Gayatri Sinha: When you show your scrolls Nilimaji do you intend there to be an order in how they are viewed?
Nilima Sheikh: I hadn’t planned an order but eventually after the install of Each night put Kashmir in your dreams I did first in Bombay, then at Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi, and then later, a bigger version in Chicago - what happened is that a general kind of order seemed to emerge. It was not designed but most of the time I displayed them in a similar sort of way. What we have shown in Athens is from Each night put Kashmir in your dreams, older works, already seen in India. At Kassel there is a new set of 16 works , four of them are primarily of text, Terrain: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind.
GS: Can you describe some of the new work?
NS: This is actually one of the last ones I did; it refers to Rohith Vemula and draws from his letter. There is one part of it quoted here. He uses the phrase Shadows to Stars and I’ve kind of kept that as the forming impulse. There are hanging figures which are not specifically quoted from photographic sources but do refer to newspaper coverage a year or so ago when the bodies of Dalit men were found hanging from a tree.
This is a Sohni Mahiwal that I have painted earlier, and then done again, trying to pick up threads. You know how in Greater Punjab there are songs identified most often by the female protagonist - Sohni, Heer, or Sassi, sung in praise of love that defies community and patriarchal censure, in a land stained by the bloodshed of inter-community and honour killing.
GS: What do you think it is? A great contradiction?
NS: It is a great contradiction; I would like to work more on this to understand it better. I really don’t know what this is. But even now a Heer is sung with so much passion both in Pakistan and India. And all of these songs are about inter-community love and the defiance of patriarchy.
GS: But the consequence is always death. That it is doomed and it cannot sustain the passion.
Is making the work distressing?
NS: Somebody asked me recently if I get depressed while working. Obviously it does distress me when I’m reading about it or thinking about it but I don’t think depressed is the right word.
GS: What is the feeling when one works like that? Is it just the excitement of the formal resolution, the thinking around the work?
NS: It is not just the formal resolution. There is excitement of bringing them together.
GS: The idea and image?
NS: The emotion, content and formal energy. One has to be so careful not to trivialise the content.
I remember many years ago when I painted the Champa series, it used to worry me a lot that the life of this young girl who lost her fragile life could be trivialized. The idea of doing it in a sort of folio form came out of that, that it should be seen, not just up there on the wall for everybody; something that can be put away quietly. Somehow that feeling was there - the match of the language and the emotions with which one is facing it.
And this time particularly this is my concern, for each scroll I needed to hone the language.
GS: For each scroll as in a subject?
NS: For each painting. It might not seem so from the outside. When one tries to work from within there have to be those slight changes, which would bring some kind of suitable feeling.
GS: You said you liked the folio because you could put it away?
NS: At that time…yes.
GS: Does that apply to the scroll because it can be rolled away and in that way it maintains its cocoon of privacy or quietude?
NS: Yes. It comes from a long term understanding, from Coomaraswamy, elsewhere, within Asian art, which made one understand the difference between an easel painting, presences which could stay with you, and other kinds of viewing that may be transient.
It is not necessary that I wouldn’t want the scroll to be up for a long time. But the way it can be viewed is within the nature of the form, the structuring principles.
GS: Much of the work, seem to step out of a static mould into a dynamic engagement with time.
I’m very struck by just these images of your work at Athens. The scroll itself is one that can come down and go up but within the scroll there are different divisions, the horizontal and the vertical colour divisions, which seem to suggest a sort of a planar movement of time.
NS: Absolutely. I would say that the relationships of image and narration is within the interplay of planes, I think I enjoy very much giving each of them an autonomous space and this is often by shifting the scale and making their world within that larger world.
GS: So it is an act of conferring a certain dignity and privacy? The dignity I think more than anything else because otherwise in a large scroll the figure would be so exposed. And when you do expose the figure, as with Sohni in the waters, then the sheer magnitude of this figure within this vastness seems to suggest another kind of play, that there is an abandonment or an absence of protection. It’s as if the water body is going to expand and the banks on the two sides might disappear.
How do you deal with this spatially because you don’t have so many antecedents for the scroll? Or do you look at the Phad or Cheriyal scrolls?
NS: In many ways. With the scroll or Phad, as with the miniature, what works for me is the additive mode. This is an argument I have been having with myself and within a circle of friends - I remember the first time I suggested it, additive was such a bad word. It was a negative word, considered extraneous. I think I do love the absence of finality of an artwork. I want to keep the option of having another version, of working with the notion of a palimpsest, or of extension. And that you can add to it in the way a miniature painting would, through seriality, through the contra positioning hashiyas, or a Pichhvai would with its innumerable panels. There are diverse ways in which they tell their stories. And also thangkas…
GS: What of Indian maps? The wonderful construction of the maps of the vertical flattening of the cosmology, and in that sense the treatment of time would be very similar to what happens here.
