“…the two arts, painting and poetry, as perceived in the scroll, bear remarkably close kinship. As the poems are all short, but filled with deep thought, the painting is terse but embodies vast sentiment - a quality all important in the art of the literary school of painting.” [1]

Can we read Nilima Sheikh’s art as an art of resistance, the art of a refusal to engage with her own time?

The emphasis of time is seen in her choice of the format of the scroll, a Chinese form that is predicated on anticipation and the protocols of viewing.

For her participation at Documenta in Kassel 2017, Sheikh created a new format of viewing, an elliptical wooden screen form with eight painted scrolls on each side creating an unusual structure, one that unites both distance and intimate viewing, engaging some of Nilima’s primary sources of inspiration: the Chinese hand and vertical scroll, the Japanese painted screen, as well as the Persian/Indian muraqqa or painted miniature manuscript.

Presented in this composite form, the work invites comparison with the Chinese and Japanese painted scroll, both sources of intimate study in Sheikh. The form may derive from the Japanese sliding door (fusuma) and folding screen (byobu) of the Japanese Yamato-e era, or indeed the Nagasaki school of the 19th century, richly contaminated with Chinese and European influences, that were so much a part of its effulgent creativity. By separating the scroll from its function - as a screen, or a partition, Sheikh lends it an extraordinary density and narrative depth. In effect, we then have the scroll deploying the traditions of Asian painting in a tantalizing amalgam.

In the womb like space of the structure, which also alternates as exposed, only partially revealed ellipse, is an highly emotive field, of epic love, and violence. But to render these as manifest we see Sheikh’s realization of language of a timeless beauty, and the aesthetic challenge of allowing a theme to unfold through a discontinuous fractured narrative. Believed to trace to Indian painting of the 4th century, the Indian hand scroll has had a fuller realization in Chinese and Japanese painting. Unlike the folding screen or the hand scroll, Sheikh renders each panel discrete. In the distribution of inner and outer spaces, access and entry, opaque colour and translucency, Sheikh acknowledges the influence of the Genji Monogatari Emaki (11th century), of the Yamato-e period. And while the form she uses appears to be East Asian, her content derives from Indian and Buddhist imagery, everyday acts of labour, the seasons and legends of the subcontinent and its disturbingly violent politics.

The form of the scroll affords Sheikh the freedom that she needs to create (after Appadurai) a ‘timescape’. It is here perhaps that her authorship is at its most vivid, and energetic. Divested of a frame, the vertical screen affords both a continuous and a discontinuous time/landscape - and here Sheikh may provide a continuity in sensuous or emotive evocation, but at will, she can fracture or induce a play of time.

Sheikh uses the dynamic potential of the subject of time to dramatic effect. First if we consider the form itself, and the collusion of image and text, we are in the domain of 11th century Song dynasty Chinese scroll painting. The vertical scroll, that first dates back to the 3rd century creates a sense of panorama, but presents the challenge of an unguided viewing.

Sheikh resolves this as she creates room for passage. She devises a language of movement that implies migration, with a sense of carrying across, leaving behind. Nothing about this is peaceable or contained. Dating from her scrolls, Song, Water, Air series (1993) winds can howl across the surface, churn and split the waters which part and divide the land. Across the surface of the paper the unruly passage of the elements can serve as a tunnel, a conduit, a fissure above or below the face of the land, trapping and releasing figures. In this way she presents not a unitary continuous field but the idea of passage, through space and in time. As the eye follows the winding river or the movement of the figure across the landscape, Sheikh approximates the unfolding effect of the handscroll, the anticipation of viewing, all within the unified vision of the hanging vertical scroll, creating a temporal charge that is quite unique to her painting. Like the handscroll, she uses shifts in angle of vision to allow her figures to wander and travel, through the device of ‘iji dozu’ which translates as “different time, same illustration.”

