Art

A house with many windows

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In her new show, artist Nilima Sheikh takes on the role of the artist as witness and commentator says Tejal Pandey

Through her latest work, Terrain: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind, artist Nilima Sheikh offers the viewer a space — an enclosure that she describes as “meditative yet vulnerable”. This single body of work, especially created for the Documenta 14 exhibition, held earlier this year in Kassel, Germany, is an eight panel retro verso structure (with work both on the front and back), that welcomes the viewer within and around for an up-close and personal exploration. Terrain in form is reminiscent of Shamiana, her earlier hectagonal creation made on canvas, only here her signature tempera technique is applied on fragile wasli paper instead, invoking the aforementioned vulnerability. The area encompassed within the panels, intimate by nature, is seen as a temporary shelter for the art and its viewer to be in quiet conversation with one another.

As layered as an onion

Touching upon a myriad issues stemming from contemporary global concerns of displacement, exile and migration, Sheikh draws upon the varied histories of art, cultures, prose and poetry in her work. It’s rich in both text and imagery, not just from India but also Central Asia and Europe. To read a work of art by Sheikh is to open up a reservoir of knowledge that dabbles effortlessly in multiplicity. Traversing across boundaries, both physical and metaphorical, she gathers stories, folklore and ancient practices of art, till a strong bond arises between histories of an ancient past and the present. Reflecting on her approach to the work, Sheikh says, “I’ve tried to deal with specificities and generalities at the same time…and going back and forth. And in that way the text also adds to the linking [of] one thing to another.” She affirms the belief that the expression of a certain idea need not be restricted by language. So displacement as a subject in her work gets extended into many forms. That of women leaving their home after marriage, of people displaced from their homes due to socio-political unrest, of forced exile or of separation faced by lovers unable to meet one another and of struggles faced by migrants in foreign spaces.

“What happens in my work is that there is an over layering, it’s not just that this work’s about this and this work’s about this (referring to compartmentalisation)… this work’s primarily this and then other things slide into it…” explains Sheikh. From Kashmir to Syria and from Palestine to patriarchy, Sheikh’s broad canvas holds a plethora of tales, told in her patent miniature style. She also brings out the atrocities that Partition brought with it, which she explores in greater details in the 11 new water colours that accompany Terrain. Through 16 panels, Sheikh narrates qissas from Punjab — tales of love, of Heer and Sohni, that we’re all familiar with as Indians, and co-relates that to present day honour killings. Honour, racism, patriarchal structures that victimise both men and women, are expressed through verses from famous writers and poets like Lal Ded, Mahmoud Darwish, Anna Akhmatova, Shah Hussain, Ocean Vuong and more. Tribal songs used here hark back to Sheikh’s first work When Champa Grew Up that used local Gujarati songs in text form.

Looking inwards

Sheikh’s trademark illustrative work emerges from her lineage of learning, which stressed on exploring one’s own roots and traditions before merging with ones from the West. This in turn can be traced back to the ideologies propounded by Abanindranath Tagore and the Bengal School and later at Shantiniketan by Rabindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose and Benodebehari Mukherjee. K.G. Subramanyan who taught Sheikh at M.S. University Baroda, learnt under both Bose and Mukherjee at Shantiniketan before turning teacher. He along with artist Gulam Mohammed Sheikh were crucial influences in Sheikh’s pursuit of exploring history, Asian art traditions and miniatures. To this, Sheikh adds her own interests and passions like Persian miniatures, murals and textiles. Dipping into the pot of her own memories from travels and experiences and imbuing these with her learnings, Sheikh manages to create complex work that still remains delicate on the eye, thanks to her unique pastel palette and fine-lined forms. The intricate sanjhi stencil work, stencils for which she collaborates with temple decorator-artists from Mathura, is another peculiar element that adds depth to the landscape, other than being an ode to Japanese screen work.

Beneath the text and paintings and through the sanjhi screens, one arrives at the core — the paper. The hand-made wasli from Jaipur is an important part of the miniature tradition that Sheikh religiously adheres to, with much fondness. Preparing her paper, priming it with a layer of gesso before applying a wash of paint, is part of the process of familiarisation for Sheikh, where she gets a feel of her medium. A blank white canvas is best avoided, she shares without reserve, so as to avoid the “artist’s block”. Sheikh’s own openness to share can be seen as a large part of the work’s process and the cumulative impact it has. Sheikh’s choice to borrow and meld work by other artists, writers and poets with her own, is like a celebration of plurality while being a study into the inner workings and connections that bind the world together in unsaid ways. While that, it is as much an exposition on one’s own life and learnings.

Memories of the past

Travel, for one, has been an essential source of education for Sheikh who inherits this interest from her mother, an avid traveller. She recalls how her earliest memories of “wild flowers, birds and mountain peaks” and “understanding of nature” developed during her travels with her mother. Recalling from travel, is recalling from memory and this usually in its most direct, basic form takes on a narrative/illustrative style that is typical of Sheikh’s work. She also attributes her later travels to the caves of Ajanta and the Dunhuang caves in China – a treasure trove of ancient Buddhist art, as sources of tremendous inspiration to her art. Re-tracking to memory and its use in creating art, Sheikh explains how sometimes a song or a poem can take one back in time and what one recalls from that becomes rich work material. “It’s less tangible the way that music translates into painting”, she concludes. As an example, she remembers Madan Gopal’s rendition of ‘Sohni Mahiwal’, which to her made the “whole landscape come alive”. Music then is safely another addition to Sheikh’s long list of inspirations.

Gopal’s attempt at rendering his voice to Sohni’s character, subverting or challenging conventional notions of gender specific expression is reflected in Sheikh’s own vivid imagery — an ode to the Turkish artist Siyah Qalam who painted nomads, tribals and demons in combat, usually associated with the male disposition. Who is the artist then, one wonders? Sheikh points out that despite the fact that “most painters that we know of in the world, till modern times are male”, it is important to “find the feminine within what exists”, as this too is an “extension of feminism”. Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing thumris and sakhi bhaav with ease and flare as also pahari miniature artists, all male, who paint figures with a certain “bodily grace and feminine movements” along with minute details of everyday domestic life, which she believes, a woman would easily notice, are for her examples of art’s power to surmount pre-assigned gender-specific roles and perspectives.

Fascinating as it is, Sheikh’s work can be difficult to absorb in its entirety at one go. One might need to revisit the work and explore it, perhaps bit by bit or layer by layer. She concurs, “…it’s also worked into the way that I formally paint…that a second viewing should throw up different things. That, it’s not necessary for you to take in everything at one go…that a repeated viewing should make it come alive. Otherwise the painting to my mind would begin to deaden.” As someone who is uncomfortable at the “finality that a framed painting” offers, Sheikh is constantly learning, reworking and extending her work both in form and content, in her need to “contextualise” her oeuvre as also to “bring history into work”.

Terrain: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind is ongoing at Chemould Prescott Road, Fort until December 9

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 11:47:44 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/art/a-house-with-many-windows/article21244085.ece

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