NS: This is true of mural traditions in many countries. We have all kinds of devices of extending spaces.
GS: When one looks at the work, the question often comes up about the relationship of kinds of spaces. Especially in the work that went to Athens there are at least two types of scale - there is perhaps the landscape and there is within the landscape if not a narrative, the suggestion of a figure and it’s placing and its affective or psychological state. Then there is also within the same work the chhaap or print, of the stencil and the text. This resolution of where borders are drawn, where you want to put the text within the image, how does it work for you?
NS: I thinkitcomesagain from understanding that for instance, there is no ‘one’ history; there are histories. There is never one entry point but many entry points. And contexts change orientations. Something that you keep repeating, changes with every remaking, every context. In painting there are many ways of giving context. The way you are painting it gives it a context, or the colours you use, or the size, the relationship of scale,…shifting contexts is somehow an ever renewing thing.
GS: One of the attitudes in the work or the dominant impression one often gets is of great beauty and of course loss, a sort of a poetics of loss. Loss can easily slip into disintegration so it’s very much on the edge of that, but this attitude of mourning or loss seems to pervade such a large body of the work and the narratives that flows between these and then intermingle with our lives…
NS: But the mourning is not entirely without celebration?
GS: I think there is a celebration of energy.
NS: I am thinking about this for the first time so it’s not something I have thought through…
GS: I think there is celebration in the painterly-ness of the work. The colours, the flow, the movement, because there is great dynamism in the work itself. In the way that you prevent stasis. You don’t let it rest. The work has a silent movement, a churning, flow even chaos, the elements of air and water in complement are very strong in the work and they are whipping up their own energies. I think there is celebration and there may be great beauty I think in your appreciation of the seasons.
I think your position as a painter in the excavation of mythographies, of narratives long forgotten, let’s say even the privileging of the narratives in Punjab. Over the last few decades who talked about Punjab? All the honouring of the folk tradition, of the textiles of India has been of the west coast. It’s not been of the areas of Punjab and Kashmir where there has been so much disturbance but where the crafts were not honoured on a national level as you had in Gujarat or Central India or South India. That’s often worried me that if only these craft traditions in the 50 or 60 year period had been honoured and given the same space and understanding, we might have had a different history. I wonder how it is that successive people who make these kinds of decisions completely occluded Punjab and Kashmir. Those are the territories you return to interestingly and you excavate the poetry, the myths…Punjab has not been fashionable. It’s only recent that there have been relationships drawn in the literary mould between the great histories of migration and Partition in Punjab.
NS: This is something that I might have shared with you earlier. Kashmir has been in my zehn for quite a long time, even as a very young artist, starting off after college, it was always there within my body. The land, which hosted my visual understanding of space, was Kashmir in a sense.
GS: Was this prompted by family holidays?
NS: This might sound very trivial but family holidays for us were quite adventurous. We used to often travel with tents, mule packs and Gujjar guides.
It was the time when trekking in the mountains was very different ….(laughs). We used to arrange these tents, and the Gujjars would come along with us as we used to move from one place to another. Having this childhood experience of seeing this world and walking this world… walking a world is very different from seeing it in any other way. You see everything, flowers under foot and the next range of mountains - all in one sweep. Going from one valley, crossing a pass and turning to another valley.
GS: How old were you?
NS: Basically all through my adolescence. Early adolescence to my young twenties. Every summer, we would set off, sometimes in Himachal, and some times in Kashmir. I was asthmatic; it was a little more of a struggle for me than for my sister who was far more athletic. But my parents were doctors. My father used to carry with him one mule pack of cartons of medicines. So every place we went the news would spread that a doctor has come, and there would be a medical camp, morning and evening. He used to examine patients and dispense medicines. Those were places where there was no medical care at all. I remember Gujjars settled up there for the summer with their cattle in the high pasture-lands would bring milk for us….
What I was trying to tell you is that in the artist world which was my context when I started painting, the complexities of the land of Kashmir were not admitted- it was not part of their “real’ life. I think a lot of the problem for our generation of intellectuals lay in seeing it as an exotic place, something out of the purview of the real India. For a long time I had to deal with this dilemma, that this is what I want to paint. My whole understanding of spatiality was something that came from there. But there was a taboo that I had to cross. Like you said, these were areas that were not celebrated. For the artist, film maker community Rajasthan might have been the ‘real’ north India.