In this construction, time is also an aesthetic location in Sheikh. One screen in the work Terrain: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind quotes the letter of Rohit Vemula, a young Dalit scholar who committed suicide in 2016 and became the face of Dalit resistance against a repressive regime. Vemula’s violent death appears to embed in a continuous gesture towards universalism, that pits tragedy against innocence and hope. In this integration of time cycles, Sheikh appears in a continuum with artists from the early to the high medieval period - creating a seamless world of sainthood, scholarship, bhakti and romantic idealism. In terms of chronology it would approximate the Song period in China, the Virashaiva movement in the South and manifestations of medieval period Bhakti across swathes of North India.

Cutting through the preoccupation with the metropolis, urbanism as a location for the political and the personal, which so preoccupied her peers in M S University, Baroda, Sheikh has chosen instead a timeless graph that meanders between fabular and imaginary spaces to bear the harsh brunt of commentary. The scenes of domesticity, so familiar from the hills and villages of India, of resting bodies and the cooking of an evening meal, have an endearing vulnerability in her painting. Sheikh’s practice is located as much in the quotidian acts of the subaltern, as it is in the space of memory. Living with her family in the Residency area of Baroda opposite very low income university housing in the 1980s, Sheikh saw working class families close up. They populate her painting in the acts of sweeping, cooking, tending to young children, equally they are witness to acts of violence, their community of houses houses dense and mute in the face of riots. Their migrations too are anonymous acts, as they leave, hobbled by pain or the weight of their exile, marking the passage with death and burial.

It is here that Sheikh domesticates the body of the artisan, the bricklayer, the embroiderer and the carpenter, the maker of the empires and the cities of India. Sheikh first focused on the laboring body of the artisan at work in a series of four paintings titled Rozgar. In the series Each night put Kashmir in your dreams, Sheikh dedicatedascroll to the Kashmiri artisan, the master craftsman who faces the erasure of his art in the present time of unending conflict. Titled Hunarmand, which broadly translates as “the talented” it traces - through text imprinted on the scroll - the knowledge that under Zain-ul-Abedin, 15th century Kashmir flourished as a mecca of the arts; the crafts produced in his reign were gifted to rulers as far as Egypt and Bengal. In the present work, the presence of the Indian craftsman is palpable, if not overt. [2]

In art as in political discourse, the body of the artisan is a highly contested site that has borne the weight of a fraught readings, of nation and identity. The body of the artisan has been a subject of curiosity and display, exported to the British industrial exhibitions of 1886 and beyond. As an object of curiosity before milling visitors in Victorian England, it marked the continuity of the crafts tradition in South Asia, and its absence in industrialized Western Europe. On the 1886 British and Colonial exhibition, a contemporary commentator wrote “They are genuine artisans, such as may be seen at work within the precincts of the palaces of many of the Indian princes…weaves of gold, brocade and kinkhab, tapestry and carpets, an ivory miniature painter, copper and silver smiths….were all daily to be seen at work as they would be in India.” [3] In opposition to such objectification, Gandhi was to energetically retrieve and reclaim the artisanal body and confer upon it a pole position in nationalist politics, and in fact, with the widely circulated charkha image, to insert himself as the master craftsman. In her essay The Body at Work, Deepali Dewan writes “Nationalist images, especially pictures of Gandhi spinning cotton, can be traced genealogically to the earlier art school images of the native craftsmen.” [4]

To this complex history of artisanship and labour Nilima Sheikh adds nuances and touches that expand the reading of the body. Sheikh inserts the laboring body of everyday domesticity - the woman sweeping, cleaning and cooking within the idyllic landscape. As with East Asian painting, the landscape is a sentient mirror to the human condition. A corpus of exquisitely rendered trees in silver and gold slowly blacken, as if charred with the smoke of forest fires. Sheikh achieves several layers of patterning, derived from her collaboration with the Sanjhi stencil artists of Mathura. A dying craft now largely restricted to a couple of villages in Vrindavan and Barsana, it is based on delicately cut paper stencils and their geometric impress on temple walls or as rangolis or floor decoration in domestic settings. Sanjhi celebrates the union of Radha and Krishna even as it replicates Mughal era fretwork, as seen in Fatehpur Sikri and the Taj. [5] The palimpsest like effect of the Sanjhi stencil bestirs the shadows and recesses of her work with meaning. By clubbing high with low, an apparent classicism of style with the subaltern, Sheikh creates a direct line of connectivity between the worker - artisan - saint figure with her subject.

