The work of Nilima Sheikh (b. 1945) stands before us at a time when varying theories relating to modernism in Indian art are being closely argued. Her working of an aesthetic that relates art to the artisanal has enriched our reading of the modern, and owes as much to her teacher at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda, Professor K.G. Subramanyan, as to the artists of the Bengal school. Subramanyan, himself tutored by the master Binode Behari Mukherjee in Santiniketan, has encouraged the alignment of art and craft with great conviction, just as he has the study of Western and Eastern art without prejudice or condescension, while expecting to see the impact of personal comprehension and style in the final result.
Nilima has received this along with the greater legacy of Santiniketan, where earlier studies under Abanindranath Tagore and E.B. Havell at the beginning of this century helped in pointing the academic studio art of British art schools in India (of the 1850s onwards) to the riches at Ajanta and Rajasthan, Mughal and Pahari painting, the Far East and Sri Lanka, apart from the removal of barriers between various media and arts. Interpretations of Indian modernism have both endorsed and questioned the artisanal contribution to our graphic lexicon, and for this reason Sheikh’s work is more completely assessed against the larger background of modern Indian art, both for its own artistic qualities and for its theoretical substance.
Sources and Choices
Background: The artist-theorists who Nilima studied were presenting the counter to European academicism. Scrutiny of this attitude also asks us to acknowledge that most aesthetic choices following the Industrial Revolution were political statements as well, and in the case of India her colonization necessitated a response that was not so much a negation of Western art as an attack on the politicized cultural factor it represented. This is borne out by the interesting evidence of dissident voices at Santiniketan and Gaganendranath Tagore, as well as Ramkinkar Baij on the matter of style models in which they included Western examples when found applicable. The affinity lay in the conscious intention of evolving a new form, and despite some visibly embarrassing examples they achieved their objective to a substantial degree.
The Matter of Modernism: Here it is necessary to gather that the “form” mentioned above was the fin-de-siecle culmination, not the beginning, of what may be called the modern element in Indian art. The methodological contribution of the Bengal school will become clear after we have recorded the changes that took place at this time. I use the term “modern” here in the specific historical context of the popularization of the results of the printing press in India (1777-78 to 1780 onwards) - although prints made in England had reached India earlier - with its unprecedented and transforming effect on the handiwork of the traditional painter. This performed the role of dispersing the academic verisimilitude of prevailing Western art by the hundreds in the cheap form of prints. The eighteenth-century Indian painter faced the onslaught of lithographic prints with European subjects and styles and began, with his tempered experience of academic perspective and rendering, first to reproduce and subsequently to interpret. This interpreting with its uniquely personal quality led to the creating of a new style altogether and often appears in startling individual examples among the vast body of what is called Company painting, as well as popular painting of the time. Individual aberrations of this kind are a seminal factor in the style-making process, and logically mark out a clearing which is the closest we may get to the modern experience in Indian art.
It was the first modern miniaturists, therefore, who dealt with the problem of new form frontally, in the face of a threat to their very livelihoods, and without any intellectual or material defences, in contrast to the ideology-based nationalism of the Bengal school. In effect, the modern experience in Indian art is so closely connected with changing identity in changed circumstances that individuation became its most important factor, in direct contrast to the internationalism of European modernism. It is the work of the eighteenth-century artist that must form the groundwork of any appraisal of Indian modernism, most certainly its mutations in contemporary Indian art. We may, therefore, with profit put aside the methodological red herrings of European modernism and post-modernism offered as having direct parallels in the Indian experience in the fine arts.
Portfolio: Pictures and Ideas
It is here that the specific contribution of the Bengal school, as mentioned earlier, becomes clear - clarifying the attitudinal similarity Nilima’s work has with it. It was nothing less than the rescue of the artisanal struggle of the eighteenth-century painter from the patronizing bid of the products of British-run local art schools, to whom adherence to European styles had become an ethical achievement. This adherence not only misrepresented the instrinsic qualities and refinements of European art, but also encouraged didactic face-offs where inventiveness was lost sight of in the crush.
