The turnover of shows in the gallery world can seem at times to dissolve into a dizzying blur of art. It is all the more refreshing, therefore, when occasionally a show promises a more significant contribution to India’s cultural dialogue. Nilima Sheikh’s Drawing Trails: works on paper 2008-09, the artist’s first show in the Capital in six years, should be considered a special treat.
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Sheikh emerged in the early 1970s, at the same time as artists such as Nalini Malani and Arpita Singh, a generation still somewhat overlooked during the recent market boom years despite the critical acclaim it has received.
Sheikh’s latest body of work, 16 large tempera paintings on handmade Sanganer paper and 15 book illustrations, sees her continuing to explore the themes of Partition and upheaval which have marked her work over the past decade. Her specific focus is the suffering of communities in Kashmir and Gujarat torn asunder by sectarian conflict, abandoned villages, the grief of loss. With their combination of diverse elements, the richly layered works seem to display an almost alchemical quest for a magical formula of transcendence for the displaced and traumatized people she depicts.
Dreamscapes: (top) Sheikh uses stencilled motifs; and an untitled illustration from the Moon in the Pot series.
Fragments of text help to locate the works, drawing on poems and songs of local resistance, ranging from the likes of 14th century Kashmiri Sufi poet Nund Rishi and 20th century Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali to Salman Rushdie. Her stylized rendering of landscapes and figures using a flat perspective and other non-naturalistic compositional devices borrowed from 15th century Persian miniature paintings and Italian fresco paintings of the same period contrasts unnervingly with the issues being depicted.
Stencilled motifs further emphasize the textile-like quality of the picture surface, with architectural volume rendered through the arrangement of flat areas of geometric patterning in a manner recalling the work of legendary Persian miniaturist Bizhad. However, despite such decorative elements, the works are not expressions of beauty. Austere figures, a muted palette and foreboding mountains populated by demons all allude to the fear and sorrow of the broken communities.
Of the many art historical references, Sheikh is keen to point out the influence of the Buddhist cave paintings of Dunhuang. There is indeed a Central Asian quality intensified by a cast of djinn-like figures and other grotesques resembling the enigmatic 15th century drawings attributed to Muhammad Siyah Qalam.
Though less engaged with nationalist concerns, Sheikh’s exploration of the relationship of her work to India’s pre-modern art historical heritage is a discourse that has been central to the work of many of the pioneering artists of the early 20th century. It is no surprise that she sees herself within that historical lineage, not least through the influence of her teacher K.G. Subramanyan and her husband Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh, but also through a sense of alignment with the Bengal school.
Drawing Trails: works on paper 2008-09 is showing at Gallery Espace, 16, Community Centre, New Friends Colony, New Delhi, till 30 May.
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