GS: Something like Phulkari for all its beauty and its modernity never got a look in.
NS: I am from a Punjabi family, have family in Punjab and we would visit regularly but I think my association with Madan Gopal Singh and Manjit Bawa was instrumental in deepening my view and appreciation of the music of the region. However, my first exposure to the Quissas of Punjab was through seeing Sheila Bhatia’s now iconic production of Heer in my childhood.
GS: Ranbir said that in 1984 he, Madan and Manjit would meet in a little studio shared with Leela Mukherjee and they overcame that difficult period by singing the songs of Punjab. But in your isolation, in your appreciation of Kashmir, was it a challenge to think of using a language?
NS: Yes in the early 70s, I had started doing oil paintings that had flora, river and mountain-scapes from Kashmir and Himachal. After I had my children my whole understanding of intimacy and the intimate object changed quite considerably and I think that catalysing of a wider space through this intimacy became very crucial. To learn, I had started looking at Indian and Persian miniature painting a lot, but also of many of the other Asian traditions including the Chinese …
GS: And the grandeur of scale.
NS: So I think those were entry points to enable me to start to think of Kashmir. This would be my unlearning the studio language I’d learned and trying to learn language through the pictorial histories I had learnt to love. And Gulam (Sheikh) was my partner in this. He had for many years taught many of these art histories, and I learnt to share this great passion. So we would travel a lot to museums and sites within India and abroad to see works of art. He has great passion for Italian painting and I married into that. (Laughs)
However, as a woman with growing children my lifewasdifferentfrom Gulam’s or Bhupen’s, no matter how much we shared. I had to find my voice on my own.
GS: You were living in your home Niharika with Gulam and your children?
NS: Not Niharika, we used to live in this amazing place - the British Residency. It was used for University teaching staff accommodation. We lived in a small part of it. It had this huge somewhat unkempt garden where the kids would have a great time. There was quite a community of children because the university class IV servant quarters were close by so the kids from there used to come and play as well. It was good for my children that they had a chance to grow up without too sharply defined class barriers.
During that time I used to paint the children who used to come to play - into my paintings
GS: How do you see Dalhousie, Himachal as compared to Kashmir?
NS: Dalhousie was home. Since there was a home to return to there was comfort and familiarity in the landscape. I think Dalhousie has given me a lot though, hill town life, locales - or if you look at the light in these forested areas, the way that it sparkles is different from in the planes…I found it difficult to complete a painting in the planes that I had started in the hills.
GS: To come to the forming of your figures, when you are speaking of 1984, Left movements, Left intellectuals domination at that time, you would have had Baroda and its relationship with England and you would have had the Kerala Radicals.
NS: That came later; I am talking about the earlier period, when my political awareness was growing partly through my association with Vivan Sundaram, Sudhir Patwardhan, others. It was not that I did not learn from or share these concerns. It was what appeared to me as closures, that came with the left modernist position that excluded many of my concerns.
GS: And these positions were very dominant positions?
NS: They were dominant…it was the combination of modernism and Left orientations that was making too many closures for me.
GS: So you decided to perhaps withdraw from both?
NS: No, it was not so well thought out at that time. It’s only in retrospect that I could put this in perspective. But like I said my life as an artist and as a woman with my children growing up had another orientation, which I couldn’t share with many people around me. Till friendships with Arpita, Madhvi and Nalini deepened and we started to show and share together through the mid-eighties. It is later, in the late 80s - that I was part of this workshop that Vivadi, a feminist collective that had been set up by Anuradha Kapur with Vidya Rao, Kumkum Sangari, Shheba Chhachi, Urvashi Butalia, others which gave me another sense of sharing. A sharing that was different from that with the generation just before theirs. I felt that my work had seemed to become more immediately accessible.
GS: How long did you continue to paint and feel resistance?
NS: It was not so clear that there was this resistance there but one has to work with one’s own guilt and vulnerabilities. It is not that I did not have support amongst friends. There was always Gulam. And Bhupen for instance, was supportive.
GS: How did he read the work? What was his understanding of it? He would have understood there is strong gender interest.
NS: In a teasing way he would say that my feminism was easier to deal with than Nalini’s. (laughs) But I think he liked my drawing. At art school we are quite adept at doing life studies etc. But I realised that there was a mismatch: the kind of figure that I was wanting to place into the kind of spaces that I was trying to make, wasn’t working. So I had to develop new ways of making figures.
GS: You arrived at this figure in a stunning way, so I was thinking what were the antecedents and perhaps can we draw a line from Amrita Sher-Gil through Satish Gujral’s figures of mourning.
