The scene is eerily still. A city stands, ghostlike, emptied, sprawled across a square canvas; in the foreground sickly green houses, their open doors like gaping mouths, in the background stacks of haphazard buildings that are reminiscent of busy chowks and crossings across the country. Between them, the amalgamation of ground and sky overwhelms the composition with swathes of ominous orange. The painting readaptsthe visual language of Mughal miniature painting, in which space is stacked and interspersed with uniform shocks of flattened colour, to a dream-like depiction of the present day.Thus Gulamohammed Sheikh’s Speechless City (1975) unfolds in the wake of calamity – a town, deserted by its inhabitants, is now occupied solely by cattle and dogs that pour in and out of emptied houses and the occasional flocks of birds that take to the skies, fleeing the scene.
Made in the wake of the Emergency while Sheikh lived and worked in Baroda (now Vadodara), the painting was among his first explicitly political artworks. Through it he gave voice to the ills of censorship, imagining how the Indira Gandhi government’s suspension of civil liberties and arbitrary arrests might manifest both spatially and socially in ordinary life. In equal partssurreal and satirical, it asks: what happens when a government is at liberty to rid itself of its critics; what do citizens become when they are stripped of the very rights upon which their citizenship rests? Will entire cities go silent? (Additionally, will they go silent before or after their government comes for them?)
In the absence of any human subjects, the painting’s animals occupy an ambiguous position – in the story it tells they could, on the one hand, be simple foragers, searching through the houses for sustenance after the disappearance of their owners.
More intriguing still is the possibility that they depict what citizens are reduced to in authoritarian regimes, left to flee, to follow blindly as cattle do, or to bark relentlessly for their masters. Painted almost 45 years ago, Speechless City continues to speak to our current political climate in its indictment of censorship, unconstitutional arrests and illegitimate deployments of state power. It also begins to speak with uncanny prescience: can we ignore, for instance, that the atmosphere that hangs over the city is deep saffron?
Read all the articles in the Art of Resistance series here.