Artist Nilima Sheikh on illustrating “Blue and Other Stories” and the interplay between text and image

When you read Blue and Other Stories (Tulika Publishers), read it twice. Once for the stories that unfold in Suniti Namjoshi’s minimalist writings, and then for the stories that unfold through Nilima Sheikh’s ethereal illustrations. This is not to say that the stories are different; the two are largely complementary and conspire to create a composite effect. But in the swim of the stories, it is easy to lose track of the book’s luminous art.

A graduate of Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda, Nilima has shown her work extensively, in India and abroad, since her first solo exhibition in New Delhi in 1983. It draws richly from various Indian traditions, and refers frequently to historical and literary texts.

The roots of this particular collaboration lie in a creative writing workshop organised by Tulika, and conducted by Suniti Namjoshi. This is not her first illustrated book, however. “I worked on a project for Anveshi, a Hyderabad based collective, which intended to reach the kind of children who do not have the luxury of reading.” Her illustration was for a story translated from Telugu. Prior to this, Nilima had illustrated Jataka stories.

Apart from this, text has entered Nilima’s work in different ways and contexts. In “When Champa Grew UP”, a series of 12 paintings from 1984, each depicting an episode in the life of a young girl who has an arranged marriage and is then murdered by her in-laws, text appears in the form of verses from various Indian songs.

“The process was reversed. I did paintings first and then I found songs that more or less illustrated what I had painted. So I interspersed them with my painting…When they come together, text and image share things rather than overlapping or invading each other,” she says.

One also recalls her series of illustrations of Agha Shahid Ali’s poems, “The Country Without A Post Office - Reading Agha Shahid Ali”. Is there a difference in illustrating poetry and children’s stories?

“I think they are very different. I have to confess that it took me a little while to find the right tenor to approach the work. I didn’t want to make it overly layered. It’s nice to have some layering for children because they see more than you think they do…”

The art of the book is marked by a use of unbroken lines and of familiar colours in an unfamiliar way. The former is a product of the unique brush Nilima uses, fashioned out of squirrel hair. “It has an ability to hold paint and release it very gradually. That accounts for the very fine line that a miniaturist can do. I can use the line continuously without breaking and dipping it in paint.”

As an artist whose work has embraced several spaces and surfaces, how would she like children to encounter her art first – in a book or in a gallery?

“The book form definitely reaches more children…I’ve always been interested in the idea of children looking at my art. A lot of my early art — my children were growing up at the time — I used to think of it as a way for them to see the world. I was interested in the notion that they look at paintings and identify the world they are familiar with. I think that translated into my work with book illustrations, whenever I have done them.”