From the beautiful landscapes and intimate folds of domesticity that appeared in her paintings of the 1970s and the 1980s, Nilima Sheikh’s art now reflects the many crises that rupture our social fabric. Responding like a sensitive seismograph, she registers in her paintings the troubling disjunctures that beset us.

More than two decades after Sheikh showed her quadrangular installation Shamiana in Brisbane, Australia, in 1996, she has created an installation called Terrain: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind to show at documenta 14, in Kassel, Germany, in June.

Terrain consists of 16 panels that are seven feet high and a little less than three feet wide. They are painted on paper pasted on cloth. A dozen of the 16 panels have painted images, while four include texts, mostly poetry, written on painted surfaces. The poetry quotations are wide-ranging, including the works of the medieval Kashmiri mystic poet Lal Ded, Agha Shahid Ali of Kashmir, Vietnamese Ocean Vuong, Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish, as well as Punjabi and Gujarati folk songs. Much of it has a note of yearning melancholy.

Cargo (2001), 18 x 23 cm, Mixed tempera on vasli paper. Credit: Nilima Sheikh

According to Sheikh, the overarching theme of the Terrain panels is displacement. Woven into this dominant idea are strands of narratives to tell stories from Partition, from Kashmir and stories that are tragic revolts against patriarchy.

When Sheikh paints, instead of capturing images directly from her immediate reality, she dips into her memory to pick visuals and episodes from older narrative traditions. This transference helps her to express better the tragic reality of her times. “I am struggling to find space for the tragic,” Sheikh said.

So in Terrain, there are images of which Sheikh has painted several versions over the decades. Some of these images are taken from other traditions and in repeating and modifying them, the artist has made them her own. These include Sohni swimming across Chenab at night to meet her lover Mahiwal in a daring act of defiance; an image of a man carrying his landscape on a boat, borrowed from a Nainsukh Pahari painting; and an image relating to a Partition story of a father beheading his daughter with a sword in order to save her from a likely assault by the enemy. Sheikh read of this last incident in Urvashi Butalia’s remarkable book The Other Side of Silence.

Chenab 2, Shamiana Kanat (1996), 262 x 183 cm, casein tempera on canvas. Credit: Nilima Sheikh

Sheikh has some favourite characters like the mystic poet Akka Mahadevi and the legendary Majnun, whose ecstatic abandon defying all social norms are repeatedly portrayed in her paintings.

The devastating conflict in Kashmir too recurrently finds expression in Sheikh’s work. From 2003 to 2014, she painted a series of casein temperas on canvas measuring 10 feet by 6 feet. The series title of the canvases painted on both sides is Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams and each painting has a separate title. The paintings now belong to distinguished private collections. A large number of the canvas scrolls was shown at the documenta 14 in Athens earlier this year.

The series sums up the distinctive character of Sheikh’s imagery. Scenes of daily life and work as well as images of heart-breaking loss are juxtaposed against landscapes of exquisite beauty. “The way I use beauty is also a critique of people who see beauty as external to expression, which, in modern times, has fostered closures and therefore guilt,” said said Sheikh in Trace Retrace (2015), a book on her.

Construction Site (2009-'10), Each Night Put Kashmir In Your Dreams series, 305 x 183 cm, casein tempera on canvas. Credit: Nilima Sheikh
Construction Site (reverse). Credit: Nilima Sheikh

Before embarking on the scrolls and panels, the artist works out her visual ideas in a small format and quite often, these works are hauntingly evocative in their articulation. As far as the enormous scale of her scrolls and installations go, it has not only to do with her experiments with viewing space and its experience, but also possibly with the artist’s interaction with theatre. From 1989 to 2000, Nilima steadily worked with a theatre group on visual design and painting stage sets.

Sheikh is increasingly interlacing visual narrative with textual material. Her visual language exudes an intense sense of poetry in its expressiveness and its enigmatic use of references. Her lines are not bold or aggressive – instead, the sweeping movements of her brush are deeply lyrical. Using both casein and casein- and gum-based tempera, she achieves a luminous colour palette. The flowing brushwork is counterbalanced with stencilled architectural, vegetal and sometimes animal forms as well as background texture. Working with traditional craftsmen making paper stencils (Sanjhi) is one of her collaborative practices.

Sheikh’s feminist voice, which has formed a continuous strand in her work, first found expression in the 1984 series When Champa Grew Up. Later her images began to get mediated by references to Mughal and Pahari miniatures, Nathdwara pichhavais, Chinese art, West and Central Asian art, and European art. Referring to the quotations in her images from other traditions, she said, “I like quotations as I have no anxiety about originality.”

Majnun 4 (2014), 21.5 x 62 inches, Tempera on Sanganer paper. Credit: Nilima Sheikh

She selects the sources of her quotations to express the experiences that move her creatively. There is also a celebration of women’s and men’s work. “The interest in portrayal of women and men at work with their hands has been abiding,” she said. “The rhythms of work bring a numinous quality to the act and the working person which I aspire towards.”

Sheikh’s language has been influenced by some of her teachers at the fine arts faculty of the MS University, Baroda, from where she graduated in 1971. She makes particular mention of Prof KG Subramanyan and Gulammohammed Sheikh whom she later married.

Working quietly in Vadodara and Delhi at her paintings and drawings, Nilima has travelled the world exhibiting, lecturing and teaching. She has even taught at her alma mater MS University. However, it is her work that still remains the best example of her aesthetic ideas and her personal philosophy.

Speaking of Akka 2 (1999), 20.5 x 18 cm each, Mixed tempera on vasli paper. Credit: Nilima Sheikh