The narrator

The narrator

The narrator

Gulam Mohammad Sheikh, who was recently awarded the Padma Bhushan, believes that the process of making art is so complex that no language can define it, writes Giridhar Khasnis. 

In a long and illustrious career, well-known painter, poet and educator Gulam Mohammed Sheikh (born 1937) has played a significant role in shaping the discourse on modern and contemporary art practice in India. His ideas, artistic practices, writings and political beliefs have attracted national and international attention. 

As an influential teacher, he has taught both painting and art history at the Faculty of Fine Arts, M S University, Baroda, for more than three decades, inspiring generations of young artists and acting as a mentor to scores of talented students. 

Born in Surendranagar, Gujarat, and growing up in a middle-class Muslim family, Sheikh chose to study Sanskrit in school. “I learnt the meaning of hymns and myths, I could read the Upanishads. So I knew more about other belief systems than the one I was born into.” He later went to study art at the M S University (1961) and Royal College of Art, London (1966).

In the 1960s and 70s, Sheikh became one of the principal figures of the celebrated ‘Baroda School of Painting’, which set out to reinvent the idea of figurative-narrative for contemporary Indian art. He was also a founder member of Group 1890, a pan-Indian collective of artists that challenged both the idealistic Bengal School and Western-oriented Mumbai Progressives.

 While being postmodernist in his aesthetic choices, Sheikh drew inspiration from multiple sources and responded creatively to the present-day conflicts and concerns. This resulted in a body of work that was radical in its approach and unmarked in its treatment of subjects; it drew critical attention and got exhibited in the country and outside (including Paris, Chicago, London, Japan and Brussels).

Sheikh, who was awarded the prestigious Kalidas Samman in 2002, has travelled around the world and lectured on various facets of Indian art, but his fondness for the city (Baroda, now Vadodara) as a centre for incubating friendships and ideas remains undiminished. His own home has, over the decades, been an open-door forum and unbridled critical space for practising artists, poets, critics, students as well as international visitors connected with the arts. 

Influence on peers

Sheikh’s long-term association with fellow artists and stalwarts, including Vivan Sundaram, Geeta Kapur, Sudhir Patwardhan, Nalini Malani, Jogen Chowdhury, Nilima Sheikh, Gieve Patel and many others, is legendary. In fact, it was at Sheikh’s behest that Bhupen Khakhar (1934 - 2003), then a practising chartered accountant in Bombay, came to Baroda and enrolled himself for the course in art criticism at the M S University; Khakhar later became a full-time artist and went on to receive international recognition.

Recreating the world

Sheikh has always upheld that art was a way to connect the sacred and the secular. Known to exude a dream-like quality, his work draws inspiration from sources as diverse as the classical and traditional Indian paintings; Mughal and Rajasthani art; masterpieces from the Renaissance period; and even images circulated in the mass media. 

An admirer of Sufi and Bhakti poetry, Sheikh acknowledges the imposing presence of mysticism in his work. His practice of reusing images from various sources (including his own photographs) and intertwining them with contemporary incidents, such as the Gujarat riots, have been unique.

Many critics see Sheikh as a major post-modern miniaturist, whose art is involved with the search for an indigenous art practice that reflects the diversity of human life and condition. They feel that his canvases bear a kaleidoscopic vision and are infused with a sense of the fantastical, where fragile dreams and fading memories come to play. While covering the local, global and personal realms, his work, through a set of distinct yet interrelated narratives, is known to speak of a complex present and lived history. 

“Sheikh’s art is, by its nature, one that takes on the task of narrating, and therefore, recreating the world,” writes curator and art historian Chaitanya Sambrani. “There is a close tie-in between this narrative and an act of mapping the world which gives to the speaking subject the possibility of addressing the world as his/her own.”

On his part, Sheikh says that there is a very meaningful relationship between writing and painting. “Some (images) came from life lived, others from a feeling of belonging to a world of other times, sometimes from painting, sometimes from literature, and often from nowhere, emerging simultaneously through jottings, drawings and writings.

 The multiplicity and simultaneity of these worlds filled me with a sense of belonging to them all.” As an artist of many cultures and times, he feels that there is no difference in what one called real and what is not real. “You cannot extricate one from the other, it is simultaneous, the process is continuous, in that way times collide, spaces collide.” 

His important works include his painting Returning Home After a Long Absence (1969–73), done on his arrival from London; and Book of Journeys (1996–2007), which he describes as a personal history. First displayed as a part of India-China art exhibition in Shanghai 2010, City: Memory, Dreams, Desire, Statues and Ghosts — Return of Hiuen Tsang was an attempt at reconciling two conflicting spaces; while Kaavad: Travelling Shrine: Home (2008) was one of his most ambitious works that presented a huge painted monument, which the viewer could walk through. For Walking the World: Mappings (2013), the artist referenced a famous medieval European map of the world, originally created in the 13th century.

Artist’s choice

In his work, Sheikh resists monolithic constructs of identity or tradition. He sees the narrative as a mode but refuses that it is the narrative alone that engages him. For him, the process (of painting) is neither totally conscious nor totally subconscious. “There are phases in which you work — a painting is not done in a single moment. It is done over a period of time; and in that, it’s not one kind of painting that you do, because times change, you change, the world changes, and then you decide.”

For the same reason, he insists that a work of art cannot be completely pre-planned but should be evolved. “Is everything I paint first envisioned in my mind? Absolutely not. There is a great distance between thought and action, even if only a few seconds separate the two. You think of a straight line and the hand paints a curved one.

Why? There are many forces commanding through your body. You eventually make something different from what you had envisioned. The process of making art is so complex that no language can define it.”