Early in the 1990s, when Sheila Makhijani was painting with an orange blob of paint on white ground, people interpreted it as spirituality in her work. The experience unnerved Makhijani so much that she changed her course completely. “I don’t want any meaning to be read into my work,” said Makhijani, who is today one of the foremost abstract artists in India. “I want to create a language only with colour and line, which will speak in their own voice.”

Makhijani has always been drawn towards abstract art. Asked why she chose abstraction for her art language, Makhijani answers with disarming candour: “I discovered that it took me much longer to do a representational drawing and the result was not quite what I expected to be.” One suspects she also did not want to carry the baggage of a narrative.

Her latest show This, That and the Other, which is currently on view at the Talwar Gallery in Delhi, reaffirms her ideas of the language of art and what it must express. Her art is abstract, intense, rhythmic and full of energy, but with hardly any direct allusions to natural or man-made forms. While all abstract artists try to focus on pure abstract form, they often allow expressive or emotional references to filter into the canvas. But for Makhijani, the act of painting is more subliminally driven. Her paintings and drawings have been collected by the Delhi-based Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Modern Art, as well as private collectors.

'How was I to know', Oil on canvas.
'How was I to know', Oil on canvas.

The oils in the current show reveal a dynamic brushwork, moving in broad, sweeping arcs. As for colours, she continues with her favourites – reds, pinks and blues – along with new notes of large slatherings of black and dark blue. “I concentrate on, and work with, the space,” she said. “The brush moves of its own accord. If there is any emotion I feel that gets reflected in the painting, it is very subtle and does not communicate itself to the viewer.” According to Makhijani, there was a time when her paintings featured fleeting glimpses of train tracks, pathways, built forms and cars – brief reflections of her love for travelling, and walking in the city.

What perhaps appeals most to viewers is Makhijani’s love affair with the medium, the surface and the movement of her brush. There is a gestural abandon with which she applies paint. Her ground is prepared with care. Her training at the Kanazawa College of Art and Craft in Japan in 1993, following her Master’s degree from the Delhi College of Art, gave her a sound control over technique. For Makhijani, the act of painting is like having fun, a dialogue with paint and brush.

'Flying High',  Acrylic on wall.
'Flying High', Acrylic on wall.

The surface of her canvas is covered with thick layers of paint so that the ground is mere support for the play of her brush. She is often fanciful while wielding the brush: she may apply fresh paint while the previous surface is still wet, or may load the brush with generous dollops of paint and cover an area on which she has already worked because she doesn’t quite like what she has done.

And then, of course, there is the texture. The most compelling are the different kinds of brush marks that she leaves on the painted surface – stippled, grainy and gritty. There are also the linear markings that she creates with the palette knife. The canvases have richly worked surfaces that demand viewing from a distance to appreciate its large expanse, but at the same time, they invite the viewer to take a closer look. There is a dialectic play between the instinctive movement of the brush and the carefully worked out textures.

If the paintings express a self-liberation, then Makhijani’s coloured drawings carry a hint of austerity in the intricately drawn forms in ink and shades of red gouache, floating in the white space of the paper. The complex structures are composed of shard-like, angular or elongated, elliptical or foliate planes. They have a lightness and movement. The complicated play of lines is highlighted with touches of saturated reds. The forms are reminiscent of some imagined vehicles from outer space.

While the coloured drawings provide a glimpse of Makhijani’s fantasy world, the small objects that she exhibits at every show bear testimony to the playfulness of her imagination. For the first time in India, she is showing a ceramic installation, which she made at a ceramic workshop in the Netherlands in 1994. Composed of small, coloured objects that resemble recognisable forms, the installation titled All over the Place has evocative resonances. It could be a random display of finds from a lost civilisation at an archaeological dig. Or it could be a scattering of toys in a child’s playroom. “It is an inviting space [and] I could live quite happily among these objects,” said Makhijani.

'All over the place', glazed and unglazed ceramic (Installation in 63 parts).
'All over the place', glazed and unglazed ceramic (Installation in 63 parts).

The other arrangement of objects is called Just IN, Just OUT. Composed of small acrylic right angles, Makhijani has fitted them in such a way that it resembles an architectural complex. There is a flexibility to the Lego-like pieces so that one can create a range of constructs with them. Makhijani has inscribed each piece with capillary-thin lines, which she has filled with jewel-bright colours. Clever lighting helps the pieces acquire an ethereal glow.

Makhijani says she enjoys creating large paintings as well as small objects. Her Delhi College of Art teacher professor PN Mago and sculptor Mrinalini Mukherjee had told her that she possessed a talent for handling large spaces and small things, and cautioned her not to lose it. Makhijani has continued to heed their advice. Even as her paintings and drawings impress collectors and art lovers, her strikingly original three-dimensional objects continue to fascinate all those interested in art. Her large oils, coloured drawings made with gouache and ink and the small objects point to a recognisable signature style among the post-1990s generation of abstract artists.

'Just IN Just OUT',  acrylic on engraved acrylic (In 100 parts).
'Just IN Just OUT', acrylic on engraved acrylic (In 100 parts).

This, That and The Other is on view at the Talwar Gallery, Delhi, till May 18.

All images courtesy of the artist and Talwar Gallery.