Nilima has contributed to the healing with assured ease. I refer, in the main, to her working out of a style which has the fresh inventiveness of a combined aesthetic, bringing together the conceptual poetry of the miniature and the compositional clarity and mood of the seventeenth-century Japanese woodcut, while employing naturalistic rendering in the case of specific images, as a figure, animal, or vegetation. There is a coordinative sympathy between her style and her subjects, which refer to nature and incidents from everyday life, the drama of the home, the ambiguities of human relationships, animals, and children at play; Indian painting offers a rich bank of similar experiences contemporary to their own time, as popular legends and ballads, which have currency till today. Nilima refers, among other subjects, to this vital source, locating a timeless human theatre in the present and basing her creativity on experience.
Her special love for Far Eastern painting includes the Ukio-ye, or Pictures of the Floating World, showing people in commonplace activities and locations with warmth and candour. One of the figures often repeated in her work is that of a woman crouching, washing clothes, or scrubbing a metal dish, and other subjects include a child at a sweet shop, an old-fashioned pharmacy, a courtyard where a small theatre of domestic human activity unfolds. Some of the quality of the Japanese drawing is also seen in her rendering of figures as in the illustration showing the two women from the 1984 series, When Champa Grew Up. The young girl and the winnowing fan are drawn with poetic economy; the older womanmetamorphosedintoasymbol of evil. Both figures are drawn with the accuracy that can only come from observation but remain character figures allowing us to conjure mood and psychology beyond description.
Nilima also uses the multi-planal perspective of the Indian painter as in Wakeful Night where views of several rooftops alternate with a peep into a neat, softly lit kitchen, the mother feeding her infant before two sleeping figures in the centre, the night with its prowler and tree brushing against the doorway. She has also fairly controlled the practice of dividing a single frame into panels which allow simultaneously in the description of events, transgressing singular space and scale relations. This format may see the same picture worked on a small as well as a large scale, something one has often been struck by in examples such as the spectacular Hamza Nama series painted for Akbar in the sixteenth century. By allowing this format to speak of personal/extended experience, Nilima transforms a so-called “older” formula into contemporary artistic language and proves the easy transitions that are possible between past and present, if the thing said and the skill brought to it are entirely truthful to the testing standards of the creator.
Other stylistic features recognizable as her own are her treatment of foliage and fauna which she sources from Indian and Persian painting, but transforms compositionally as in Samira in Dalhousie where the landscape, treated like a painted textile, forms a lush background to the vulnerable ace of the child before. Abstarct notations such as dotted areas, or cues such as a dash of colour, or an ambiguously conceptualized form which could be read as wings, a leaf, or a piece of paper are judiciously placed in quite the same way as a word in a poem, which may often have more than one meaning and is necessary to the pattern of the verse. About Seasons, a work that stands midway between a painting and a drawing, shows these small aerial shapes between the open window and the chair before the table; the effect is one of a poem.
This style speaks effectively across the technical devices of the various media Nilima has chosen to work in, as oil on canvas, tempera both on paper and cloth, as well as drawings for a children’s book, theatre design for proscenium and the outdoors including painting on banners and screens. This same style has come to be specially identified, however, with the tempera she has chosen to work with for more than a decade now, specially as certain compositional and textural effects in particular are possible only on the medieval Indian miniaturist’s traditional wasli, or hand-prepared paste-board she has perfected the use of. The method is laborious and involves careful laminating of several sheets of handmade paper which are coated and covered with the use of a fixer; Nilima is particular to point out such craftsmanly details as the use of white as an integral part of the composition. Colours are rendered opaque with the use of whiting and marked lightly across a coloured area to suggest partial visibility, as skin under fine fabric, or the detail of a distant mountain as in Hillside Flock. As the Indian white (khari) takes time to dry to its correct dense value, its use requires special control and keen foresight.
Nilima’s deep interest in the wasli and its effects is closely linked with her theories regarding form. In an article written by her in The India Magazine (July 1990) titled “On visiting Nathdwara” - an empathetic and comprehensive appraisal of the status of today’s painter of traditional forms - she carries her visual thesis into words to say that the miniaturist who paints today in Jaipur or Nathdwara is also, by virtue of his place in history, a contemporary artist, and the benefits to be had from both a technical and a stylistic exchange between the urban and traditional artist are essential to further discovery in Indian art. She specially points out the nearly complete absence of practical knowledge of the highly developed skills of the traditional painter on the part of the urban artist, and states significantly that the way to “conserve” a living tradition must include a built-in device to stop it from imitating itself and thereby becoming mechanical. In this she has stated her own position as well.
