Nilima Sheikh’s recent recent exhibition in Delhi which included oil paintings drew special attention to its section of watercolours painted on traditional vasli (a mounted surface prepared by laminating three or four thicknesses of handmade paper with lai, coated, given a glue and whitening surface - one of many variations) and painted in soft and brilliant cake colours fixed with gum arabic. Her subjects, showing landscape, people, furniture, utensils, animals and birds, the changing seasons and hours of the day, are composed in close relationship to the scale of these pictures. The effect is arresting: a traditional form supporting visibly contemporary images with no trace of force or self-consciousness. Despite the old technique the pictures belong to our time; despite the careful detail they retain an air of mystery. Nilima has accomplished this by avoiding the stereotype language of the miniature for the inventiveness of a combined aesthetic, bringing freshness and personal identification to her interpretation of a format subjected either to sentimentality or technical dissections, both impoverishing extremes. Naturally creativity in this case has to be supported by conscious intelligence, if we agree in the first place that the initial step towards working with tradition as we receive it is to first pitch it out of its crucible and give it a little fresh air.
It is hardly as though these problems of traditional form in the contemporary context have not been stared at in the face for long enough. The work of six or seven generations of contemporary Indian painters allow us critical debate on the subject, precedent that one takes pride in, and explains the preoccupation as well. Among our older artists is Professor K. G. Subramanyan who taught painting at Baroda and whose student Nilima was; Subramanyan’s catholic taste and involvement with varieties of art forms, which include the mural, and an emphasis on knowledge of materials and their craft impressed Nilima and I think the composition and drafting in her teacher as to Indian miniatures. Subramanyan himself was a student a Shantiniketan, where his tutor was the bengal painter Benode Behari Mukherjee. As we know Shantiniketan gained from the influence of the Tagores, who helped in pointing the academic studio art of the early decades of this century towards the dishes at Ajanta and Rajasthan, Mughal and Pahari painting, the Far East and Ceylon; they remain the pathfinders.
Nilima has stepped into the inviting and elusive are of working a fresh aesthetic with relative ease. The reason, perhaps, is the sympathy between her subject and the miniature format, subjects which are concerned with the everyday world, rather in the manner of a poem written in the vernacular - many of which are written by women - using homely and agricultural themes, straightforward and lyrical shared and understood by most. The curious drama of the home, the ambiguities of human relationships, animals and children at play, demand description and encourage poetry. Rajput and Pahari painting offers a huge store of similar themes: scenes from rural life, popular religious legends, ballads, stories of heros and heroins: all celebrate a personal, non-courtly life. Not surprisingly, Nilima’s paintings refer among others, to this vital source,locating a timeless human theatre in the present and basing her creativity on experience.
Nilima’sline, colour and composition sustain the tenor of liveliness and warmth. She draws fluidly, avoiding academic realism and sentimental stylisation, enunciating form, imbuing it with poetry, a gentle and evocative naturalism. In ‘Sunday Morning’ we see this in the drawing and modelling of the figure of the woman who combs the young girl’s hair, in the curve of the leg, the dip of the lap, the girl’s head twisted to one side and one foot turned sole upwards as she slouches on the mora with a strip of cord in her hand. 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.
The laboriously prepared vasli offers a superb surface for paint, a fine texture, with something of the effect of tempera, showing where the brush fills the pigment in. colours are rendered opaque with the addition of whiting, or worked lightly across to show the colour of skin under a thin garment, as in the painting of a teacher and his pulp, called ‘Lesson’. Milima’s colours are evocative: where a particular season is painted, as the monsoon in ‘White Reading’ - this rather larger two-panel painting done on cambric was originally thought of as Ashadh - the colours reflect the very quality of light, lavender, grey-blue, warm rose, green; the colours of clouds and moisture. In other paitnings the colours are brilliant, breathtaking, as in ‘Midday’.
‘Midday’ is also quite amazing for its composition, where so many activities occur in a small area, possible because of space enclosures suggested by the pole of a verandah, a low platform or threshold. A woman peels green vegetables into a basket, birds pick grains off the floor, a boy bounces a ball up in the air, a dog stoops to, perhaps lick water off from under a tap. We see kitchen shelf with things stacked on it, and a cat with its dinner in its mouth ambles off just below where we stand and watch. In this picture of an unhurried afternoon in a domestic compound there is a feeling of leaves on the floor, an absence of enclosure. Rooms and courtyard open out of each other like a folding sculpture. The compositional qualities of this painting could easily see it worked on the scale of a mural, and as Coomaraswamy wrote, this is true of Rajasthani painting as well.
Nillima also has a special love for Far Eastern painting and a particular interest in seventeenth century woodcuts. It is no accident that both are ‘popular’ art forms, Rajput painting with its domestic and secular mood, and the Japanese pictures pictures, certainly including the Ukiyo-e, or Pictures of the floating World, showing people in commonplace activities and locations (women washing clothes, men crossing a bridge, children pestering a peddler) with the most remarkable freshness and condor. Some elements of the drawing in these prints appear in Nilima’s paintings, including a marked feeling for gesture. One is also put in mind of seventeenth century Dutch paintings of homely interiors, paved brick courtyards, men smoking in a corner; all share something of the sense of an experienced chronicle that has been secularised and set, if one may put it that way, to simple music. They are too full of atmosphere and sounds for me not to mention this piece of fantasy. All these pictures tell a story. Some lift a sequence out of it. All talk about life.
Perhaps the most positive aspect of Nilima’s paintingsistherelaxedbehaviourofpast tradition with present history. Looking at what is near us, we realise that two thousand years of Indian painting can still provide an art such as ours, straddling two worlds, with kindling for the future.