Like the Buddhist images of fabulous forms that she uses, Sheikh completely secularizes the use of Sanjhi in her work, like a karkhana of shared practices. In this series, it also expands to serve as wall, ground, landscape, the elements of nature, body, text, culture and its related domains.

Do we then as in Hannah Arendt, see in these images the laying of the ground for the “banality of evil?” For evil when it descends into such peaceable idylls in Sheikh is monstrous - dehumanized and bestial like the monsters of Buddhist imagery that she paints. Sheikh’s art occludes all signs of an industrial, metropolitan present, the perpetrators of present violence but draws on the memory fields of a syncretic past of Hindu Islamic and Buddhist forms. [6] Just as her work marks a refusal to represent the present, there is also a refusal to forget the past, markedly on her own terms. Here it is important to recognize that Sheikh accords the most enduring heroism not to power or authority, but to the figure of the lover. The impulse of strong romantic love and its frequently tragic apotheosis, the subject of the legends of Punjab is apparent, even as she expands into abstract means and universal rhythms. What then emerges is the harmony of the world, so to speak, which even as it contains and expresses great violence allows the eye to alight on complementary pools of beauty.

At the core of this body of work, the home, unpretentious and universal, is poetized. In the manner of the great Pahari painter, Nainsukh, she allows the boat to serve as a vehicle of survival. Nainsukh’s famed drawing is an allegory for a city in peril that is loaded onto a boat with by it’s citizens, who appear to flee a great fire. The boat has undergone a contemporary resignification in the renditions of Gulam Sheikh and Desmond Lazaro. Characterized as The Ark by Gulam Mohammed Sheikh it bears a strong biblical intonation. Nilima’s focus is on the smaller scale of dislocation of the boat as the bearer of family as they flee. On the surface then, we have images of migration, doomed lovers, waiting, and death. Together they cohere as the theme of separation or viraha, of longing in separation, to which Sheikh confers a female subjectivity. Wendy Doniger writes that the emotion of viraha in India is primarily borne by the woman: “female viraha is thus a hierarchical and agnatic fact as well as a psychological reality.” [7] In Sheikh viraha draws from the twin strains of Bhakti and the beloved, one appears to approximate and merge with the other. Sheikh returns to the land of her childhood, Punjab and its legend Sohni Mehiwal, with its spectacular imagery of the figure of Sohni balanced precariously on an earthen pot which will ensure her death. Rendered vulnerable in the vast swirling waters of the Indus river, the miniaturized figure of Sohni bears an intimate relation with the burning forest that flanks her.

Sheikh’s use of pigments, paper and the elliptical screen like the structure that she has devised are quite unique to a practice where material is intrinsic to concept and meaning. In one part of the screen, from a 19th century shawl that bear the embroidered map of Kashmir, she creates a dense painted map. Sheikh’s source of inspiration is a pictorial shawl in the Victoria and Albert Museum, bearing a Persian inscription around the border. The artist renders this peaceable chromatic scene in ‘hingloo’ or cinnabar (mercury sulphide) a dark metallic red element used abundantly in Chinese lacquer and in ancient manuscript writing. Hingloo, its Indian name invokes another association, that of Hinglaj, a Devi shrine on the Makran coast of Balochistan, where the small stone like aniconic form is smeared with sindoor or red vermillion made from minium(redlead) or mercury (Hgs), to signify female divinity. Both minium and mercury were used in the medieval period for painting manuscripts. The artist who applied minium was known as miniare, the root derivative for miniature painting. Sheikh loads such signification on her painted map of Srinagar, marking the panoramic view of the city then in barbed wire. These details bear explication because in this body of work perhaps more than ever before, meaning appears to be embedded rather than embodied; temporalities can converge in Sheikh to create striations of meaning.

