Nilima Sheikh’s approach to her work is far more than the painting of a picture. Some months earlier she exhibited the Images from Umrao, large screen panels painted to show the changing of the seasons as sympathetic visuals to the ageing of the courtesan Umrao Jaan in the play of the same name.This had been preceded by the first of a series of large works by her, Song, Water, Air , and followed by painted canvas scrolls, Songspace. Her tented arrangement, Shamiana, and painted sets, a collaborative work, for the theatrical production Sundari, followed. These were made side by side with tempera paintings and drawings on cloth and paper in various sizes, in which the working both with a text and with experience took a compositional approach that puts aside the shallow window of the easel’s perspectival world. This is a deliberate choice, pointing towards the language of the story-telling conventions: the stage of life, on a wall, a suspended banner, or a book. Shall we say, a fusion of the visual and literary arts, and on another level, a visual engagement with the performing arts.
If anything, her personal language is intimately connected with a critical awareness of the historical, and of the processes which this knowledge has allowed her to choose. These choices are concerned with the questioning of aesthetic closure suggested by the now much discussed finalities of natural and illusionistic space which have made up the edifice of modernism. So that in extending her space into the ascendants and expansions of the miniature and wall-painting, screen or scroll, for instance, she is constantly evolving formats to accommodate the mood and the method of describing the subject. Nilima calls the present exhibition Painted Drawings, where line and colour work side by side, allowing both the possibilities of alternative speech in the picture. She is clear in pointing out the variety of her sources, which include the Chinese paintings of Dun Huang as well as Italian painting, more so her deep love for the traditions of Asian art.
Her style of drawing and the quality of her line are extensions of these enquiries. Fine, contouring, sometimes enclosing volume, sometimes gathered into close outline to push out volume and highlight the gestalt of the image (Postcards from Umbria). Looking at the work of Benode Bihari Mukherjee, Rajput or Far Eastern styles, we may with ease recognise certain of her models, as in the larger drawings. We may also take a further cue from the poetic rendering this displays to consider the ethics of illusionistic space - and academic drawing - as a contrast. The illusionistic factor, being inseparable from the arithmetic of perspective disallows liberties with the placing of objects and figures which may otherwise occupy a conceptual area of unreality - indeed, possess a life of their own, treating the surface as a plane unto itself, rather than that which exists to satisfy a viewer’s gaze, which is by its very nature pre-judicial.
Certainly they would disallow Nilima’s use of moveable topographies, her conjurings and reinterpretations. In the larger works, which negotiate the path between a drawing and a painting, Nilima has pasted transparent Nepali paper over the thicker Sanganeri, achieving both a highly sensitive drawing surface as well as the feeling of another dimension to her picture plane. In these subtle and observant pictures, she is the traveller and the naturalist who walks an incline to a small landing, looks into a detail of the landscape, a secret lake in the mountains; then steps into an intimate space where the picture of a loved one is brushed in in fine lines, shadowy and clear, upon another miniscule rectangle of paper which has been trimmed carefully to the right size and pasted over the second layer of Nepali paper. Elsewhere, we see the hand of the painter/scribe corrected, painted over with whiting before being redrawn. In this reworking lies a mood of reflection, reconsidering, yearning: a fight from finality, the same that is identifies with the sense of aesthetic closure. These feelings are already inseparable from the invisible bond that unites the figures of the four women in different stages of life and passing, rather like taking a walk through the experiences of a day, a yea, a lifetime. The painted drawing might be an envelope, stamped with a picture, postmarked with a sweeping, wavy brush-stroke, surrounded by the ordinary and moving texts of a person’s life. A letter on an envelope, if you like, except that it is painted on pressed, handmade paper with cake colours, the tinning silver used for utensils, and casein.
Through the ‘eighties Nilima received Government fellowships to study methods of traditional Indian tempera techniques, specially the painting of pichhavais at Nathdwara. Her experiences while working and learning with the artists here were to re-establish her clear faith in the place of skill as a major ingredient in the processes and final results of art. Her choice of the study of this subject was itself a pointer to her earlier leaning towards traditional styles, in which her teacher Prof. K.G. Subramnayan was a central influence. In the main, her stand is that neither draughtsmanship nor technical mastery can remain fixed qualities without sacrificing the spark essential to the life of the work, and that the sidelining of skills is one of the basic facets upon which the influential argument upon modernism is based. Amrita Sher-Gil, whose work Nilima admires and has written on provides an endorsing example; for one who trained in European academic conventions, Sher-Gil was quick to realise the riches of traditional sources and on visiting Mattancheri, only one stop on her travels, her seeing the murals and her exposure to older art forms clarifies the necessity to ‘move on’. That this indicated not merely the forsaking of old skills, but acquiring of new ones, was evident in Sher-Gil’s later works.
