There is a significant relationship between writing and painting. Our painting tradition has been saturated with it. But now we have developed a purist mode where we have separated the two. This is like saying that when you see, you should shut your ears; while you hear, you should close your eyes. You don’t. You can’t” – Gulam Mohammed Sheikh
Born in 1937, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh is an acclaimed painter, poet, art critic, and teacher from Gujarat, India. He did his B.A. in Fine Art in 1959 and M.A. in 1961 from the Faculty of Fine Arts, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. He later joined the university as a professor and taught art history and painting for nearly three decades. Sheikh received the Padma Shri in 1983 and Padmabhushan in 2014 for his contribution to the field of art. An artist with an eclectic oeuvre, his works have been exhibited in private and public collections, including the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, USA. Apart from being an artist, Sheikh has also been an active writer publishing poetry and critical writing. His collection of Gujarati surrealistic poems Athwa (1974), and a prose series titled Gher Jatan received critical acclaim. Along with editing special issues of several Gujarati magazines, he has also edited a book called ‘Contemporary Art in Baroda that traces the evolution of Baroda as an essential centre of contemporary art and art education from the 19th to the last decade of the 20th century.
Sheikh’s artistic practice involves painting on formats ranging from hand-held paper to architectural style, interested in creating vividly coloured narrative artworks. He has been a crucial figure in Indian contemporary art since the early 1960s; he spearheaded an art movement by forming a collective in 1963 called Group 1890 with 11 other emerging artists who were opposed to the abstract and no-representational art of the preceding generation, which the found “stale and derivative.” Sheikh and his fellow artists were interested in turning towards India’s own cultural and artistic traditions and resurrecting the role of ‘narrative’ in art, especially painting, to address the living concerns of people. He says in an interview, “My interest was to cull useful devices from diverse traditions, from the Sienese to the Mughal, to render contemporary realities, including current politics, into a viable pictorial alternative.”
Sheikh’s syncretic attitude, supplemented with his art’s historical knowledge, allows a magnificent coming together of foreign and indigenous elements in his paintings, with him drawing inspiration from Persian, Mughal, and Pahari miniatures, and Bhakti and Sufi poetry and magical realism along with European Renaissance art. Despite his advocacy for painting as storytelling, Sheikh’s paintings, particularly his early works, exhibit a concern for the non-representable and the inchoate dimensions of human existence. Then in the 60s and 70s, his works investigate the surreal in the mundane. Throughout his career, he has engaged with historical narratives and mythological figures while exploring the turmoil of the present.
Speechless City is one of his earliest political paintings. Made in the immediate wake of the Emergency; it explores the dreadful consequences that await the masses. The scene is strangely still, with an air of uneasiness and impending threat. Deserted by their inhabitants, the sickly greenhouses and endless stacks of buildings draw our attention to their open windows and doors, now occupied solely by cattle and dogs. The amalgamation of the ground and sky in the middle of the painting – rendered in ominous orange – gives way to a flock of birds. What story does this painting communicate? Do the animals depict the reduced status of humans under oppressive regimes, or does the town’s desertion represent a reality where the government is allowed to rid itself of its critics? One commentator points to the uncanny prescience of the paintings, “can we ignore, for instance, that the atmosphere that hangs over the city is deep saffron?”
For these reasons and the escalating communal disharmony in the nation, Sheikh started looking for a figure that might stand as a beacon of hope in the times we live in, and that is when he stumbled upon the medieval saint Kabir. He had first read Kabir in school and liked his rebellious disposition and attempt to articulate a shared humanity with secular values. Given the historical absence of paintings of Kabir and the need to revitalize the saint’s ideals and rescue them from religious appropriation, Sheikh created several paintings employing the figure of Kabir. In his painting Hiranaa (1998), influenced by Kabir’s poem of the same name, Sheikh uses Hirana (deer) as a motif on Kabir’s face. The deer depicts the soul or spirit of the individual who looks for the truth worldwide when Kabir says the truth lies within itself. In its invocation of violence, the painting uses images of hunters and killers from traditional paintings and Goya, along with the idea of the point-blank execution in Vietnam; the mercenary soldier; and the rock star or cinema idol whose violence is glamorous, on top.
An intellectual who swiftly navigates multiple roles, Art for Sheikh is the ultimate source of hope and painting a mode of depicting the world and exploring the self. It is impossible to do justice to the vibrant oeuvre of this fantastic painter within the scope of an article. His explorations of the surreal and maps, his recent interest in the content of digital art, his technical innovations, and his thoughts on overlaps of his writer and painter life will be subjects of future articles. Meanwhile, one can look at Chaitanya Sambrani’s excellent edited volume on Sheikh titled At Home in the World: The Art and Life of Gulammohammed Sheikh (2019).