The artwork presented here by Nilima Sheikh can be seen as part of an unbroken trajectory, a set of preoccupations that have engaged her for several years now, more or less since 2000. Most immediately, these works resonate with the themes and the representational strategies that can be seen at play in the Firdaus and The Country without a Post Office series. What is strikingly new in this show, however, is the systematic way she explores the theme of community suffering in the face of sectarian violence and state brutality, mapping the difficult terrain where the everyday life of people intersects with large events in the public domain. Sheikh’s works thematize violence, terror, trauma, grief of ordinary people in Kashmir and Gujarat. Carefully avoiding the easy conflation of these two places via the axis of community, she explores the relationship of people to the place they live in, offers accounts of their ‘return’ to those spaces of violence which once constituted the very domain of everyday life. The motif of the return haunts this suite of seventeen works but in a way that refuses both a simple nostalgia as well as an unfettered confidence in the resilience of an oppressed people. The tension that is laid out across these incommensurate pulls forms the basis of her deceptively lyrical works in the present series.

In her characteristic style, which engages the contemporary through a careful positioning of diverse art making techniques and traditions, she constructs quasi-abstract landscapes that incessantly reference the historical. The play between the abstract elements of her art work and its resolutely specific, historical dimension allows her to set up complex, imagined geographies that draw equally on the fantastic and the real, where the everydayness of life and living is staged across ritual acts of memory.

Sites of Violence and Shapes of Memory: Going Back

The idea of the return haunts this series of paintings. However, Sheikh appears less focused on capturing the moment of return per se; what she seems more interested in is to render the process of return, its implications. This is a significant decision particularly because the scenes of return here gesture towards violence in the public domain in a scale both large and spectacular. The violence is specific, the direct references as well as textual clues point quite unambiguously to the sectarian strife in Gujarat as well as Kashmir. These, in fact, are the cues that situate the work within the field of the historical. One function of these historical references (these arrive quite often via a detour through the textual) is to firmly establish the relation of these works to a ‘real’ time and space, thereby complicating the universalism or the pure subjectivism that can be so simply attributed to the somewhat abstract, somewhat fabulous landscapes that situate the bodies and events here. The landscapes, rather geographies that have been sourced through diverse histories, play a crucial role in these works: they are the fields in which the idea of return is staged, locales that bear the marks of violence, spaces where grief and mourning are played out. They are structuring devices of intricate narratives, taxonomies where bodies and objects are distributed in a grid, in tables that propose meanings and relationships. The series of paintings titled Route is a case in point. Sheikh references here a set of photographs taken by a Kashmiri father en route to the cemetery, mourning over a son lost to militancy. The photographs and the diary written by the man surely stand as testimony to his grief, but also represent a will to remember, to record. At one level, Sheikh renders the route of mourning, directly drawing references from the photographs. The organization of Route 2, for example, into distinct panels that are nevertheless worked into a continuity replicate the physical form of the photographs as well as the linear quality of the route. Sheikh’s exploration of the space between grieving and memory, however, refuses to be confined to the single instance of a father’s sorrowing; it gestures towards grieving over Kashmir itself as the reference to I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight by Agha Shahid Ali makes all too clear.[1] Yet, the relationship between these sets of meaning is not simply allegorical where the surface story stands as a subterfuge for the ‘real’ story set at another level. The father’s grieving for his son does not merely represent the anguish of Kashmiris for their land, but points to the way private sorrow is shaped by even as it inflects public history. The images in Route suggests a complex relationship between these two sets of meaning, where the sense of loss is at once personal and public, at once separate from and intertwined with a public sphere.

