Artist Nilima Sheikh, who will be in Chennai for Lit for Life 2019, speaks of all the ways in which she extends the scope of her art
In her 50 years of work, Baroda-based artist Nilima Sheikh has created layered works that reject the framed canvas and extend the ambit of viewing — not just physically, as when she creates a 38 ft. scroll, for example, but also in how she expands and questions concepts of authorship, mediums and histories. In the middle of setting up her show in Kochi for the Biennale, the artist took time off for a telephone interview. Excerpts:
You were part of the Baroda Modernists, who were rejecting the Bombay Progressives while also trying to shed the vestiges of Shantiniketan. Is there a comparable art ‘grouping’ today that seeks to set the agenda so to speak?
I wasn’t really a part of the Baroda Modernists. I quite self-consciously moved away from that. And although I did consciously move away from the modernism of the Bombay Progressives, I equally consciously wanted to appropriate the legacy of Shantiniketan and Bengal. Two of my own teachers, particularly K.G. Subramanyan — whose pedagogy I was influenced by and whose work I admire — were from Shantiniketan. Subramanyan brought the idea of the legacy of Shantiniketan down to us. And I subscribed to that. I wanted to make my links with that.
But today, that whole notion of a counter-movement has become somewhat of a redundancy. There is so much diversity, so many ways in which art has moved ahead that you don’t have to actually reject something to achieve something else. I don’t know if it’s the knowledge of the world of art outside or digital technology that allows you so many options.
There was earlier the idea of radical change that was required to find expression for our times and for ourselves; that doesn’t seem to be anymore the need of the day. There is so much diversification…
You focus so much on poetry, folksongs, myths etc. in your works. Do you see yourself primarily as a storyteller?
In a way I think that comes from my rejection of certain limitations of the prevalent modernism, in that I didn’t see that various forms of art or artistic expression needed to be antagonistic to each other. For instance, I use a lot of quotations in my work. I am very deliberately bringing in other forms of expression to enrich mine. I see that as a possibility of extending my work. That is why I look for historical sources, literary sources, even journalistic sources, to widen the range of my work: to be able to say things in a different way that add dimension and depth to my work.
If I might take you up on that, about how you have adopted folk arts like, say, the pat or scroll painting… In today’s anxiety about political correctness, how would you respond to the idea of ‘appropriation’?
Yes, of course. There is a line I am very aware of — that there is an outsourcing when artists get part of their work done by other craftspeople or use other kind of technical support. For instance, I use stencils made by the Sanjhi craftsmen of Mathura. I see it as a collaborative process. But I see that the collaboration favours me; even though I may in some sense influence their creativity, but that is marginal.
I think the question of authenticity needs to be addressed. But I think the notion of authenticity is elusive; the purest expression is not necessarily the only way of expressing yourself. A history of visual language has always existed, and we also use devices borrowed from other art forms.
I believe the notion of a certain kind of authenticity is a useful creative guideline, but I would not put a moral embargo on appropriation. I am very careful to acknowledge my collaborators. But it is a larger and vexed question.
The word ‘authentic’ has political connotations, it denotes a return to something pure. But I want to acknowledge that my work is ‘impure’, that it is contaminated by the work of other people, ideationally and physically.
We have this romantic idea of the ‘lonely artist’, but collaborations have always been important for you. Why is that?
Because the artist is lonely. And I wanted to break out of that, to interrelate with other people. I wanted the intrusion of other art forms in my work. Not just because it is a learning experience for me but also because it takes away authorship from me. When I do the sets for a play, for instance, the work is not just the backdrop but what is being acted out in front of it. This takes away the boundaries of authorship. In a sense it becomes a multi-authored work. The collaborative exercise doesn’t take away from the lonely kernel, it just extends the authorship.
In a way, thus, you are layering your work authorially, as you do with techniques. How does your study of history add to these layers?
I wish I could go back and visit the study of history again! Yes, my background in history must inform my interest in art history, which is an integral part of my work process. It is there in my work, it is my way of making sense of the elements I work with. History itself is made of many things — there are many kinds of history, oral, written, visual — which might influence my work in an inclusive way.
The history of Kashmir has long interested you. How can art deal with it or make sense of it?
I really don’t know what art can do. I can only say what I have tried to do with my art. I have tried to open up the questions which concern me, open up the history, open up the ways in which the past and the present are presented. I have tried to remodel even the stereotypes in the ways in which we look at and engage with Kashmir. In a way, my art has been a way for me to understand Kashmir. And I hope that it will open it up for others as well, to those who engage with my work. There are no easy answers, there are only questions within my art.
In 1987, you were part of a four-woman show, an early feminist statement. In 2018, how has Indian art evolved in its feminist sensibilities?
Very significantly. The role that women have played over the years has increased tremendously, creating an understanding of feminist ideas. The feminine voice is there at the centre of art making in India today. And in a way it has informed the way that art is made by male artists as well. Let me illustrate that conversely. For instance, Bhupen Khakhar’s precedence opened up spaces for me as a feminist/ woman artist. It made possible a certain space for vulnerability that supported me in what I was trying to do. The beginning of the queer movement in Indian art opened certain spaces for the feminist movement. And although it might seem like a large claim I am certain that the feminist voice has in turn changed the possibilities of Indian art significantly. Male artists today are redefining masculinity; there are shared or interchangeable experiences which inform our practice.
Nilima Sheikh will be speaking at The Hindu Lit for Life 2019. To be held on January 12, 13 & 14, at the Lady Andal School premises, Harrington Road, Chennai. Visit www.thehindulfl.com to register