If anything, her concept is similar to that of the eighteenth-century painter’s tackling of diverse styles from his position of the historically aware. Her work is also better understood in relation to that of her seniors, K.G. Subramanyan, painter A. Ramachandran, potter Ira Chowdhury, for all of whom the “craft” of their art is a positive ideological factor. Both Subramanyan and Ramachandran have never lost sight of the fact that painting is primarily a visual experience, or that mural and sculpture, weaving and book illustration require the same craftsmanly - and sometimes extra-artistic - ingredients as painting, printmaking, or writing on art. Exactly the same approach to materials has been traditionally the very premise of the potter, for whom the “art” is entirely dependent on the crafting for it to have any meaning. Chowdhury’s conceptual treatment of form and embellishment would be a close source for Nilima whereby pottery, no matter how sculpturesque or esoteric in its shape, must retain its original relationship to the factors that have caused it to exist. This is quite different from the concentration of attention on the form and the subject with the skill itself, no matter how refined, remaining auxiliary to the thing said or, in other words, where the results justify the means to the point where the form itself becomes the subject. For Subramanyan, Ramachandran, and Chowdhury - among others - the process is part of the result in more than a physical way and is part of their philosophy of art and towards the actual use of materials. In these two approaches lie the methodological differences that separate the stereotypes of the “traditional” from the “modern” and “illustration” from “art”.
It is interesting to remember that the Progressive Artists’ Group (Bombay, 1948) which allotted exclusive credit to itself as the champion of international modernism, haughtily dismissed in the process the Bengal school and, later, several Baroda artists as “illustrators” who did not know how “to paint”. Amrita Sher-Gil had used exactly the same terminology for the Bengal school. Nilima’s response to Sher-Gil’s historicist reading of the modern has been to include Sher-Gil’s work along with Abanindranath’s as part of her legacy, and this is done in a spirit of detached admiration without the political albatross of the progressive as a virtue. Sher-Gil did not extend the status of legacy to the Bengal artists. For her it was combat; for Nilima it is an aesthetic cornucopia.
Again, Nilima’s use of the tempera, usually associatedwiththejewel-likefinish of the miniature, to speak both on social issues and poetic/personal subjects, is an audacious achievement which - certainly in the visual arts - proves the fallibility of conventional coordinations of “form” and “content”. Of this attitude the dramatic series When Champa Grew Up is a most unforgettable example, with its subject of the death of a young girl for dowry (or groom-price) and the range of emotions shown in expressions ranging from innocence to evil. The artist uses restraint in the telling. In one of the paintings illustrated, the graceful figure of the bride seated in her meticulous kitchen is shown lit up gently, the outlines of her figure and dishes in a light ochre, while on both sides the darkened panels reveal the ghoulish figures that are her death.
The same vulnerability of human experience is seen in the series of large panels, Song, Water, Air. This series depicts combinations on several levels, as in the references in certain sections to the seasons, along with history, anecdote, and experience. All the panels together exemplify this range, from references to the legend of Sohni-Mahiwal and the story of the Ramayana to historical figures and to the non-heroic and anonymous human factor, whose voices rise and subside in song. Both the loveliness and terror of nature are seen as transient as the relationship of the human factor to this overwhelming landscape. In Edge of Wind, land and water collide in a series of jagged chunks of colour wherein patches of fields, trees, and housetops are seen in the haze. This painting is treated more conceptually than all others in the series and provokes a participant feeling of a world breaking up, receiving the edge of the wind. In the lower right corner a small swept female figure raises her hands, facing a world dissembling.
The view that equates art and craft is neither recent nor fashionable, as proved by Nilima’s artistic antecedents. However, it is substantial enough to question the same internationalism that on the one hand espouses the causes of freedom of expression and on the other turns form into a fetish that is the ideological opposite of aberration. This fetishism cannot logically exceed even the farthest limits of aesthetic hedonism and is as close to artistic annihilation as perfection can make it possible to be. In this context the rejuvenation of the human principle must remain paramount despite the most cynical readings of progress. If, therefore, ritualistic happenings and constructs address and display the symbols of ethnicity, radical power, and the purest formal excess that symbolize this progress, Nilima’s attitude to her work, by no means an isolated experience in India, may well answer many questions raised by these excesses.