Gayatri Sinha: How do you arrive at the scrolls as a form? It cannot occupy all the space.
Nilima Sheikh: A dedicated studio space in Niharika, in our new home in Baroda, once we moved out of University accommodation made it easier to make work which would extend, beyond the drawing board.
The studio at that time was much smaller than it is now but nonetheless it wasn’t a place where I had to put away things, to then return it into a bedroom. So I think I started working on a larger scale at that time. That would be from 1992-93… about 25 years ago.
GS: Did the scroll and the painted tent come together?
NS: The first set of scrolls were narrow and contained: 7’ X 2 ½’, the big canvas ones and the tent came a bit later: Song Space in 1994, then Shamiana in 1996.
GS: Both imply the rolling up action.
NS: The other big incentive was working in theatre, with the feminist collective Vivaadi. I cannot over-emphasize the importance for me of the workshop convened by Anuradha Kapur at the Kasauli Art Centre in 1989. We were a group of people of varied interests working together and devised a play titled Nayika Bhed which was directed by Anuradha through improvisatory collaborative structures. Novelist Geetanjali Shree was writing the script, Vidya Rao composing the music, Dadi Pudumjee created larger than life puppets and I painted large banners to create the mis en scene. Besides the actors, Urvashi Butalia, Sheba Chhachhi, Kumkum Sangari, Ein Lall, Anamika Haksar and Madhusree Dutta were all contributing to the discussions and improvisations. In retrospect, though I had worked with feminist elements in my work, I had never worked within a group of women who were thinking in ways similar to mine. I lived in Baroda where there was no such ferment, so I was more or less on my own, reading things that other people had written but not being a part of it.
It was also a moment when I think feminist thought was reclaiming other histories, and women’s lives, song and words were recognised and celebrated. Susie Tharu and K Lalita’s great and profoundly researched volumes on Women’s Writing in India had opened a floodgate of new histories
This workshop and seminar was followed in 1991 by Expression, another major formulation of cultural feminism. Film maker Madhushree Dutta, feminist lawyer Flavia Agnes and architect Neera Adarkar convened a pan Indian women’s festival in Bombay and it was five days of seeing theatre, listening to old cinema and theatre actresses, and learning with a largely women’s audience. Unfortunately there is scant record of that.
In the 80s, I had undertaken research fellowships on the living traditions of Tempera painting, notably on the Pichvai painting, the theatric yet enumerative form of backdrop scrolls. It was a documentation project but I watched the artists work, learnt about their pigments and colours, particularly from the senior Pichvai artist Dwarkalal Jangid in Nathdvara.
It was very good to watch the artists work. I have always said that it was not so much about the technique of a particular work tradition that I wanted to learn but the technologies that made it what it was. Over the years I have acquired Chinese, Japanese and German pigments. But there are certain colours that have remained with me which are from my days learning these technologies in Rajasthan or other centres of tempera painting like khari, hara bhata (green earth) or hingul (mercury sulphide). Khari is used both as gesso to prepare the vasli in Mughal, Rajasthani or Pahari painting as well as the white pigment to paint upon it. Khari is a white chalk quarried mainly in Rajasthan. It has an amazing ability to become as translucent as you want and as opaque as you want and has a luminosity that it is very special. Any colour that you put on top of it gets that special glow that the miniature painting tradition has. It can be used in transparent layers and you often see in Mughal portraits that the profiles are very sharply etched against the background colour. This is because the contour has been created by repeated corrective teasing with thin layers of khari pigment. Being of the same substance as the priming gesso on the paper - layers of Khari are also used to erase. When you paint upon these layers of khari you get an edge that is very special. The finest work can be done with a transparent use of khari, but as you see in some of ubhra hua kaam in Basohli paintings, in the ornaments for instance, it can acquire the strength to be moulded and withstand as a relief.
GS: Were there other artists looking at the miniature without the subversive intent say in a Bhupen or were there other people other than Gulam?
NS: Gulam and Bhupen would be the two, and Ramachandran. He became a collector from earlier on, enthused by his regard for the form and the parallels he found in his travels in Rajasthan.
GS: And the first scrolls were on canvas?
NS: The first few scrolls were on cotton cloth, not canvas. And in the ones I painted in 1992, I tried to use the technology I learnt from the Pichvai.
GS: How is that?
NS: The kind of ground they used to prepare the cotton fabric to work upon and the glues used to temper and bind the pigments. But soon I had discovered the use of casein, a milk extract, as a tempering medium. Casein gave me a greater ability to work more freely on a larger scale because it is a medium for tempera that adheres a little more than the tree gums or animal skin glues so you can work repetitive layers more freely upon it.
GS: With rolling up and down, casein is not damaged?
NS: It is not damaged if you apply it thinly enough, if you apply it in thin layers.
So these scrolls in casein medium were the first ones I did when I moved into my own studio in Niharika.
GS: What else is the subject of your work in the documenta scrolls, other than migration?
NS: It is about all kinds of migrations, exiles. There are paintings here that refer to stories within the migrations during the Partition of India; one which is about a young girl being beheaded by her father in a pre-emptive gesture. In Urvashi Butalia’s book The Other Side of Silence, there is an account of a father killing his young daughter so that she escapes being raped. Urvashi heard the account from the younger brother of the girl who watched the decapitation.
