Nilima Sheikh

Nilima Sheikh (b. 1945) has inspired several generations over her 50 year career as a Baroda based painter. Sheikh has a solid position in the history of Indian Modernity, and was a student of KG Subramanian. Rooted in Eastern painting traditions such as miniature painting, oral tradition found in vernacular folk songs, as well as her own life experience, Sheikh continues to create bodies of work that evoke mystical imaginary landscapes that address feminine experiences. Sheikh has a gift for storytelling. Inspired by reading Rabindranath Tagore, the artist became interested at an early age in the connection between stories and images, an age-old connection from murals to ancient manuscripts. Beyond appropriating traditional techniques in her work, Sheikh works with figure and narration in her practice, which has also beautifully translated into theatre sets such as the 1993 Vivadi theatre production of Umrao, and also children’s books.

One series that earned Sheikh international acclaim and has exhibited extensively internationally was ‘When Champa Grew Up,’ a narrative and delicate 12 work series from 1984-1985 which revealed a tragic and too familiar story of a woman murdered for her dowry money by her husband’s family. Sheikh used traditional tempera painting techniques to question the darker sides of Indian traditions such as arranged marriages, which often subvert women. The artist used text from vernacular folk songs along with the paintings, a motif that has continued in her work decades later. Her painterly treatment of tempera also continues in her practice but in increasingly ambitious scales. In 1996, ‘Shamiana’ was unveiled at the Second Asia-Pacific Triennial, an installation with six hanging tempera on canvas scrolls, covered with a canopy made of synthetic polymer paint on canvas that referenced a marriage tent.

Beyond India, the artist turns to visual references from Kashmir, Turkey, Iran, and even pre-Renaissance Italian painting to create introspective works that question the meaning of the turbulent political landscape around her. Sheikh visited Kashmir often in her childhood, and was fascinated by it, but it was not until the 2002 Gujarat riots, which caused her immense internal turmoil, that she was able to directly address her connection with this state. Trained as a historian before she was trained as a painter, Sheikh delved into the history of Kashmir, and believes that Kashmir’s turmoil “is owing to our lack of understanding (of the place and people there) as Indians…The artist’s role is to bear witness - to both the past and present.” Two shows at Chemould, one in 2003 and one in 2010, address the artist’s deep concern with Kashmir. In the first exhibition, ‘The Country Without a Post Office: Reading Aga Shahid Ali,’ the artist connected with the Kashmiri poet’s words and illustrated the trauma found there and her thoughts with a vibrant and violent palette.  In her 2010 show at Chemould Prescott Road, the artist exhibited a series of 9 painted scrolls reflecting her 8 years of arduous work called ‘Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams.’ Her use of the motif of the scroll, a reference to Kashmir’s forgotten Buddhist past, allowed her to draw viewers into Kashmir outside of existing stereotypes which fuel the conflict that Sheikh hopes will diffuse with her lyrical works. 

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