Wednesday, 1 September 2010

nilima Sheikh and Shilpa gupta

Yesterday, I went to see Nilima Sheikh’s exhibition at LKA ‘Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams’. Regrettably it wasn’t the ideal viewing experience as there were lots of people fussing around, taking photographs, so the lights were switched on and off and tables and ladders brought in and out of the space where the nine scrolls hung. However, I did not leave because having glimpsed the imagery and read some of the words, I had to linger, look and ponder. The colours were jewel-like, the imagery almost romantic even as the words reminded me they came from a deep sense of pain.

In the recent weeks I have been studying the art of Shilpa Gupta, through the book published by Vadehra, which seems completely at odds with these exquisite scrolls painted by Nilima Sheikh [and her team of assistants] and so a comparison was inevitable.

I like Shilpa Gupta’s in your face commentary, which brings forth a new media and new imagery that is intellectually exciting even though I am not exactly comforted by it. On the other hand here were Nilima Sheikh’s beautiful, painstakingly executed images and colours so soothing to the eye and heart. The pain was ever so subtly etched in colour and form with words of historians and poets printed at the back, telling you about the brutality behind it. The contrasting imagery of two artists simultaneously addressing similar issues, compelled me question Sheikh’s stance.

There is a very subtle depiction of pain. The words made it an experience I could feel but while the visual didn't contradict this, it also didn't represent the angst of a mother who said “My son never asked me, Ammaji, can I go to Pakistan and become a militant? He simply left. I wept.” What I saw was a deeply romanticized view of pain and destruction of a paradise that resides in memory. In a bid to preserve what little is left of the beauty there once was, Sheikh delicately presented this as fractured and disintegrating through the precise but scattered placement of fragile stencil prints of varying patterns and divides the panels vertically or otherwise. The grieving figures did not howl but gently wept even as they clung to trees in distress or clasped knuckles in prayer to a God whose existence it is imperative they believe in. Her grieving was not a public lament but a personal one that encompasses the collective.

Shilpa Gupta’s military camouflage, life-like and life-sized figures, performances, videos and bottles of blame do not allow for any romanticization. She is an artist of today, of the generation that has the guts to say it like it is. We have had plenty of skirting of issues and hiding behind the garb of spirituality, not coming out in the open with our views, but festering within, creating more harm than good. Sheikh however isn’t ignoring the issue nor is she engaging with it as all there is to see or say. Her Kashmir is filled with the beauty of carved lattices that sometimes depict the sky, sometimes the earth, the prayer rug and sometimes the space in between them. She reminds us of the tall shady Chinar trees, the jewel colours of lotus pinks, lake aquamarines and innumerable shades of green; of nature blooming in her resplendent glory, unhindered by human greed.

She made me long for the Kashmir I visited during summer holidays as a child. In 2003and later in 2004 I was invited by the Government to conduct workshops for crafts persons in Sringar and I remember being appalled and very disturbed by the armed military personnel that surrounded the Dal Lake or the road to Gulmarg. The shikara ride was just not the same, nor the walk around the Lake, nothing was. Her memories take me back to a time of happiness; they are what we can lean upon, to prevent further damage to this paradise on earth. Her Kashmir celebrates its splendour so that we may not forget. Even as she mourns the ravages; with splatters of red, vaguely resembling blood-stained foot-prints or inserting emotionally charged reds and purples in a soft pastel field; she does not focus so much on the destruction but gives us hope. Each scroll quietly asks you why should we only remember the pain and if we forget the beauty then what will sustain our endeavour to recoup.

If the scrolls had not been hung vertically but placed on the floor, they could have been prayer rugs, each a heartfelt wish of one who still believes. She wove a subtle thread of pain and memory or beauty, or anger, lament and hope. She spoke the language not of the fragile youth that have not seen better, who clamour for change without knowing what is to be changed or how; wrestling with the present without the capacity to envision a future. She spoke the language of humanity in all its humility, of one that has seen beauty, experienced it and also pain. So while pained by the present predicament, she cannot and does not give up hope.

In allowing us to revel in the beauty, she permits us take ownership. We may turn away from terror and blame, because we feel inadequate to address this extreme situation or take responsibility for, but when there’s beauty behind it, we are more willing. Sheikh knows that Kashmir, like everything else in life is not something that exists in isolation and that by omission or commission each one of us is responsible for the way things are today. Every single moment we experience today is a consequence of what we ignored yesterday, or took for granted. And when you assume ownership, then there is no question of pointing fingers, By re-creating the paradise we have nearly destroyed and are steadfastly ravaging to nothingness, she didn't just tells us what was wrong but showed us what we can re-claim.

This is the inherent difference that I saw between the youthfulness of Shilpa Gupta’s art and the wisdom of Nilima Sheikh as she urges us ‘Each night put Kashmir in your dreams.’ However, sometimes I did think that given the kind of communication over-load that we do deal with today, Sheikh’s message is a little too subtle, and that while Shilpa Gupta and her contemporaries could learn a great deal from the deeply finessed art of Nilima Sheikh, we do need some straight talking too.

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