NS: Sher-Gil, yes. But I didn’t respond to Gujral at that time.
GS: Pran Nath Mago’s drawing?
NS: Perhaps, but they were not a part of my greater understanding of things.
Sher-Gil I did appreciate, even though Sher-Gil was thrust down our throat all the time as art students. But nonetheless I do admire the volume of work... and the way she has developed this north Indian female figural type and its body language.
GS: The language of the body, how she holds herself. It has allowed you to slide back and forward in time. There is an adaptation in the way you use the figure for instance in the Panghat Stories or Champa. The continuum across forty or fifty years, sliding back into Sohni and forward into Kashmir.
NS: I think you’re quite right that Sher-Gil would have provided a base for that.
GS: I wonder where it came from…and this is beyond the miniature.
NS: Nainsukh, the Kangra shailis, the rhythms of for instance the Nala-Damayanti series, were always there to aspire towards. There was a painting in the Bhagavat Purana that I used to yearn to be able to paint like, just an ordinary scene of a procession, and I still feel I want to learn to draw from that. It’s important to re-learn to draw with each set of works.
GS: There is an acute vulnerability in the figure. If we look at the miniature classifications for instance, she’s not for instance Basohli.
GS: Not strong and powerful. She doesn’t have the seduction of Kangra. The coy, shy beauty of Chamba. So I was wondering that within the miniature traditions was there a figural type that particularly attracted you or a style or a painter? You mentioned Nainsukh.
NS: The whole shaili of Pandit Seu, especially the great Nainsukh perhaps. Though, I very much admire Basohli, and several other schools of Pahari painting but I think the kind of naturalism of the Pandit Seu’s school made it seem more accessible to me.
GS: These are also very tender figures. The figure of humility is also very particular to your work and which would have been quite contrary to the political attitude making, where the artist’s position or the artist’s articulation, that kind of naming and claiming became very important. In your work there is always a mediation through another story.
NS: I think I look for that…this mediation. I think my interest in Agha Shahid Ali is also from there, this sharing, or should I say, cumulus of language.
GS: So, this would have been outside the modernist paradigm, of modernism and left politics?
NS: I’m talking about the modernist finality of the framed work, and the sort of the masterfulness of the work. An artist like Tyeb, say for instance. For all the humanism the work contains, it is a masterfulness that makes the image and it is final, you don’t shift anything, change anything around.
I’m not talking only of Tyeb, I’m talking about the form, that it had lost the ability to negotiate with the viewer, allow him or her to enter, re-enter, go within and without, rediscover the image inmanyways. I missedthe possibility of interleaf within it. I’m using a wrong word perhaps and I don’t mean it in a critical way, but there was a sort of out there pomposity in the form. This is it…this is how a great work of art is. Not that I didn’t admire it but I didn’t feel drawn to it. I didn’t feel that it was the way I could articulate myself.
GS: It is also not inclusive in a way that the Italian mural is…
NS: That is very correct.
GS: It does not allow you space for accommodating yourself.
NS: Yes, the viewer’s space.
GS: That the viewer can gain a toe hold among the many. There’s none of that possible.
NS: Exactly, there is none of that possible.
GS: That’s an interesting thing you are saying what does then art purport to do? Does it hold up a mirror to the world or does it assume the authority of a monument in some respect. It’s just there and you can stand back and stare at it.
NS: All work is about the human condition.
To be continued…
quissa - tale, fable, romance, quarrel, dispute
zehn - memory, mind, understanding
hashiya - margin
shaili - style or practice
pichhvai - an Indian temple hanging with scenes from the life of the Hindu deity Krishna, used behind the temple idol.
phulkari - an embroidery technique from the Punjab region literally means flower work. Simple and sparsely embroidered odini (head scarfs), dupatta and shawls, made for everyday use, are called Phulkaris, whereas garments that cover the entire body made for ceremonial occasions like weddings and birth of a son, fully covered fabric is called Bagh (garden).
phad - a stylised form of scroll painting practiced in Rajasthan.
cheriyal scroll - a narrative form of scroll painting rich in the local motifs peculiar to the Telangana region.
tangkha - a Tibetan painting on cotton or silk applique, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala.
Sohni Mahiwal - one of the four popular tragic romances of Punjab.
Sassi Punnu - a famous folktale of love narrated in the Sindh region.
Heer Ranjha - a popular tragic romance of the Punjab.
Vivadi - a working group of painters, musicians, writers and theatre practitioners, formed in Delhi in 1989.