This combination of elements, in Sheikh is less about the life or object depicted and more about the painting itself. Sheikh’s natural affinity with poetry as an extension of the painted image creates a conceptual and temporal fluidity in her work, a factor common to both Chinese and Indian painting. Sheikh allows for a play between icon, index and symbol to create her graphic language, if not an entirely valid pictorial culture. [8] Her use of text however needs to be distinguished from the modernist’s use of text, which tends to be like a sign, signaling the content of the work. Sheikh reverts to an earlier culture like calligraphy in Chinese painting, or the poetics of Ragamala painting. In her mode of representing text, Sheikh engages in an ethical choice, the spirit of the collaborator. Like the Chinese calligraphy artist, Sheikh uses the brush as an emotive and intellectual instrument: like an extension of her arm, allowing the density or lightness of the loaded pigment on her brush to create an emotive field.

In the present work Nilima Sheikh employs an ambitious use of text. Voices across the span of Asia, journeys and routes, are stitched together, echoing perfectly across continents and latitudes. Sheikh treats these as movements across the page, held by the fretwork that she creates across the surface, like a wall of resistance, porous yet sturdy. Mahmoud Darwish (whom she quotes) equated Palestine to the loss of Eden, which finds an echo in Sheikh’s paintings of Kashmir, the subcontinent’s paradise beyond compare.

There is a play in Sheikh between acts of domesticity their disarming simplicity, and an epic abandonment to love. Even as her figures appear dwarfed by the enormity of nature, and circumstance, like Sohni swimming in the deep waters of the Indus, they are deeply affective. It is here, in her narratives of love and longing, that Sheikh takes her greatest risks, and reaps her richest rewards. Mahmud Darwish speaks of the “present absent” status of Palestinians, a term used by the Israeli state. Sheikh uses this trope of absence and presence and the tenuous liminal space between the two to pack in the most profound emotion, around freedom and captivity, beauty and violence, love and betrayal.


[1] Kojizo Tonula and Kaiming Chin, A Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Vol 49, No 276 June 1951, pp. 34-39, Museum of Fine Arts Boston [From Shih Hu (Stone Lake) A Chinese scroll painting by Lu Chih (1496-1576)]

[2] The collaborative spirit of artisanship, indeed the karkhana is evident in her large panel in Terminal 2 at Mumbai airport, made with the artist BV Suresh, and craftsmen Fayaz Ahmed Jan, (papier mache), wood carving (Khalil Mohammed Kalwal), and traditional glazed tiles from Srinagar.

[3] Reminiscences of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, Frank Cundall, pp. 28-29

[4] Deepali Dewan, The Body at Work: Colonial Art Education and the Figure of “The Native Craftsman” Confronting the Body: The Politics of Physicality in Colonial and Post-Colonial India, Ed. James H. Mills and Satadru Sen, Anthem Press London 2004, pp. 131

[5] Sheikh works principally with the Sanji artist Sanjay soni of the family of Vishnu Prasad Jadia from Mathura.

[6] Romila Thapar quotes Gunther Sontheimer’s analysis of Hinduisim as consisting of five elements: the working and teaching of the Brahmanas, the sectarian movements based on renunciation, the tribal/folk religions where the icon is treated as a living person and the king/hero is identified with a deity and Bhakti. These may appear in Sheikh but unerringly on the register of the secular.

[7] Women, Androgynes and Other Mythical Beasts, Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, pp. 122

[8] Sheikh has acknowledged the early artists of the Bengal school, and we may credit here her association with the ambition and scale of the mural as practiced by Benode Behari Mukherji, the delicacy of the figure of Abanindranath Tagore, and its ability to rest lightly, on her chosen surface, and the poise and spontaneity of Nandalal Bose. Yet her ambition in the painted extends beyond, to a kind of universalism.

From an essay produced for Gallery Espace and Chemould gallery on the work “Terrain: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind” (2017).

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