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Terza rima in tempera

Painter Nilima Sheikh's recent exhibition `The Country Without a Post Office. Reading Agha Shahid Ali' held at Gallery Chemould, Mumbai, was a dialogue between painting and poetry, says NANCY ADAJANIA ... the result of Sheikh having read Shahid and warming to his longing for Kashmir ....


Like painting, poetry has the ability to reach the core of emotions - "The Loved One Always Leaves", 2003.

"Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight
before you agonise him in farewell tonight?
Pale hands that once loved me beside the Shalimar:
Whom else from rapture's road will you expel tonight?
Those `Fabrics of Cashmere — ' `to make Me beautiful — '
`Trinket' — to gem — `Me to adorn — How — tell'— tonight?
I beg for haven: Prisons. Let open your gates —
A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight... "

Agha Shahid Ali, Ghazal, `The Country Without a Post Office', 1997

AGHA SHAHID ALI possessed the tenacity and patience of a rangrez: he dyed his words with passionate precision, weighing each syllable, bloodying the timbre or plucking a scathing tone. This "refugee from Belief", who died in Northampton, U.S., in 2002, was heartbroken at the way Kashmir, his homeland, had been transformed from an idiomatically perfect jannat, a paradise, into a janaza, a funeral procession led by political opportunists of every shade. On reading Shahid, the painter Nilima Sheikh warmed to his longing for Kashmir, which was both an object of desire and a searing political reality to him. From her own childhood treks in the Valley, Sheikh had derived a lasting experience of incomprehensible terror at the edge of beauty. This dialogue between painting and poetry forms the basis of Sheikh's recent exhibition, "The Country Without a Post Office: Reading Agha Shahid Ali", held at Gallery Chemould, Mumbai (April 9 to 30).

At a basic level, a viewer might match Sheikh's "quotes" of paint with Shahid's poetic chroma of "smashed golds" and "petrified reds", seeking visual analogies for poetic strategies. But I would suggest that Sheikh's painterly impulse is catalysed, in a far deeper sense, by Shahid's experiments in poetic form. His deliberate choice of innovating the ghazal — a traditional Urdu verse form with rhyming couplets — as a poetic experience in English, is an apt example. Equally commendable is the virtuosity he displayed while experimenting with traditional Western forms like the sonnet and the villanelle, as well as more complex forms such as the canzone and terza rima.

Just as Shahid's poetic strategies owed greatly to prior literary traditions, Sheikh's painterly strategies have drawn upon the traditions of Mughal and Rajput miniatures, as well as other Asian forms such as the courtly art of the Japanese screens and Chinese landscape paintings. She has also drawn on Indian and European tempera and fresco paintings, while constructing her own language against the prescribed (and already fossilised) vocabulary of high modernism, which dominated the fine arts curriculum of her student days. She had excellent company, in her rebellion against the Greenbergian high modernist insistence on the purity of the paint medium. While she was still studying at the Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda, during the 1960s, Gulammohammed Sheikh, one of its alumni, had already begun to look seriously at miniatures at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, engaging with the methods and lifeworld of these traditional paintings. Other Baroda artists were following the trajectory of pop art in the West, making the bold and inventive gesture of including the everyday contemporary in their work: they took up street localese and popular art, the micro-politics of autobiography and the macro-politics of the social life of objects.

Sheikh also benefited from the discreet guidance of her teacher, the artist and scholar K.G. Subramanyan: although her motivation to learn traditional techniques dates to the late 1970s, it was Subramanyan who had instilled in her a deep respect for India's living craft traditions. More pertinently, his own experiments in diverse media and contexts other than the mandated oil-bound easel painting favoured by the gallery, provoked in her the courage to question the binary of traditional versus modern in contemporary Indian art. Sheikh's experiments with tempera began because of a chance remark of K.G.'s: seeing that she was thinning her oils, as though emulating a wash, he suggested that she look at traditional miniature techniques of painting instead. What fascinated her about the miniature tradition was not just its techniques, but its "additive" structure, its coherence of minute details, rather than the modernist stress on the "definitive" singular image spelling a certain finality.

"As against the masculinisation of modernism, I was looking for a feminisation of painting, the language and intimate scale of a miniature helped me to find my voice," Sheikh reminisces. But the very elements of the miniature tradition that Sheikh found liberating, such as its "feminisation" of space and cellular structure, were denigrated as "feminine, decorative and sentimental" by contemporaries who saw the externals of style rather than the cogency of vision. Also, as Sheikh recalls, "Marxist historians looked down at the reactionary feudal structures that produced these miniatures. I was not alien to that interpretation." However, she observes emphatically, "If that structure had femininity, I could find a different way of looking at it."

