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Capturing the nuances of artist Nilima Sheikh’s practice
Art history, especially of the amazing Asian pictorial traditions, tends to draw Nilima Sheikh towards the multitude of materials, formats and surfaces that might conveniently contain her interests. It also prompts her to develop dialects for accommodating the lexicons of pre-modern art histories. Whether painting her own world, portraying her immediate realm (in the 1970s and ’80s) as her children grew up, or trying to engage with the burning issue of dowry deaths, in her sensitive serial folios, of a girl who died because of the indifferent of her marital family, she seeks alternative ways of expression.

The sensitive artist further counts the presence of parallel textual narratives as well as performative forms in her practice. She has also done illustrations for children’s books apart from painting sets and backdrops for dramas; quietly letting these experiences seep into her work: sometimes large, hanging captivating canvas scrolls richly painted on both sides and sometimes miniatures on paper. Through means like oral poetry tradition, folklore, contemporary historical annotations and her own experiences, she has explored the variables of varied feminine experiences.

Though she grew up in the capital city of India, Kashmir has invariably had a place in her heart. Incidentally, she spent her early years in the land, blessed with pristine beauty and cursed with endless violence, and had shared a sort of curiously vexed relationship with it. Nilima Sheikh’s series ‘Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams’ took eight long years to fructify. The show almost got shelved. As its opening neared, the Kashmir Valley flared up in fresh violence. The distraught artist decided to cancel the event, asking, ‘what meaning does it really have, given the reality?’ However, photographer Ram Rahman and others Sahmat members made her to change the mind. Commenting on the complex history of the state, she states, “The turmoil is owing to our lack of understanding (of the place and people there) as Indians. For example, even while most of us know about Kashmir’s rich Hindu and Islamic heritage, few are aware of Buddhism’s deep imprint of there. The artist’s role is to bear witness - to both the past and present.”

For several years, Nilima Sheikh has assiduously and actively engaged with the historical fates and trajectories of turbulent landscape. In her work inspired by Kashmir’s ravaged landscape, there is a deft blending of historical textual references and medieval verses, contemporary writing and folktales from/on the state. Visual references originate from Himalayan, Turkish, Persian, South Asian and at times even pre-Renaissance Italian art. What emerges from this intense exploration is a series of introspective works on paper and scrolls on canvas.

Born in Delhi in 1945, she first studied at the Delhi University (1962-65) and then did her Master of Fine Arts (Painting) from Faculty of Fine Arts, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda (1969-71). Apart from 'Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams', Chemould Prescott, Mumbai; LKA, Delhi (2010); her other selected solos are 'Drawing Trails', Gallery Espace, Delhi (2009); 'The Country Without A Post Office', Gallery Chemould (2003); 'Painted Drawings', Gallery Espace (1999); 'Images from Umrao', Nature Morte, Delhi (1999) and Galerie FIA, Amsterdam (1998), among others.

Her recent noteworthy group participations are 'Pause: A Collection', Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai (2011); 'Tradition, Trauma, Transformation', David Winton Bell Gallery, Providence RI (2011); 'Narrations, Quotations & Commentaries', Grosvenor Gallery, London (2011); 'A Collection', Sakshi Gallery (2010-11); 'STPI Review Show', Singapore (2010); 'Modern Folk', Aicon Gallery, New York (2010); 'Tracing Time', Bodhi Art, Mumbai (2009); 'Horn Please', Kunstmuseum Bern, Switzerland (2008). The artist has recently participated in 'Roots in the Air, Branches Below', San Jose Museum of Art (2011); 'Time Unfolded', KNMA, Delhi (2011); 'Place.Time.Play’ at Shanghai Art Museum (2010); 'Panoroma: India' at 'ARCOmadrid', Spain (2009); ''Modern India' courtesy Institut Valencià d'Art Modern (IVAM) and Casa Asia (2008-09).

After the inner turmoil that she experienced post the Gujarat riots in 2002, she was spurred o take up a long-pending art project that dealt with the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali’s soul-stirring verses full of pain that inspired it. Nilima Sheikh won’t term references in her work as religious, but more art historical in nature, all part of a history that we tend to term tradition or mythology. Actually it is history, part of one’s past, she explains, adding that it’s not merely western art history.

The paintings that she personally likes seeing, in some way, may well have influenced her, she reveals. And it has been an intense struggle and a long journey at personal to find the right idiom and form to transform her influences into a unique artistic vision. For example, when she started experimenting with the small paintings, it wasn’t easy for her to get the form right. Also, foremost to her was the reading of the image while working on the ‘When Champa grew up’ series. The protagonist’s fragile life tale or the deeper issues therein, was what she wanted to put in context, retaining its autonomy in some ways. She then thought of the book form that could incorporate a personal interaction with the core theme and bring to the fore what would even be perceived as sentimental views.

The artist has stated: “I’ve no problem in (sharing) emotional views or using sentiment. For me it is important. But I also don’t wish to just put it out there on the wall, as something to be stared at all the time and amongst other things. I didn’t want to trivialize (the issue).” In a broader context, Nilima Sheikh maintains that she doesn’t reject modernism as a mode of our work, sensibility etc. However, there are some things one needs to find a way around, as she explains. “Modernism does allow some freedoms, albeit it has certain closures. And I feel my job (as an artist) is to work around them - open up, open up & open up. In modernism, illustration is a bad word; so is sentiment and maybe even narrative. You open them up. So in a sense, that is the constant effort.

“Also with history, and certain stereotype in artistic expression: of for example, a lovely tree with a moon hidden behind it. That would appear one of a worst order to depict something romantic, but therein lies the challenge as one needs to ‘uncorrupt’ it so form has been a significant aspect of my artistic struggle, in a way, to say something. The choice is part of the whole context and content. One must be striving to constantly change them; they are not necessarily fixed things, and need to be reread and reactivated, she sums up.