and the placement of the pitcher expand her identity beyond the limits of time and space. The yellow colour of her clothes signifies fire and the folds seem to be flames. Pitcher, flames, rain and waves transform Sohni into Sita of the Ramayana.
Arpana’s painting successfully builds a bridge between Sita and Sohni and comments on the contemporary issue of selective abortion of female foetuses. Arpana has depicted social control over female fertility by linking the womb and the pitcher. Earlier, Sohni’s struggle started with realization of the self. With the advent of modern technology, this struggle now begins in the womb itself. Technological advancement has facilitated sex selective abortions and reshaped the trend of daughter-killing. Census data show an alarminly low number of girls below the age of six.
Arpana uses Sohni to connect the experiences of women from Sita to aborted female fetuses. Sohni is an appropriate point of reference for the present to interact with the past, for history to reflect on mythology and for harsh contemporary realities to engage with socio-cultural traditions of past centuries. Valmiki immortalized Sita and narrative poets kept Sohni alive in public imagination, but Arpana has fused the two, keeping their individual complexities intact. Sobha Singh’s Sohni personifies the intensity and the fulfillment of love. Arpana’s Sohni is struggling for fulfilment. She is aware of her weakness as represented by the pitcher, yet committed to her choice. Arpana’s expression is also an exploration of the potential renditions of Sohni. With this exercise, Sohni has grown in expression and complexity. Arpana’s canvas renders Sohni even more inviting for further reflection.
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