Public History, Private Memory

Space traversed, in these works, clearly stands as a metonym of loss, both contiguous and pervasive. Equally it functions as a field where objects of memory are dispersed. Going back in Return, occurs across a landscape scattered with the rubble of a now abandoned settlement, a man scrabbles in the debris for once shining things that constituted his past. The abandoned houses gesture to violence that has forced their inhabitants to leave. This violence, almost inaudible, refracted through memory, is represented in a manner that speaks both of great conflagration as well as relentless governmental violence. The man who returns is rendered as he attempts to recover something from the glittering fragments that lie there. What does he seek-his possessions, his past, memory itself? Does he wish to build an archive of his grief? His gestures speak to those of the old woman who attempts to rekindle the domestic hearth in Testimony, but side by side his actions resonate with the three women who wish to testify, who are themselves testimony and record of devastation, who will the translation of memory into recorded history. The idea of the document structures these works; it is almost as if the singular function of these figures is to record moments and events of a past life. They return to the scene again and again, bearing witness to the past, memorials themselves of the events that have laid to waste modes of life and living. Sometimes wounded, sometimes bearing stigmata, sometimes a mere surmise in apparently unpeopled landscapes, the figures in these works represent historical trajectories that remain invisible in mainstream accounts. Constituting a challenge to written histories, these bodies can be read as representing archives of minor pasts, bearing records of events, holding fragments of a time that was; indeed they turn into maps that show routes to loss and longing. Whether it is the persona of Agha Shahid Ali showing the pain of leaving Kashmir lying mapped in his heart in My hometown or the figures grieving as they leave in At a certain point I lost track of you, the body itself becomes the repository of the past, an archive of things familiar that are left behind.

Reading the Body: Violence and Subjectivity

Sheikh’s specific engagement with the body in these works has allowed her to explore the intimate relationship between community practice, body and land. The picnic, marked by outdoor cooking, is staged as a Kashmiri practice that can emerge in good weather, in good times.

Now, however, as Tree Planter and What happened that day 2 suggest, such good times, framed through histories of violence, are hard to come by. The body interred is also a recurrent motif in these paintings (Just a few return from dust, disguised as roses; On an island the size of a grave). The act of burial references life as a Muslim, the act of digging turns into a signifier of community. In Tree Planter for instance, the digging of earth tells of the Kashmiri practice of planting trees, of nurturing land, of bonding with soil; still, the painting patiently reminds us, the buried body constitutes the ground in which the tree is planted, where a picnic may one day be held. The huge figure that one sees in the lower half of Tree Planter has been rendered with robust brush strokes that stand in contrast to the delicacy with which the picnicking family above has been shown. He appears almost ferocious, the green tinge of his body and the red of his beard establishing his credentials as a Muslim. His enormous fists seem as if he is burying a creature he has squeezed to death while his dog waits patiently for the pickings. Looking closer, mostly to make sense of the title, the viewer finds that s/he has been deftly deceived. Indeed it is this figure who is the nurturing tree planter [2]. Yet, it is the contemporary figuration of the Muslim that one calls so easily and so immediately to mind. This visual sleight of hand allows the unraveling of conventional stereotypes, setting in motion an examination of the way the spectator’s subjectivity has been constituted.

The manner in which Sheikh deploys stencils too enables her to texture both questions of violence and conventions of seeing. Stencils, structured by the perforation, themselves gesture at the gash, the cut.

Hiding and showing at the same time, they represent the possibilities and limits of seeing and reveal the way the frame functions to produce visual meanings. Representative of a craft tradition, they point to the gap, the hierarchical distance between high art and craft practices and so, resonate with Sheikh’s endeavor to thematize the minor; in that both practices coexist in the same space engaged equally in the task of building meaning, they also suggest a democratizing impulse. Sheikh sources the stencils she uses from the family of Vishnu Prasad Soni of Mathura who are traditional Sanjhi artisans skilled in the craft of cutting stencil. The process of arriving at designs is an unbound one where there are discussions around images and possibilities rather than any specific design order that the family executes. Working within the broad structure of the possibilities that the stencil offers, Sheikh positions them in ways that often extend the possibilities of meaning and even form of this traditional genre. In fact, Sheikh and the

Vishnu Prasad family, do not remain tied to tradition in a worshipful stance: recently Sheikh gave the family a set of Chinese stencils that were quite engaging to the family. More, her interventions have come to inform some of the work done by the Vishnu Prasad family and has extended their repertoire and inflected their stencil cutting practice more generally. This has been a happy conversation between diverse practices; the extended repertoire of stencil cutting resonates with Sheikh’s multi-layered images and abstract forms. The golden wing of the butterfly can become the very device that yokes together a fabulous heaven and the desire for a grave.

