Already in the Spring of ’72, at her last show in Delhi, one was aware of certain signs of transition. Nasreen is one person whose work runs a close parallel to her own lifestyle. This is austere, controlled, minimal. Her rooms are bare except for the changing light on the white-washed walls. Her drawings lie quiet in a black portfolio; her working tools are meticulous. Nasreen has a particularly fine visual sensibility. She is conscious; her work is increasingly ordered by her intelligence; the changes in her work over the last three years are, significantly enough, structural.
Nasreen’s work can be called experimental. The more concrete one is, the more abstract. She has pared down to straight lines in black and white. No curves. Not even the expressionism of free-hand. Her lines are ruled. The graduated thickness of these lines read from a distance as tonal densities. That is all. For the viewer to turn away at this point under the impression that they are cold and unemotional would be a mistake: it is at this point that the viewing process starts. The drawings are understated but not simple. They yield under analysis. Subtleties of related proportion emerge; there is a calculated symmetry in what appears to be random. Such surface simplicity results from structural density of a high order (as with high-tension steel).
“A developing awareness in the mind affect the work. This developing awareness I will call ‘the work’….. There is the work in our minds, the work in our hands, and the work as a result.” -- Agnes Martin
Already by 1972 Nasreen had moved into greys. Her ink washes were distinctively as much by their space-use as for their tonal values. At this point mood seemed important: a sense of immanence, twilight, nostalgia. Random details such as chevrons, angles, triangles, pyramids and squares emerged and disappeared into the shadowy ground. Placement of these images was spare. This only accentuated the sense of space and density.
Space, for Nasreen, has always been independent of scale. The event around which she puts the frame could be microscopic or capable of infinite extension. The is less a technical device than a habit of seeing. Her photographic studies (carefully documented according to the subject and time) continue to provide clues, not only to what catches her attention, but more importantly the way in which she makes her visual memory work for her.
These photographs are black and white. They are abstract even on the rare occasions when the camera captures human figures. They are studies of light and texture.
A series taken in Bahrein concentrates on white-washed walls in narrow gulleys; the sun is high and casts a rank of symmetrical shadow on a tough wall-surface already lightly pocked with shade. Doorways are reduced to an inset of verticals in space. In Rajasthan what alerts her eye is the way the sun has stripped the landscape down to whiteness. A flight of rough-hewn steps becomes an ascent of horizontals trapped in light. There is a series on a beached boat; all that we see of the boat is the horizontal planking with a notation of nails. Seascapes focus on the alternating striations of land and water. Here again the water reflects the light and become space; the shingle is a densely textured contour. These photographs are a study of natural rhythms where the organic comes close to an absolute geometry.
For Nasreen the act of making is the art of selecting the essential from the non-essential. This is her continuity.
Increasingly in her work, space becomes synonymous with light. Whereas earlier this space was shadowy, misty, undefined space is now an open statement. What is darkness but an absence of light? The interpretation of light and dark gives variation in tone. If we look closer at this dialogue we can break it down simply to the alternation of black and white. Instead of applying an overall wash, one starts with a white space and controls density by the fineness or the heaviness of an applied line; and by the closeness or distance of these lines one from another. This gives rhythm.
At this point the play starts. Having established a rhythm, one can superimpose a second, third and fourth rhythm. Or one can interrupt it at will; and these interruptions or intervals can constitute a variety of patterns. By reducing the vocabulary therefore, one can expand the range to support increasingly fine and flexible proportions.
The space itself is undisturbed. It participates or permits the play of lines on its surface; it is never cancelled out. The lines, too, do not attempt to annihilate the sunya, or disguise it. They are intended to be viewed as travelling points (in space).
It is interesting that the drawings that most satisfy Nasreen are not necessarily those that the viewer finds visually most rewarding. Her own best critic, she is careful to steer between that kind of “cleverness which is not arrived at but which is visually attractive” and the temptation to weave optically intriguing puzzles. It is a rare integrity that is prepared to relinquish sensibility (her most consistent quality) for intellectual balance, and intellect itself for the sake of the developing work.
Few Indian artists have been concerned with the problem of visual perception. With Nasreen, seeing is concentration. The eye that habitually receives sense impressions must both intuit the patterns of experience and discover their inner logic. It is in this faculty of balance -- somewhere between mathematics and mystery -- that distinguishes her as an oriental.
Her work gains from being viewed at several distances. Close to, her drawings real like musical notations. Space is crossed by a basic rhythm. This may be horizontal: the easiest to read; or it may be the classic Nasreen moire of converging-diverging diagonals on a horizontal weft. This tends to control the field-density. Clusters of heavier lines come together in their own rhythm, or separate. Musical intervals of rest move in. A secondary pattern of short lines or angles that transit into chevrons accent or counteract the basic movement. They either bracket the focal point of the field, or show a tendency to soar off into their own space. They act like inflections. As the intervals between them get smaller and smaller, their effect is staccato and pronounced. As the intervals widen, the eye interprets their sequence with less tension and more leisure.
Complexity of structure is nothing other than the experience of simultaneously integrated events. As the viewer takes his time he can experience this excitement or overlap against the cool of space; the satisfaction of a repeat in certain motifs together with surprise at the unexpectedness and skill of controlled variation.
The question recurs in regard to Nasreen’s work that is to a certain extent private. It is to be sensated, but finely sensated. Her abstracts are neither obvious,impactualnoraggressive. Her work is not a comment on the social or political problems of our time. This naturally limits those who can enjoy her work to those who are prepared to understand her language. This seems to be a commitment that Nasreen herself has already come to terms with. It is not always a question of what one does, as much as how one does it. The way she has chosen is a difficult way, a pure way, a way without self-indulgence or regret.
Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1975