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Ocula Conversation

Nilima Sheikh in Conversation

Hera Chan Hong Kong 28 June 2018

Nilima Sheikh applying stencil on her work. Courtesy the artist.

Nilima Sheikh says it was a different time then. Though always true, what she is describing is the specificity of her life as an artist in India. Born in New Delhi in 1945, Sheikh trained and now lives in Baroda. Her paintings contain world lexicons, written with a language she has developed through the last four decades. In layers, her landscapes trace contested histories of Kashmir, the partition of the Punjab, and violence against young Indian brides. Integrating source materials that range from Turkish, Persian, and Indian manuscript painting, to literary excerpts from the poetry and writings of Mahmoud Darwish, Li Bai, Mirza Waheed and Chitralekha Zutshi, Sheikh's work thinks about how people identify with a larger collectivity, whether that be national identity or besieged peoples.

Before being trained as a painter, Sheikh trained as a historian. Two exhibitions at Mumbai's Chemould Prescott Road, one in 2003 and another in 2010, show her concern with the tumultuous history of Kashmir. In the first exhibition, The Country Without a Post Office: Reading Agha Shahid Ali, Sheikh engaged with the territory's upheaval by responding to the words of Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali in a series of vivid works. This concern was furthered in her 2010 exhibition, which included a series of nine exquisite casein tempera on canvas paintings titled 'Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams'. Through the amalgamation of meticulous details—from literary quotations to traditional stencils from Mathura—Sheikh's paintings come together as sweeping landscapes that traverse a cartography of divisive politics. A beautiful example of this, titled Sarhad 2 (2014), was included in the exhibition Lines of Flight: Nilima Sheikh Archive (22 March–30 June 2018) at Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong, along with a series of documents from the artist's archive that provided an in-depth understanding of her trajectory as an artist.

In this conversation, Sheikh discusses this trajectory—explaining how collectivity, literature and the landscape have informed her practice.

Nilima Sheikh, Sarhad 2 (2014). Tempera on Sanganer paper. 54.6 x 157.5 cm. Courtesy the artist.

In 1987, you were one of the initiators of what many now call the Four Women Artists exhibition, which showed watercolour works by Arpita Singh, Nalini Malani, Madhvi Parekh, and yourself. Later called Through the Looking Glass, this exhibition toured to five cities. How did this journey begin?

Feminism was present as an understanding in the social fabric, but in the cultural field, it had entered only marginally. The notion of women getting together to do an exhibition was fairly new, so when we were doing this, we came across many issues that left us a little uncertain. Who is doing this exhibition? Are we doing it? Are we doing it collaboratively? Are we doing it as the people who are judging? And we felt that it would be detrimental to the whole sense of solidarity with other women artists if we select some and don't select others. That became a crisis. So another friend of ours who we knew well said, why don't the four of us just exhibit together? Let's take it where people can come, not necessarily in very private galleries. So that's how it started.

What was your biggest takeaway from that series of exhibitions and how did your idea of art making change?

To give primary importance to works on paper. To me, this was a decision I had taken a few years before this exhibition. I would get comments from artist friends who were well meaning but not quite on the same tangent as me. They would say, 'ah, this is good but when are you going to start painting?' As if working on paper was not painting. It was a different time. It was setting aside the whole framed canvas on the wall which had so marked the modernist experience of art we had in India. It was an extension of a view that was separate from the window frame. And that was one aspect. Another aspect was that although we were not working directly in collaboration, the notion of a collective became, for the first time to me, very important.

Photograph of Arpita Singh, Nilima Sheikh, Madhvi Parekh and Nalini Malani alongside quotes from the artists. Exhibition view: Shilpa Gupta: That photo we never got, Asia Art Archive Library, Hong Kong (21 March–21 May 2016). Courtesy Asia Art Archive.

Do you think the collective working influenced you? You painted many film sets later on.

And often theatre sets. That was another kind of collaborative work that I did. Because an artist usually works in isolation, in their studio. The notion that what is yours—what is authoritatively yours—it has to stretch, when you're working in collaboration. I think that helped me a lot. Fairly quickly I gave up the notion of having any authoritative interest in my work and the quest was to develop a language.

Do you feel ownership of your work now?

It's not that I ever gave up that sense of ownership or authorship, but there are times that I work in a very personal and private way. I see the work coming out of my hands. But there are always ways in which I've had to stretch that. For instance, in my work, I use stencils made by craftspeople who live in a town called Mathura in Northern India who create decorative motifs in service of Lord Krishna. Collaboration in this case has been heavily loaded on my side, but perhaps they also enjoyed it and extended their practice because of this collaboration. I hope so. These are ways to bring other elements into the work which are not necessarily words spoken by me, but which add to the meaning. It is extending the additive mode of the work, adding things to it rather than containing it.

Exhibition view: Lines of Flight: Nilima Sheikh Archive, Asia Art Archive Library, Hong Kong (22 March–30 June 2018). Courtesy Asia Art Archive. Photo: Kitmin Lee.

Would you consider the way your works are stitched together as a kind of history painting?

Nobody has ever said that to me in that way, but you might be right. In some ways, I stitch together stories and information in a way that one could build up elements in time. I like my paintings to have place for different times and different geographies. In that sense, I use history as an alibi. History maybe not just as an alibi but also as a way of structuring my work. But it's not such a terribly self-conscious use of history. It's there, you know.

On 27 February 2002, a train was burned in Godhra, causing the death of 58 Hindu pilgrims and karsevaks returning from Ayodhya. This is cited as the trigger for the 2002 Gujarat riots: three days of inter-communal violence in the western Indian state of Gujarat. Following, there were months of violence in Ahmedabad, and further communal riots against minority Muslims for the next year. How did this affect your relationship with Kashmir?

At the time the Gujarat Riots happened (I don't call them riots, I call them genocide), I was planning a very large and ambitious take on Kashmir, which had interested me for many years. It was an ongoing thing. When the riots happened—when the notion of home became fragile, comparatively fragile—I felt that I was not able to gather my resources to do a very large work on Kashmir, but that I could sit quietly in a corner and read poetry and work on that. That's how I got so involved in reading the poetry of Agha Shahid Ali, who is a Kashmiri poet that I had known prior to that, but only properly read at that time, sitting in my studio. I felt for the time being, just let me be led by the hand of this poet and enter Kashmir through him. In that sense, I would say that dark period in Baroda made me think not only of Kashmir differently but of myself and location differently.

You have many source materials, from Turkish, Persian, and Indian manuscript painting to the scroll and mural paintings of China and Japan; from the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, Lal Ded, and Li Bai to the writings of Mirza Waheed, Salman Rushdie, and Chitralekha Zutshi. Literature of conflict.

They jostle with each other.

Exhibition view: Lines of Flight: Nilima Sheikh Archive, Asia Art Archive Library, Hong Kong (22 March–30 June 2018). Courtesy Asia Art Archive. Photo: Kitmin Lee.

My favourite work by Darwish, which I read in English, is Memory for Forgetfulness. It's like what you just said, all you can do is be in that moment. I want to ask you, how do you feel about the relationship between your work and literature?

I feel sometimes that the best painting in the world is illustrations. If you look back at the life of Christ, the life of Lord Krishna, these are some of the paintings that have interested and moved me very deeply. I have never had a prejudice against literature and painting connecting which each other; being part of each other's contexts. But modernism was the norm when I was growing up into my own entity, and there, connecting the two, they impinge upon each other. It was quite simple to want to break that frame. No work worth its salt is threatened by its relationship with another form of art. This was enhanced when I was working in theatre. Initially the actors would be very reluctant to act in front of my theatre props because they thought something would be removed from their bodies. But I think that they then realised—for me it was a realisation—how much these contexts can help express things.

How do you pick the quotes that you integrate into your work?

The first time I used text very consciously and deliberately was when I did the series 'When Champa Grew Up' in 1984. At other times, when I was doing a large set of works on Kashmir called 'Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams', the paintings were hung like scrolls and on the back of the canvas would be a lot of text. That became, in a way, my bibliography, my reading material. They were things I was reading while I was making this series, the research I was doing, and the things that motivated certain things. Sometimes they would have a relation to the painted image on the front. Sometimes only a tangent would be related to that, but there would be elements that would relate.

Nilima Sheikh, We Must Bear (2013). Casein tempera on canvas. Courtesy the artist.

What does it feel like to inhabit your landscapes for you?

I got to know the land [of Kashmir] as a young person by walking. We used to go on treks. In those days, this was often off the beaten track. At that time, the notion of trekking was not quite there but we had friends who could guide us in the right direction so we did it. My mother was very interested in botany, a naturalist in many ways. So this experience of seeing a world which we could walk in became for me my first sense of visualisation. Most often, the land became for me a starting point. Then it might change, it might become about other things. Or the other way around, sometimes when I paint something, the location becomes very much a part of what I'm trying to paint.

Do you see the landscape as a protagonist in your work?

I do not think I would like to say only a protagonist. There's an interchangeability with the characters. Sometimes the situation is made up of the landscape being the protagonist and sometimes it reverses. It goes back and forth. Very often when I paint, I shift the scale around. It's not always seen from an equal difference. The landscape becomes contextual to the figure it is framing. Or one figure might change in relationship to another figure that is close to it. It opens up another space. I find landscape a way of giving my characters autonomy, as well as connecting them.

Valley (2003). From the series 'Each Night Put Kashmir in My Dreams'. Casein tempera on canvas. 304.8 x 182.8 cm. Courtesy the artist and Chemould Prescott Road.

There are so many different kinds of feminism. I want to ask about yours. From this exhibition until now, many things have changed in the world and in India. Has your idea of feminism changed and how would you describe it?

I think it changes all the time. There are certain things that have happened that I did not understand back then. When I started painting, it was when I was in about my mid-20s. I had painted as an art student, professionally not so much. I was working. My husband—who was a little bit older than me—was actually my teacher. So, our circle of friends had a lot of male artists who were confident and developed in the forms they were working in. Though we were all good friends, I felt my life was different. I had children. I had my first child a year after I was married, so I felt that my experiential world was different, and that I needed to portray that differently. I needed to develop a language for that. I didn't think I was making some kind of feminist statement at that time. But in retrospect, I understand that what I was doing was what I would now call radical. I wouldn't have at that time. At that time, there were complaints coming from senior artists about how I put my children into my paintings.

When Champa Grew Up 1 (1984). Set of 12. Gum tempera on vasli paper. 30.5 x 40.5 cm. Courtesy the artist and Chemould Prescott Road.

Why not?

Exactly! Those were the concretising things for me. Doing the series 'When Champa Grew Up' was a very definite decision to work on a subject which had become a very pressing problem in our society, about the brutalisation and murder of very young brides to exhort more money from their families. It was a phenomenon called dowry debts. It was a time when a lot of it was coming out in the press. It might have been there before but there was not enough awareness. So when I thought it's necessary for me to work on this, I was unsure how to do it. I wanted to find the right language. It is one thing to want to work on something and another to find the language to say it because you don't want to make what you're saying banal. You have to find the right form, the right way of talking about it. In that sense, the feminisation of my language has in some way contributed to my feminist ideas. It's not so separate from the language that I use.—[O]

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