Image, Text and the World Outside

The mode of harnessing single forms to plural functions has been, and is here, the hallmark of Sheikh’s work. For instance, the butterfly wing that drifts between heaven and earth, between dryad and man, between storm and calm, in on an island the size of a grave offers an ephemeral link that stitches together vast realms. These sinuous forms are pressed into play to become the building blocks of a structural complex that hold diverse events, levels, meanings with apparent ease and considerable grace

but actually in a tense equilibrium. On the other hand, even though several of the texts that Sheikh has used in this series are literary (extracts from Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown in What happened that day 2; lines by Agha Shahid Ali in Route 2), the texts play a key role in situating the artwork within the realm of the historical which then becomes the ground from where her explorations in subjectivity can take off. Simultaneously, the textual references set up a gap between the verbal and the visual in a manner that implies the marginalized field of illustration-again this echoes Sheikh’s preoccupation with minor genres. In fact, the systematic presence of text points to the linguistic quality of the visual and allows the circulation of meaning between the artwork, the text and the world outside, underlining the plural traditions and genres at work in these paintings.

Her multilingual idiom allows her to bypass the bourgeois individualism with which modernist frameworks tend to operate. Eschewing these frames allows her to explore minor subjectivities in ways that do not subsume them to a dominant paradigm. Sheikh’s study of violence seems little concerned with depicting it as such, instead her focus seems to be the recall of an ordinary life in the past across moments of violence.

As we read the figures that people her abstract and layered landscapes we are faced again and again with sadness, the mourning over loss, the longing for small pleasures, resilience, recognition and even acceptance of new circumstances, but above all, a will to memory. Unlike memory linked to the trajectory of an individual life, a theme common enough in modernist idiom, the memory that circulates in these works is woven into community life, life in community. Turning into signifiers of community memory, her figures gesture endlessly at the pain in their hearts, their stigmata. Through these diverse motifs that Sheikh has rendered in this sequence of paintings, there emerges an economy of meanings that circulate around the question of subjectivity itself. Indeed, Sheikh’s works are marked away from simple representations of violence whether in Kashmir or in Gujarat in that they navigate past the moment of violence or the event itself to thematize the structures of feeling that have gone to constitute the marginalized subject. Traversing the terrain of desire, longing, loss and grief, these works allow us to glimpse the complex relationship between violence and subjectivity.

Modernism in a Minor Key

Her rendering of landscapes puts into motion a style of abstraction deeply suited to the manner in which she develops narrative, situates figures and objects: the form she has developed draws unhesitatingly on multiple styles and strategies, and in the process offers a critique of a version of modernism that had come to dominate post independence Indian art in the 1960s and 70s. Elsewhere, she has said ‘The presence of modernism sat squarely in the trajectory of painting in India in the 1950s and 1960s. It became a kind of block that I had to find my way through.

Even while I was painting in oils, I was working in response to the types of painting that I was learning to love, and most of these came from Asia, but also from European tempera and fresco painting traditions’ [3]. Such a position has laid her open to the charge of pitting a revivalist traditionalism against a dominant modernism [4]. At this point, and certainly with the evidence of this show, it appears difficult to argue that Sheikh’s oeuvre calls for a simple return to tradition. The formidable array of traditional art making practices (technologies rather than techniques, as she argues) that she employs in her exploration of her subjects has allowed her room to unpack modernist as well as traditionalist assumptions about representation. Bringing into play a range of visual referents, Sheikh has constructed these works on the basis of a repertoire of genres-Chinese, Persian, Central Asian, pre Renaissance European and North Indian schools of tempera painting among others-such that her sources themselves gesture at the silent and the marginal invoked here. This collection of genres, in fact, plays out as metaphor for the archive, and becomes integral to the process of documenting pasts. Sheikh draws freely on multiple traditions of image making, layering them together in ways that allow them to function in a minor key.

Art Language and Political Practice

Sheikh started painting in the early seventies and has, with great consistency, produced a body of work that today is widely regarded as a substantial contribution to contemporary Indian art. She began exhibiting from the seventies and early eighties and has been recognized as a significant figure in the contemporary art scene at least since that time. By the early nineties her position within the canon of contemporary Indian art was well established. However, understandings of her work remained focused around its lyrical aspect on the one hand and its invocation of what is characterized as ‘traditional’ art techniques on the other. To offer an example, Ajay Sinha, in what is surely a sympathetic and sensitive reading of her work, characterizes Sheikh’s work as “Epic in a Lyrical Frame” [5]. Sinha delineates the lyrical as a language that seeks to give “center-stage to what otherwise might not even enter the