Travelling to Jaipur, Udaipur and other centres of tempera painting to explore material and technique, Sheikh experienced the pleasure of loading a squirrel-hair brush that could hold more paint because of its slightly curved shape and draw longer lines than an average Western brush. The sensuous delight of marking a surface with such a hardy brush-kalam did not, however, influence her to imitate the miniature traditions: she insists that she neither possesses the skill for it, nor has ever wanted to acquire it. Her figures and landscapes are not minutely limned in, as in the miniature tradition, each with a definite attribute and place in the cosmos. Rather, they slip ambiguously in and out of representational and abstract forms; the body is sometimes reduced to just a trace of water or a stroke of lightning.

Sheikh considers herself to be part of the "Bengal school lineage" of Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee and Subramanyan. Her work would qualify as post-modernist, if we consider that she has chosen to work with the little narratives of the lives of women and idiosyncratic saint-poets, and not the grand epic narratives of national modernity. Her choice of media and materials has been eclectic: she has used indigenous materials, experimented with the scale and format of children's book illustrations (When Champa Grew Up, 1984), and worked with hanging scrolls, breaking through the frame and extending the painting to the wall and the air.

In her painterly readings of Shahid's poetry, Sheikh has used the conventions and devices of Persian miniatures, 19th-Century Nathdwara temple backdrops, theatrical tableaux from ritual dance-drama and architectural motifs to enrich the relationship between visuality and textuality. Sheikh visualises the poem in the margins and extends it with her own desired mappings of the Valley. Upakathas, various side-stories extracted from the emperor Jehangir's memoirs or Rushdie's Midnight's Children reinforce the main narrative inspired by Shahid's poetry.

In A Pastoral, Sheikh responds with a moving compassion to Shahid's ironic take on the nostalgia for a bucolic past. On first viewing we do the predictable thing, we "read" images from the poem onto the painting: a mountain falcon "rip[s] open" the blue magpie, the dust does not settle easily on "hurried graves with no names", but a certain image of gentle humaneness defies expected readability. This image of the invincible emperor Jehangir with tears etched like deep fissures in his face — as he mourns at the mazar, or tomb, of his favourite fawn — has been appropriated by Sheikh from Jehangir's memoirs. The fawn ripped to a carcass, its bowels an empty red shell, is repeated like an antara, a refrain in a song, in other paintings, to affirm the possibility of profound communication between life-forms which cut across the hierarchy of station and species.

And in the painting, "Hospital-dream of elephants", a phrase taken from Shahid's poem ("Lenox Hill") for his mother dying in Manhattan, Sheikh stylises the landscape with liquid mountain forms, referencing the early modern Bengal school. She places an inset of a disappearing 19th-Century Nathdwara pichchwai to enact Shahid's childhood fantasy of dressing as Krishna, and ruptures it with images of smudged military vans, the nightmare of everyday reportage. Thus Sheikh improvises with different registers of visuality, tweaking the early modern and the classical through the medium of the contemporary. This has also been Shahid's strategy: he disrupted the classical with the colloquial in his poetry, interrupting history with personal memory, or epic cartography with a very specific contemporary landmark like a roadside advertisement or the name of a bank.

Another formal element that binds Sheikh and Shahid is their play with the traditional art of alankara, not as decoration for its own sake, but as a structural ingredient. Shahid's poems are embellished with traditional forms that are integral to his writing, while Sheikh presents her temperas on Banarasi brocade scrolls, simulating the forms of a traditional scroll and Buddhist tangkhas. These elegantly sensuous scrolls breathe freely on the walls, ready to be folded up and taken to another destination. The nomadism implicit in these scrolls acts as a metaphor for the fertilising migration of trades, crafts and religions. Sheikh observes: "The Gyalsar brocade of the Tangkha was developed in Benares in response to Central Asian, read Tibetan and Kashmiri, patronage." Through this overlay of meaning, the artist attempts to remind people of the Buddhist past of Kashmir, today eclipsed by the binary of Hinduism versus Islam.

What fascinates this writer most, in Nilima Sheikh's paintings, is the paradox of impossible beauty that smoulders in these works, distant and yet close, as close as the heart of fire, the heartbreak of water.

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