Born in New Delhi, Arpana Caur spent her college years studying literature; as an artist, she is largely self-taught. Her work can be seen to continue the line begun by Amrita Sher-Gil. It is feminine and feminist in its perspective, with portraits of women placed in a contemporary urban context. The erotic is downplayed in favour of the sturdy: Gayatri Sinha states that, in her paintings, "There is no hint of an expressive sexuality; woman and nature are both symbiotically tied in a circle of perceived threat and uncertain renewal." The other major concerns in her work include time, life and death, the environment, and the violence of man on man (like Hiroshima, the Partition of India, and the 1984 massacre of the Sikhs). She has created several large non-commercial murals on subjects relating to the environment in Delhi, Bangalore, and Hamburg. Arpana work responds to the surroundings and events of her life, from the crowded Patel Nagar of her childhood to events such as the rape of Maya Tyagi and the widows of the Chasnala mining disaster.
Punjabi literature influenced Caur's artistic perspective, and writers such as Shiv Batalvi, Amrita Pritam, and Krishna Sobti were visitors to her home. The literature and philosophy of Punjab contributed to the strains of melancholy, mysticism and devotion that may be felt in her work, while the Pahari miniature tradition provided inspiration for Caur's manipulation of pictorial space. Despite her diverse influences, however, Caur's subjects remain firmly rooted in the quotidian world of the woman, showing women engaged in commonplace acts such as daydreaming or typing.
The repeated motif of clothing in Caur's work both confirms and subverts the traditional picture of women. Sinha writes that "the image of women sewing quietly, within the acceptable parameters of femininity is in a way liberated by Arpana, as the woman is placed outdoors, embroidering larger destinies. Instead of a feminine, income-producing function, it becomes a political comment on women's productivity."
Today her paintings support several projects for the underprivileged, including free vocational training in the Academy of Fine Arts and Literature of which she along with her mother the renowned writer Ajeet Cour, is the Founder Member. She supports a leprosy home in Ghaziabad, and ration projects for poor and old widows through Om Wahe Guru Ashram.
She expresses in her paintings her concerns for environment, time, life and death, spirituality, condition of women and growing violence in the world, rooted in the language of ancient Indian Sculptures and Miniatures.
Caur's works are part of the collection of several important institutions including the Museums of Modern Art in New Delhi, Mumbai, Chandigarh, Düsseldorf, Singapore, Bradford, Stockholm, Hiroshima and Los Angeles, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem.