|Nilima Sheikh: Remapping the familiar|
“MY MOTHER had, as a child, cherished a desire to be an artist. We say a lifeline passes from mother to daughter. It is difficult to know sometimes where one starts and the other ends. Did I become a painter because of my mother? Because of her, with her, I went wandering every year in the Himalayas. Because of her I learnt to love travel to new places or re-mapping the familiar. Every time I travelled without her, I wanted to bring the landscape back to her because she had taught me to make the natural world intelligible. Because, without her, I was handicapped…”
Nilima Sheikh’s Garden for Mother, brush drawings since 1997, gather depth from the emotion invested in her words from the catalogue for a precious being who is no more. As much as from the tendril-like nuanced figures, ethereal jewel-pure colours and the restrained silences that wash through the current display at the Sakshi gallery in Bangalore from February 9 to March 6 ~ harking back to Asian traditions of painting from China, Japan, Tibet and Sri Lanka, to Indian miniature and narrative legacies, to the primal bonding between art and craft, perhaps even to beauty as a defining quality. Her enthusiasm now enfolds the post-Ajanta Buddhist cave paintings of Dunhuang in China.
In an age when attitudes dictate a turning away from conventional aesthetics, when to be tradition-bound is to invite derision, when stridency often substitutes for creativity, Nilima Sheikh ~ born in New Delhi in 1945 and trained in painting at Baroda from 1967 to 1971 ~ stands apart. Primarily because she’s serenely at ease with herself, and is proud to be a woman and an artist in a generation that paved the way for today’s flowering across the land.
Nilima’s artistic lineage, her mother apart, draws from her inspiring teacher at Baroda, K G Subramanyan, who was in turn influenced by Binode Behari Mukherjee, his shaping force at Shantiniketan. And Nilima recognises the importance of excursions with her teacher at Baroda, now her husband, the celebrated artist Gulammohammed Sheikh.
Captured in personalised hieroglyphics and vari-planed perspectives through the symbolic naturalism of an animal, unspecific vegetation or coupled figures swathed in intensity, Nilima shared slides of her recent journeys of self-discovery one evening. Inclined to work on cycles of paintings, as in the calendric series of the narrative of Song-Space, she explains, “Maybe I’m uncomfortable with a single piece. I’m constantly trying to resolve that.”
Re-mapping the familiar, to her, is a major area of engagement. In her works, whether casein in canvas or tempera on paper, her focus is on the everyday, but not on the banal. The intensity of Baroda-based Nilima’s transcreative powers is mesmerising in the 1984 series of 12 small tempera paintings, When Champa grew up, which retells with psychological truth the nurturing of a young girl in Nilima’s neighbourhood, her marriage and premature end for dowry, a very Indian tale. But in Nilima’s poetic narrative, the sequence grows beyond illustration, beyond the commonplace, to a universal plane.
Her works, whether based on personal experience or timeless legends like that of Sohni-Mahiwal, encompass the drama of the domestic or the strains of human interaction. The resulting amalgam often captures the commonplace ~ a crouching woman washing clothes or scrubbing vessels, a courtyard peopled with family interactions, a pharmacy of yore, a child at a sweet stall. Extending her canvas as in Shamiana, her 1996 work for the Second Asia Pacific Triennial at Brisbane that depicted “interior things inside and exterior things outside” in its tent-like space, she renders both sides of each huge panel with tantalizing intricacy.
Linked but not chained to Asian traditions, Nilima refers equally to Far Eastern paintings like Ukioye or Pictures of the Floating World, as to the Nathdwara paintings of Rajasthan. Whether in her miniature-scale works or her screen-like sets for the 1993 Vivadi theatre production of Umrao, Nilima’s work has a striking evocative grace, occasionally breaking through singular space into panels that enhance simultaneity of perception. She acknowledges a penchant for illustration, perhaps even for school textbooks, because “I think my children’s perceptions grew with the books they looked at, even more than their parents’ paintings.” Sweeping past the peripheral, Nilima thus connects the past with the present, the traditional with the contemporary. For doesn’t the test of today’s truth lie in the brush of the creator?
|Garden for Mother, 1997|
Her effects seem deliberately poetic, with extended abstract notations rendered hers with time ~ a dash of colour, a form that could be a being or a leaf or beating wings. Just as personal is her choice of media ~ her decade-long choice of gum and casein tempera, with the textured compositional propositions thus enhanced. And her preference for the age-old Indian miniaturist’s handmade wasli paper, made at Sanganer near Jaipur. Nilima’s crusade could be interpreted as a championing of the traditional Indian painter who, by virtue of his current form, is construed as relevant to her view.
Nilima, who studied pictorial concepts of Indian miniature painting and the tradition of tempera for its relevance to a personal contemporary context on a government fellowship from 1982-85and from 1988-90, has participated in solo and group shows all over India and in West Germany, Belgrade, Titograd, Istanbul, Ankara, Dhaka, Johannesburg, the UK and the US. Her work was featured in the 1988 Christie’s catalogue in aid of Helpage, and ‘Artist Alert,’ organised by Sahmat in 1989.
Her stances, as vocalised beyond her art, reflect a process of internalisation in a voice both sensitive and sure. Here are excerpts from a recent conversation in Bangalore:
There are so many images of the garden in your exhibition, and tender references to your late mother in your catalogue. I believe she was a pathologist, though she painted. Do you see yourself as living her dreams?
In some ways, yes. There’s this whole question of how a mother’s life is so interconnected with her child, especially a girl child. After my mother passed away, the memories were so intense. Whether it was my life or hers, there was such a blurring over. It was my childhood, my children’s childhood, my recollections of her telling me about her childhood, a continuing convergence. Through these images, I was perhaps also referring to other lineages of art history, like the Shantiniketan school, which referred through the nationalist proposition at the time to an Asiatic lineage.
What do you recall of K G Subramanyan as your teacher?
Many things. (Reflectively) One was the question of languages in the visual arts. How a thing is said through the way it is said. The question of construction. That the visual arts language is as important as that of literary or other arts. To have any kind of expression, one has to develop this.
Through his reference back to his teachers, to the work of Binode Behari Mukherjee or Ramkinkar Baij or Nandalal Bose or Abanindranath Tagore, these became for me a way of discovering an identity connected with the Asian tradition.
The way he broke hierarchy was important for me. Believing in praxis and practise was a major way of dealing with art. In his work, his ideas and his writing ~ this is not something he personally instructed me about ~ the differences between craft and art, between major and minor art, the polarity was diffused. I’m not saying that I refer specifically to craft in my work, but crafting became an important way for me to look at art, even objects of everyday use.
When you taught painting at Baroda from 1977 to 1981, what tenets did you base your teaching on?
It’s very difficult to think of one’s individuation. I can think of all the ways that other people have influenced me. In my own ideas, I can see the influence of Subramanyan or Gulam, who I live with.
That’s the time that a lot of fresh students came to Baroda from Karnataka and Kerala, including Pushpamala and Suresh, with a skill structure that was different from artists of Gujarat. It became a challenge to me to encourage that, rather than just what I was familiar with. There was already a tradition at Baroda of not giving prescriptions, trying to allow students to see the proposition within their own work. This was Subramanyan's greatest belief.
I taught the first year. The modernist idea was to try and purify that, to rid them of their preconceptions. I tried to encourage students not to repudiate their ideas and backgrounds without questioning.
With Gulam in your life, how have your interactions shaped both your lives as artists?
Gulam was my teacher. He taught art history. He opened up the world of art today and in the past. After we got married, we found we got so much pleasure out of seeing art together, whether in India or abroad.
At a more personal level, Gulam always pushes himself and others around him to their optimum. Gulam ran a magazine out of the house when our children were very small. He was teaching and painting. Through that, I was bringing up little kids. There was hardly any parental support. There didn’t seem to be other artists around with small children whom I could share these things with. Such a hurly-burly! I used to get exasperated. (Laughs) I still do. But he’s made me a much more active person than I was in the past.
How did you go about your study of India miniature and tempera traditions?
It’s been an ongoing thing, but during the Eighties I actually got an opportunity to travel and study the techniques of various kinds of tempera painting, particularly at Nathdwara and Jaipur in Rajasthan. There might be questions of whether these traditional painters are imitating themselves. I don’t think the problems are only with them, but also in the way we regard them, the way we don’t include them in contemporary art. Contrary to myth, these practitioners are fairly open about their techniques and materials. As soon as they realise you’re a painter, they don’t mystify anything. They allow you to watch them paint, they allow you to use their materials on a trial basis. And I made good friends, especially in Nathdwara, the centre of Pichwai painting.
I met a very old painter through Amit Ambalal. His name was Dwarkalal Jangid, a fine painter. He’s a practical man. When he feels there’s something in modern methods, that’s good enough. He told me of how the traditional pigments are prepared. I’ve tried to record as much as I could, but there’s far more to be done.
In India, we need to pay more attention to paintmaking. In Nathdwara, the process of preparing paint is very much within our abilities. But we don’t have access to either the range of raw material or to the technology; they are not marketed. It’s not necessary that you should do every part of the process yourself. Pigments can be prepared upto a point, and the rest you do yourself. Within families at Nathdwara, somebody would prepare some colour and keep it ready for use by everybody else. Powdered pigments would be kept ready in the form of a ball or a cake. When you need it, you just dissolve it and add the glues. It works within the community because of its cooperative nature. But this information doesn’t get out.
Even with papermaking, we have so much of traditional information. Papermaking is a sorry state of affairs. (Excitedly) Think of the vasli papers from Sanganer that the traditional miniature painters used. Every time you visit Sanganer, you realise that fewer papermakers are making vasli paper and the quality of the paper is deteriorating. There’s plenty of papermaking on in Sanganer, but of a commercial kind. The vasli paper is dried on fresco walls, so it takes on a patina. It is not bleached. That’s what makes it special. The local artists still use old papers that are in circulation because they want their pictures to look old. So, the new papers are only used maybe by art students studying the miniature or some Japanese commissioner choosing paper for special work. It’s really very sad.
Unfortunately, papermaking is considered a small-scale industry, not a craft. (With concern) So, you can’t get the Crafts Museum to help out. I believe Pune is making wonderful paper now. But we do have traditional skills. Why are we allowing those to go waste?
Was it the narrative quality of the Rajasthan, Pahari and Mughal miniature schools that drew you to them?
The narrative quality may be one factor. Maybe it’s the other way round. It could be that miniature painting attracted me to the narrative. Perhaps also medieval European painting, Italian paintings or Flemish paintings of the early Renaissance. But there always has been an interest in narrative painting through traditional sources at Baroda. As in Subramanyan’s early Lucknow mural. That was the entry and I got involved in it.
In what way did ‘When Champa grew up’ prove to be a turning point?
When I started working on paper in 1982, I began thinking on a more intimate scale. It throws up possibilities which might not have seemed right on a large painting hanging on a wall. I had planned to work on this real life story that had taken place literally in my backyard, but it was important to find a vehicle for that.
(With intensity) How could I talk about these things without making it banal or seeming righteous or pompous? Looking at it from the outside and making a declaration about it? There had to be some way I could enter it. One way was to look at it as a book or unfolding story. I considered using text along with it. I realised, with Gulam’s help, that there were garba songs on bride-burning. That became a clinching fact. I tried to visually translate the way the voice had been traditionally used. After I did these paintings, we located some texts that could alternate with the visual images. It was almost as if the paintings were illustrations for the songs.
In contemporary art, there appear to be stances against the beautiful. Yet, in your work, there’s a quality of accessible, acceptable aesthetics. Is this an offshoot of your personality?
Perhaps it comes quite naturally. I think modernism is full of guilts. Guilts of overcoming realism by modernism. It’s as if you have to repudiate something to discover the real thing. You shouldn’t feel guilty about the means that you use. It should be natural and integral to you. Take the notion of illustration. I believe that most of the best paintings in the world are done as illustration. I think beauty can be a vehicle for the most violent of sentiments or attitudes, it should be allowed to contain other things.
(Passionately) Or take the guilt about sentiment, which I feel is a false guilt. You don’t want to make sentimental paintings, but sentiment is part of your life. Perhaps certain attitudes have come into modernism because art was primarily being practised by men. So, the notion of strength became tied up with more male virtues. I think that strength needs to be redefined.
How would you assess today’s generation of Indian woman artists?
I think they’re fairly individualistic. Without taking on a heavily feminist agenda, they’ve learnt a lot from each other ~ by linking together, by staying together, by writing about each other.
(Thoughtfully) Today, my one big regret is that I couldn’t meet Meera Mukherjee before she died. She needs to be talked about far more; she’s a very major woman artist. Though she’s a sculptress ~ it always takes me a little more effort to relate to a sculptor than a painter ~ I feel she’s someone from whom I could have learnt a lot. She’s able to talk in one breath of the monumental and the iconic, the mundane and the personal, even the minor. It’s remarkable. I don’t think a male artist could have done that. That’s special to being a woman. That’s the kind of pleasure we take in each other’s work.
Over the last ten years, looking at other women’s work has given me enormous strength. Our concerns are very different from those in the west. Many of us come from very privileged situations because we have family support. Many of us have married artists or people connected with the arts. Many young woman are daughters of artists.
It would be wrong to say woman artists have no problems in India. We certainly do. Getting to a professional stage might be a problem… I think Amrita Sher-Gil did us a lot of good. Having got into the mainstream early on, that position of the woman as a professional practitioner was established.
But there would still be problems with the kind of work one does or the kind of groupings one makes. When I was painting in the 1970s, a very major artist said to me, “It’s all very nice. You paint very well. But why should you always put your children into your paintings?”
Do you feel that being a woman is an asset to being an artist?
I’d say that, I’d say that. (Chuckling) To find my own voice, it was important that I was a woman. It has to do with ownness. If I was a man, then perhaps I’d have far less resources.
What made you choose tempera and casein as your medium?
I started working with tempera on paper in 1982 because my paintings before that were beginning to look like tempera paintings. It seemed necessary to make this shift. I was also getting more interested in the traditions of Indian and Asian painting, which used tempera.
Later, I began to enjoy the medium for itself. I mix my colours myself when I work on a large scale. These colours have an intrinsic quality of their own, which gets neutralised by a medium like oil or acrylic. The colour quality remains the same, but the surface qualities tend to get neutralised. But in tempera, a terra verte would be different from a crimson. An earth colour would be different from a dye colour.
I’ve often thought I would like to work on a very large scale and casein has become a wonderful solution. It is more user-friendly than gum tempera. It’s waterproof.
To shift from miniature painting to the ‘Shamiana’ and your screen-like work in theatre… The scale changed dramatically, but the concerns remained similar. Were you testing your reach?
Strangely, there’s a similarity between a very small work and a very large work. I think it’s to do with realism. When you’re working on an easel painting, it’s connected with the human scale which the Renaissance developed. When you’re working on a scale that has potentially a different relationship to the human body, a standing relationship, it’s different. Whether it is a hand-held painting or a room-sized mural, the way you deal with representational gestalt can have commonalities.
I enjoy a physical relationship with my work. I think it’s more difficult to work on a small scale than on a large scale, apart from the problems of an ageing body. Because it’s not just your hand that can lead you on. It’s your body that is in it.
(Originally published in Sunday Herald, 1998)