Return of the natives

Call from the valley In “Tree planter” Nilima draws attention to the Kashmiri practice of planting trees.

Call from the valley In “Tree planter” Nilima draws attention to the Kashmiri practice of planting trees.  


In Nilima Sheikh’s canvases, Kashmiris revisit, retrace the routes and locations of tragedy.

As an artist, I can only show Kashmir’s pain

Nilima Sheikh’s canvases are bustling with activity. Fantastical figures, folk motifs, humans, abandoned houses, corpses and sometimes weapons collectively convey the pathos of strife-torn region of Kashmir. The images and the poetry of Agha Shahid Ali that the artist has used on the canvases move the viewers but don’t leave them agitated. As opposed to “Country Without a Post Office” held six years ago where violence was more direct, “Drawing Trails” — Nilima’s current series of 16 works on Sanganer Wasli paper, show a ray of hope though surrounded by bloodbath and loss.

Through this set of works, she talks of return of peace to Kashmir and Gujarat, which also witnessed horrendous carnage. The natives return to the locations which bear the marks of loss and tragedy. In “Return” a man against the backdrop of abandoned homes, rummages through the debris as if looking for his glittering past. “I must come back briefly to a place I have loved to tell you those you will efface I have loved” — the lines from Ali’s poem “I have loved” are also an integral part of the work, just like always. “The problems of Kashmir are not yet solved. As an artist, I can only show its pain,” says the Baroda-based artist.

At a workshop held in Mumbai, Nilima came across a set of photographs clicked by a Kashmiri father of his son’s body being taken to the cemetery. The record taken with an intention to enable him to keep revisiting the moment led Nilima to base her two works on it titled “Route 1” and “Route 2”.While at one level, the father’s mourning for his son is personal, at another level, Nilima equates it with Kashmiris mourning for the bleeding homeland.

Mogao cave temples

“Tree Planter”, a panel like the rest, is divided into two halves. The upper half showcases a group of Kashmiris picnicking, and at a distance lies a corpse. The lower portion has a tree planter planting a sapling. “Kashmiris have a great tradition and love for food. I wanted to show that,” says Nilima who also seeks to pay homage to the most exquisite Buddhist paintings and sculptures found in the Mogao cave temples in Dunhuang in China through these works. So, if the works in the present series bear influences from the Chinese tradition, in the past, she brought together Persian miniature technique with the setting of the Nathdwara temple. Miniature technique entered her repertoire with “When Champa grew up” (1984) — a set of 12 small tempera paintings documenting the life of a dowry victim.

The use of stencils and paintbrush made of squirrel hair reiterates her love for the craft traditions. She employs stencils to create texture and at times, she treats them as pure motifs. Sheikh sources the stencils from Vishnu Prasad Soni — the traditional Sanjhi artisans of Mathura. “These craftsmen have given me an enormous vocabulary to work with,” says Nilima for whom literature is vital to her art. She has in the past quoted Gujarati folk songs. Her last show was specifically about Ali, an American poet with Kashmiri origins. “I feel texts don’t take away anything from my canvases. They give something to my work,” says Nilima.

(The exhibition is on view at Gallery Espace, 16 Community Centre, New Friends Colony, New Delhi, till May 30)

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