Like painting, poetry has the ability to reach the core of emotions, freed as it is from the rational, the logical, the conscious. Like poetry, painting has the ability to make that which is felt visible, that which is known in the heart accessible to the mind. Our lives are now entirely colonized by language, almost nothing that we experience is not mediated by the word. Painting can free us from this tyranny, enabling the purely visual to speak to us directly, to move us completely (are we even able to allow Nature to do the same?). Poetry is language freed of such tyranny, the power of the word to remain elusive, elastic, unknowable.
In her attempt to understand something of the plight, the reality, of Kashmir today, to hope to arrive at this understanding through the process of her own painting, Nilima Sheikh was drawn to the work of Agha Shahid Ali, the poet of Kashmiri origin who died last year in New York. In two published collections of his poems (The Country Without a Post Office and Rooms Are Never Finished) Ali specifically addressed the trauma that has engulfed Kashmir since 1990 and articulated the complex interweavings of pain, guilt, remorse, loss, confusion, terror and desire bought on by this situation.
Ali’s poetry is often sublimely visual and easily ignited Sheikh’s imagination. His verses routinely contrast the natural beauty of Kashmir with the ugliness of its predicament and the abhorrent actions of human beings there. Many phrases, taken out of context, seem to be exhortations to Sheikh to paint: “smashed golds,” “petrified reds,” “a jade rain,” and “black on the edges of flames” are just a few of the actual hues which move directly from Ali’s sonnets to Sheikh’s brush. One painting is entirely in a crimson of “blood sheer rubies,” while in another Sheikh literally renders the “ash filigrees, roses carved in the wood of weeping trees” Ali describes.
Over the past two decades Nilima Sheikh has come to develop a style of painting very much her own, one which is indebted in equal measures to antecedents both Eastern and Western, both Modernist and Traditional. The formats for her paintings have been chosen so as to reflect a cultural diversity, to inflect on them an emphasis away from European easel painting. Her small-scale, horizontal works are reminiscent of traditional miniature paintings, of course, but also the finely detailed covers created for Buddhist manuscripts. She has preferred the forms of the paper scroll, the banners and tents stitched from cloth, the folding screen rather than the stretched canvas as her supports. These have brought to her works senses of the sacred, the nomadic, the home-made and the performative and, by extension, infused in them discourses of Feminism, the Sub-Altern, the Temporal and the Marginalised. Simultaneously, she has rendered figurative and naturalistic imageries with a painterly language inherited from the most rigorous of Modernisms, one that eschewed all content for the appreciation of literalness, physicality and flatness.
Sheikh’s painterly mentors may be such as Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and Agnes Martin yet she seems to have no anxieties in applying their strict methodologies to explorations of narrative, decoration and allegory. Sheikh’s paint handling is always hesitant, colours only lightly graze over the ground, figures are often transparent, traces of forms stippled into being and only barely seen. Again, this is served only too well by Ali’s verse: “In the smoking oil of dimmed headlights, time dissolved - all winter - its crushed fennel.” Sheikh and Ali seem to collaborate on the creation of pigments from all manner of substances, his metaphors describe perfectly her hues, tones and brushstrokes.
In a similar vein, Ali’s odes to Kashmir’s physical attributes find similitude in Sheikh’s compositional strategies and her depictions of space. “In the lake the arms of temples and mosques are locked in each other’s reflections” writes Ali and the man-made structures which dot Sheikh’s landscapes are only barely identifiable as belonging to a specific religion while nature and culture cohabitate with a delicate ease. The painter renders “the glass map of our country” as if it has been “textiled by dust.” Employing multiple perspectives and abbreviated forms, Sheikh often shows the passage from night into day and back again in a single picture, a transition which moves through the passages between mountains much as it does through the stages of life. “Sheened in moonlight” expresses succinctly the overall effect of these paintings, both in their luminescence and their romantic yearnings.
“If only somehow you could have been mine, what wouldn’t have happened in this world ?”
The programs of both the poet and the painter are ultimately Romantic in their acknowledged desires to grasp that which has slipped away, to comprehend a situation through its emotional impact, to foreground equally the imaginary and the autobiographical. Not a shred of comedy can be gleaned from Kashmir, it is completely tragic and presupposes, as Ali has claimed for his own work, “heartbreak as its craft.”
Nostalgia may be an appropriate response from Ali for he has lost a homeland forever but Sheikh seems to acknowledge that an elegy for Kashmir may be premature. In Tibetan mysticism there is the belief in three kinds of death: outer, inner and secret. “The first is ordinary physical death caused by obstacles; inner death refers to the delusions and spiritual distortions which kill happiness for the self and others; and secret death refers to blockages in the subtle energy channels of the body, which produce the according mental disorders.” Certainly, the people of Kashmir have experienced all three types of death in part but the region as a whole, its culture, history and future have not been exterminated completely. The Romantic may seem foolish at times but his triumph is the abiding belief in love and its ability to conquer even death itself. In our present case, both the poet and the painter have crafted heartbreak into the beginnings of salvation.
“I hid my pain even from myself;
I revealed my pain only to myself.
There is everything to forgive. You can’t forgive me.
If only somehow you could have been mine, what would not have been possible in the world ?”
Notes G. Mullin and A. Weber: “The Mystical Arts of Tibet,” Atlanta, 1996.
 From “Farewell”