periphery of our vision” [6]. He asserts that lyricism “does not necessarily seem to represent a feminine sensibility as the stereotype would have it” [7] and he points out that “Nilima Sheikh has built into the lyrical, introspective tendency of Baroda such complexity of technique and imagery that it becomes a pictorial language with tremendous incisive power, taking her work of the seventies and eighties from her own literal and metaphoric ‘backyard’ to various aspects of social reality” [8]. Sinha carefully keeps the category lyrical separate from the political and the feminine, yet his own analysis hinges on the centrality of the minor and the marginal to the language of the lyrical [9]. Perhaps it is because Sinha keeps the lyrical separate from the political charge of a world view shaped by feminism among other things that he finds it difficult to map the manner in which Sheikh forges a radical political language that is at home with both the lyrical and the feminine. The issue, as I see it, is not so much whether Sheikh’s work is lyrical or not, or even traditional or not. Rather, its significance lies the manner in which she restructures a language designated as lyrical and practices designated as ‘traditional’ by the broad framework of art historical/art critical writing to make it available for a political praxis and a personal idiom that can acknowledge and politicize the representation of a world shaped in complex ways by gender and community. In working away from a conventionally masculinist modernist idiom, relocating ‘traditional’ techniques to the site of the contemporary, energizing them with a new charge that engages questions of the minor, Sheikh’s work offers a powerful reading of our time. So, when Sheikh’s work is cast as ‘lyrical’, as ‘feminine’ or as ‘traditional’ today, it becomes an art critical task to find ways of speaking about her practice in a way that gives it back to the ‘political’, to where it belongs or perhaps to where it always belonged. Since there is a tendency to categorize her work on the basis of a set of conventional frames, one often misses out on her representational strategies which persistently work against those frames, exploring new possibilities and new meanings. Her work, arguably located at the interstices of gender and community, yields very little to conventional ahistorical readings that leach her work of its political edge and flatten understandings of its representational tactics.


[1] Agha Shahid Ali, a poet of Kashmiri origin published two volumes of poetry (The Country without a Post Office & Rooms Are Never Finished) that thematize Kashmir. Peter Nagy writes that Sheikh has drawn complexly on Ali’s poetry which “specifically addressed the trauma that has engulfed Kashmir since 1990 and articulated the complex interweavings of pain, guilt, remorse, loss, confusion, terror and desire brought on by this situation.” (‘We’re Inside the Fire, Looking for the Dark’ in Nilima Sheikh: The Country without a Post Office, Mumbai: Gallery Chemould, 2003)

[2] Sheikh has modeled this figure on Shah Wali, who is considered to be one of the seven founding Rishis of Kashmir. He is believed to have planted trees as a form of ‘worship’.

[3] ‘Vishakha N. Desai Interviews Nilima Sheikh and Shahzia Sikander’ in Conversations with Traditions, Nilima Sheikh and Shahzia Sikander, New York: Asia Society, 2001.p. 68

[4] In fact, she has argued in various forums that one of her central concerns has been to develop a versatile feminine idiom that could handle a variety of subjects. She says “My interest in different art making traditions is connected with wanting /finding feminine voice. This made me interested in wanting to include rather than exclude, to develop an additive mode rather than one which achieves its ‘form’ by the reductive. Actually, I use modernist devices all the time. And so, the traditionalist/modernist debate does not particularly engage me.” Unpublished note by Nilima Sheikh, 2009.

[5] Ajay Sinha, ‘Envisioning the Seventies and Eighties’ Gulammohammed Sheikh (ed.), Contemporary Art in Baroda, Tulika, New Delhi, 1997, (pp.145-209) p. 189. For other, very different example of writing that characterizes Sheikh as lyrical, see Roshan Shahani, ‘Muted Fires of Yearning,’ Catalogue article for Songspace: Scroll Paintings, Bombay: Gallery Chemould, 1995. See also, Geeta Kapur, Catalogue essay for the Exhibition “Pictorial Space: A Point of View on Indian Art” New Delhi: Lalit Kala Akademi, 1977.

[6] Sinha, 177

[7] Sinha, 181

[8] Sinha, 189

[9] With the exception of DLN Reddy, Sinha discusses mainly women artists. Also, though he calls Sheikh’s work ‘epic’, representing social reality, he brings in the idea the ‘backyard’, a site tied to the domestic (homestead) and which certainly suggests female space and a gendered world.
From the exhibition catalogue published by Gallery Espace (2009).
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