GS: Do you often get a question on this insistence of beauty?
NS: Yes I do and I don’t know whether I have the right answers yet but my sense is that beauty is within a form, a language that you choose. I think beauty emerges when the connect between the language and what I am trying to paint, works. And that would be so of other language choices as well. It’s a result, not an intention in that sense. However I would not fight shy of using conventions that derive from enumerating the ornamental, ordevisingmetaphorsfor the incorporation of the beauty of the natural world.
GS: It is also in the miniature tradition that great violence and great beauty are seen together.
Other than the emphasis on beauty, there is also an emphasis on the quotidian arts of the domestic. From Champa to this series.
NS: I keep going back to it.
GS: The cooking, the house holding and the everyday. What is it that attracts you? Does it stabilise the work here and now? Is it reassuring for you that those acts do continue even in the face of great violence?
NS: I think both, and also the contradictions of family life - it has its own rhythm and cogency, and it’s own violence.
GS: The form of a boat, you have used it with so much skill.
This is like a whole city going somewhere.
NS: This is a quotation of a painted drawing by Nainsukh. I have used it earlier but the image remains.
The small passage below is a visualisation after a poem by Agha Shahid Ali.
It’s about the moving land, small floating Islands within the Dal lake in Srinagar which can be towed away.
GS: There’s a sparseness in these works…The sense of the landscape is so strong and so immersive.
If we look at the somewhat conventional horizontal scrolls, there the reading is determined. How do you imagine the entry into this work? Or do you want to abandon every form of formal guidance so that we enter and exit at will and then we somewhat piece it all together?
NS: Good question but I have not fully thought it through.
For me it is important, in my larger works that the painting should configure in different ways on different viewings, not only that it comes alive in different ways depending on your spatial distance or proximity. Even in time, it should have the ability to come alive in different ways. It could become a different painting.
GS: In places it looks like a simulation of the net where many things of hypertextuality come together and then there is no pre-determined narrative - there is no beginning, middle and end.
NS: Here is a quotation from Siyah Qalam, the 12th century Turkish painter who worked with a siyah qalam. It was probably developed from an existing genre, but he became a unique kind of artist whose art was very different from others.
GS: There is the presence of Punjabi legends in your work. Did you grow up with Punjabi poetry?
NS: Not really. My mother grew up in England till she was 14 or 15 years. So her Punjabi was very limited. My father, I am told, spoke a beautiful Punjabi, that’s what even Manjit Bawa told me, but my parents never spoke Punjabi at home. I think my earliest introduction to Punjabi poetry would be through Sheila Bhatia, her poetry and plays, operas actually.
For me Heer-Ranjha at the time was the most beautiful and soul stirring production imaginable. I was very young and it has stayed alive for me. Snehlata Sanyal, Bhabesh Sanyal’s wife did the mother’s role and the way she sang after she poisons Heer became legendary. Shanno Khurana played the role of Heer.
GS: The way you have applied paint in some of these works, there is a wash or a diffusion? There is so much of the image of death, the hanging figure or drowning.
NS: This particular painting has two layers - a quotation from some contemporary poems of Kashmir and here - there is an image from Sasi-Punnu. I had wanted the image of the body of Aylan Kurdi the Syrian boy washed ashore to enter this work, but was not able to find a way to.
GS: There is something about the way you use poetry and not only inscribe it in your work but they become the landscape, formally and affectively. There is something very moving about the way one approaches the text, and the way it absorbs the viewer.
NS: Does that come from the interest in illustration? Would you think so?
GS: No I think it is in the overwhelming sensorium of the landscape. The landscape which is now vertical and what you put on the same plane - the text, this embedded image and a view of a domestic kitchen scene, the river, the jungle, the buried figure. It’s not flat and I can only think of it as an immersion in that sense.
NS: The words that you are using are new to me and I like them but maybe it has been a gradual learning process by which I can go in and out, come in and out. If I were to analyse myself it would still go back to that - walking in the mountains, in Kashmir or Himachal, walking through landscape in childhood. Walking towards, approaching and crossing over a mountain pass is perhaps the most spiritual experiences I have had. The world changes once you cross, even the plants you had fingered on your way up, configure a different earth in the next valley
GS: It’s also that these are such overwhelming works sensorially - the smell, the touch of the breeze. Can we speak of this elaborately painted map?
NS: It is a map shawl of Srinagar from the early 19th century, it’s in the V&A. But we have a similar one in the Srinagar museum. And this is only a fragment of it.
GS: The other thing which reinforces this sense of the sensorium or this landscape is because all the figures seem to be addressing that. The forms of address like the outstretched limbs, the spreading of the arms, the inversion of the body; they are all addressing directly the landscape rather than anything else.
Do you use text as a mirror of the image, on the subject of migration perhaps?
NS: As parallels and extensions, most often. There are the four text panels. There are some excerpts from Mahmoud Darwish or younger Palestinian poets, or from Agha Shahid Ali who wrote in English or the seventeenth century Tahir Ghani who has been translated from Persian. I have included some Punjabi and Gujarati traditional songs, both in translation and original. There is also the very contemporary poetry of Miyah poets translated from Bengali. I have quoted a fair amount of prose as well, excerpts from the Vietnamese Nam Le, from Intizar Husain, and journalists’ or historical accounts