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Artscapes of defiance

Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh is known for portraying life as it is seen, felt, and understood. By skilfully blending elements of fantasy and realism in his works, he explores recurrent themes and weaves interconnected narratives.
Last Updated : 06 July 2024, 20:49 IST

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For over five decades, Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh (born on 16 February 1937 in Sundernagar, Gujarat) has been a prominent figure in Indian art, excelling as an artist, art historian, and art educator. Winner of the Sahitya Akademi award in 2022, his contribution to Gujarati literature has also been considerable.

Sheikh effortlessly transitions between various artistic pursuits, balancing his roles as an artist, writer, and historian. He recalls a time when it was common for him to teach art history in the morning and paint in the evening. “At one point in time, I had 21 classes (teaching art history) in a single week! I have done that for several years but never regretted it. They gave me so much sustenance. In the evening, when I returned home, back to my canvas, I would continue working at night.” Sheikh believes that both writing and painting have an inherent connection. For him, the two disciplines constantly enhance, nourish and support one other.

As a painter, Sheikh is known for portraying life as it is seen, felt, and understood. By skilfully blending elements of fantasy and realism in his works, he explores recurrent themes and weaves interconnected narratives. His compositions are built around personalities and situations drawn from diverse image archives. They carry intimate meanings inspired by acute observations, literary pursuits, and inherited histories. While spotlighting the city as the central motif, his art resonates with strong political connotations.  

A sense of history

Through his art, Sheikh has consistently and forcefully delivered a strong response to disturbing current events, such as government atrocities during the Emergency, the plight of migrants amidst the Covid pandemic, communal unrest in different parts of the country, and the humanitarian crises in Gaza and Ukraine. His reaction to such distressing incidents stems from his belief that politics is intertwined with everyday life. “As artists, we may not jump into the fray of politics, but we must have a sense of politics and a sense of history,” he says.

City For Sale is recognised as one of the artist’s most ambitious works. Currently housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK, it portrays a section of Sheikh’s hometown, Baroda (now Vadodara), during a period of communal unrest (in the 1980s). The disturbing street scene depicts people frantically running across the streets while sinister figures hatch and incite violence. Sheikh took a long time to complete the painting because of the ongoing conflict and persistent brutality. “I began to develop a superstition that every time I picked up a brush, a riot would begin.” 

Long before City For Sale, Sheikh had painted an eerie scene that served as a poignant metaphor for the Emergency declared by the Indira Gandhi administration. Speechless City (1975–1977) hauntingly captured the ruthless realities of the Emergency when civil liberties were stripped away, political opponents were imprisoned, and the media was subjected to severe censorship. Sheikh’s other works similarly demonstrate his refusal to remain a passive bystander during times of crises and upheavals.

Kabir and Gandhi

Sheikh was one of the principal figures of the famous 'Baroda School of Painting' which reinvented the idea of figurative-narrative in contemporary Indian art during the 1960s and 70s. He is credited with providing a new direction for Indian art by focussing on narrative figuration and sharing his personal experiences through it.

A postmodernist in aesthetic choices, Sheikh has drawn inspiration from multiple sources while responding creatively and seriously to contemporary issues. His experimentation with new media and traditional forms of visual storytelling and referencing art-historical subjects has garnered critical acclaim. Sheikh contends that the practice of art emanates from complex inner callings and that the process of making art is so complex that no language can define it.

Sheikh’s paintings are renowned for their rich narrative content. Through detailed portrayals of man, nature, and society, they provide meaningful insights into a range of human conditions and experiences. They not only reflect a challenging political environment but also highlight the importance of cohesion between different communities.

"Every time I am lost, (I find my way through) either Kabir or Gandhi or Saint Francis. They did something in their lives that keeps them relevant even today", says Sheikh, who opted to study Sanskrit as a second language in school. By doing so, he could read the Upanishads, engage with the meaning of hymns and myths, and become knowledgeable about “other belief systems than the one I was born into.”

Kabir, in particular, has served as an inspiration to Sheikh for long. The enchanting and religion-free poetry of Kabir as well as his ability to be a critical voice on socio-cultural issues have prompted  Sheikh to incorporate Kabir and his soulful couplets into many of his paintings. He has received numerous awards and accolades such as the Padma Shri (1983) and the Padma Bhushan (2014) from the Government of India; the National Award from Lalit Kala Akademi (1962), and others.

A retrospective of Sheikh’s graphic prints is currently on at Gallery Sumukha, Bengaluru. The show will conclude on 27 July 2024.

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Published 06 July 2024, 20:49 IST

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