Something of the same desire to work with older murals, or rather away from them, surfaced in Nilima’s work while on a recent visit to Italy. Her familiarity with the paintings of the Italian Renaissance caused her to engage with them - the works of Giotto, Sassetta, Uccello, among others - investing these primary works of illusionism with the non-illusionistic qualities of her own artistic vision. In the series, Postcards from Umbria, painted in a subtle palette of greyed and blended pigments, the transitions from rose to ash and lemon are finely graded and brushed in in certain places with a visible, horizontal stroke. The image is then further drawn in with a brush and filled in with detail. In one painting, a pillared alcove enclosing a vision shares a room with a pointed roof where the painter’s husband sits working in one corner of the page; while a spare and delicate landscape is humanised with a small doorless opening showing the head andforelegsofanassthat clearly bears an (unseen) rider on its back. We recognize this a s a detail of Duccio’s Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem (1308-11), and realize that where according to one line of opinion in art history so-called Gothic rigidity was seen to become partly ‘unfrozen’ in the hands of this Sienese master of Trecento, the same unfrozen convention has been re-viewed from its own mood of individualism and grandeur into one of nuance in Nilima Sheikh’s very small brush drawing.
The tradition of copying, common to older cultures, is for Nilima far more than art historical proposition, or the selective reproduction of an image. It affords her a face to face with ambivalences in subject-matter, the expression of values, and the exhilaration of the exercise itself. One small tempera on two facing leaves shows the devil an angels quarrelling over the body of a ‘sinner’. Taken from a detail in a predella by Paolo Uccello, The Profanation of the Host (1468), it reflects the Renaissance mind in the portentous Catholic view of good and evil against a theologically sanctified set of ethics. The painting itself is completely changed, from the colours to the space occupied, the immediate interest focused on the drama of the event itself, but the ambiguities inherent in the representations of right and wrong, and the different meanings that different spiritual disciplines invest them with do also occupy her. In her seven-foot scrolls which take elements from the Jataka katha, she takes her cue from the secular voyages of the soul towards a spiritual harbour. Here, with the emphasis on the Bodhisattva’s denial of personal salvation until that of all the universe is achieved, the stories concern a vernacular drama with references to travellers, capricious monarchs, commerce between humans and animals in the journey of the annihilation of the finite soul into the infinite. It is really very difficult at this point to resist the temptation to say, the annihilation of the illusionistic finite into the conceptual infinite. Although art, occupying a level of existence that must constantly journey to renew itself, may well invest these very terms with meaning opposite to those that the present gives them.
These investigations are also of a piece with Nilima’s unease with only the singular depiction of the beautiful. Violence and injustice, as in her Champa series, parallel troubling levels of reality, and this series combines both beauty and brutality, themes she wishes to concentrate on.
Also in the small format, Nilima began a series on Mahadeviakka, the Bhakti woman saint, who roams a mountainous region searching for Shiva, her ‘Lord, white as jasmine’. As the wild woman, naked, unkempt, and covered only with her tresses, she poses disturbing questions on themes of ‘womanness’, loneliness, devotion. The paint in these pictures is far more physical than the subject, its roots deep in the non-representational, that is to say the magical, the meditative, and the great kinship of design to the emotion of the subject. Yet it is Akka who remains the moral centre of this series, a difficult and utterly moving set of pictures. Mahadeviakka, who flouted all these rules of conventional devotion, remains herself today an icon; instead of institutionalising Akka the iconoclast, Nilima restores her freedom to her by questioning the stereotype she has been forced into. ‘Akka, while having forsaken all the trappings of loveliness, is still dealing with sexuality’. So that the emphasis here is on transience of the stereotype and the longevity of the true being. Nilima also alters and changes the course of her style, from the flat and intense background colour with symbolic motif to a finely graded, airy space with natural detail brushed in, as though both narration and language each worked independently to keep pace with the other.
Again, both are ethical choices. Both question the fixed idea, established form and their philosophical purposes. In the work of Aparjita Singh, Nilima finds the emphatic image of the other woman she so carefully thinks of, concerns herself with - the unlovely, ageing woman, the woman freed at last, partly of her own volition, partly as a result of the cynicisms of social pressures, from the bonds of the patriarchal romance. This is the same woman, the central but vulnerable protagonist, who appears in Nilima’s paintings dealing with birth, death, voluptuousness; domestic spaces, the rituals of contemplation, rest or despair through the industrious day.
These subjects draw the traditional and the everyday into a seamless bond which achieves its authenticity through: 1) experience and 2) projection. Far from being a petrified factor at the heart of an exclusive, incomprehensible system, tradition could well be the greater source of the freedoms that the present is engaged with. In the communication of both the existential and the common, creativity remains a primary vehicle due chiefly to its protean, questioning qualities. It is the emphasis on the language of this communication that lies at the heart of what I call the democratizing qualities of tradition, which, while it restores, can only do so at this point in history through the sources of critical self-assessment. If the paintings of Nilima Sheikh, as they speak beyond the frame, point us in this direction, we could do worse than look afresh at her enquiries of the aesthetic.
Acknowledgement - I thank Nilima Sheikh for many discussion of her work.