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Print edition : November 18, 2011

GULAM MOHAMMED SHEIKH at the Delhi exhibition, which was reflective in nature, meditative in style and grand in display. - V.V. KRISHNAN

Gulam Mohammed Sheikh's exhibition in Delhi attempts to look back at Gujarat's troubled past.

THERE are very few art exhibitions that send shivers down the spine, make one restless or melancholic, or leave an unsavoury taste in the mouth yet provoke contemplation they are the kind that goads you to revisit the past, recall moments in history described as tragic and irreparable, or feel miserable about not having been able to do anything about them.

The Vadodara-based artist Gulam Mohammed Sheikh's art show City, Kaavad and other works, at the Lalit Kala Akademi's Rabindra Bhawan in New Delhi from October 12 to 24, did exactly that. The retrospective series, reflective in nature, meditative in style and grand in display, overwhelmed visitors; they presented the disturbing events witnessed especially over the past two decades in Vadodara (Baroda) and other parts of Gujarat as well as in Ayodhya (Uttar Pradesh).

Disturbing subjects were not the only ones on display. There were more topics hope, warmth, reverence and harmony which sort of tried to strike a balance between extreme emotions and pure art.

Presented by the Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, this solo exhibition was Gulam Mohammed's first in the national capital since 2001. It included a number of works that were being exhibited for the first time in India, in addition to recent works. The exhibition also included a selection of Sheikh's gouaches, oil canvases and papier mchi works, new Kaavad shrines (portable wooden shrines), and also hand-painted and digital books.

THE HIGHLY SYMBOLIC "Speaking Tree". It depicts conflicting emotions of hope and despair with the chinar tree of Kashmir as the backdrop.-PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A monumental work titled CITY: Memory, Dreams, Desire, Statues and Ghosts: Return of Hiuen Tsang and a seminal piece called Kaavad: Travelling Shrine: Home were also on display.

What connects the two artworks is time: historical and current, their historical, geographical, social, religious and cultural status then and now, their sentimental value then and now, their worth then and now. Here the 70-year-old Padma Shri-winning artist culminates all his experiences of pain, anguish, hope into one, coaxing the viewer to read between the lines and, maybe, learn from it.

Both the works, with several subparts, are an extension of his earlier series. For instance, CITY was shown as part of the exhibition in 2008 in Shanghai titled Place.Time.Play: India-China Contemporary Art Exhibition, which sought to explore the relationship between India and China. Sheikh's work was created around the figure of Hiuen Tsang, or Xuanzang, the famous Chinese Buddhist monk of the sixth century (during the reign of the Tang dynasty) who travelled to India to bring home the scriptures that were to become the foundation of the numerous Chinese schools of Buddhism.

Sheikh explains, To extend it to India, I added a few dimensions to it later. I have tried to show that Hiuen Tsang came to the City' [perhaps in Gujarat] as it is believed that Kota in Gujarat was a holy place where ancient Buddhist scriptures were found, though there is no direct evidence of it. Also, recently the ASI [Archaeological Survey of India] found that Vadodara, my city of residence, housed the holy ashes of the Buddha, which were excavated from Devni Mori. I imagine that Hiuen Tsang had a reason to come back to India, especially to these cities associated with the Buddha.

"KAAVAD: JOURNEYS". THIS Kaavad is about Sheikh's memories of migration and displacement.-

And that is where Sheikh wisely mixes the nostalgic past with the painful present. He shows that Hiuen Tsang visits the City, which is itself split into two the old and the new. The old one with nostalgic history and memory, and the new one marked by recent tragic violence. Sheikh used the mammoth standing panels map as the living city marked by the recent violence and the floor panels as an archaeological site, with apparent reference to history and memory. Interestingly, the panels are mural sized but the details are miniature as in Rajasthani, Pahari, and Mughal paintings.

Sheikh created an entire old and a new city, telling, as he notes, the story of two homes and a sky. Maps have been an important part of Sheikh's work. This time, too, he used maps to tell his narratives: I searched in Google Earth for maps of Baroda and the walled city of Ahmedabad. I was aggrieved to see that the Baroda map had no monument on display. Ironically, the largest and the most beautiful building in Vadodara is the city prison, which is larger than the palace of the Gaekwad royal family. The city's worst periods of communal violence were in 1969 and 2002, and it has had its own redemptive past. In Gujarat, too, the old city had a history while the history of the new city [after the communal strife] is being replaced by malls, lanes, bylanes and other new structures.

Sheikh plots the old city of Baroda and guides the Chinese pilgrim through several landmarks the Jubilee Park, which has an East Asian Buddha statue; the historic house in which Dr B.R. Ambedkar had rented a room but which his landlord did not allow him to stay in when he came back from Columbia University, U.S., armed with a PhD, because he had found out his caste; the tomb of Ustad Fayaz Khan, a singer in the court of the Gaekwad, which was razed to the ground in the communal strife of 2002 but survived, unlike other tombs; and Best Bakery. Hiuen Tsang, in his second visit, must see what these cities have gone through, wandering in the lanes and bylanes.

Sheikh also gives the pilgrim and the viewer a glimpse into the new city of Baroda, now inhabited by sweepers, rickshaw-pullers, pavement dwellers and daily-wage earners. He shows the lanes, bylanes and the small houses they have made after having gone through the communal riots. He reasons, The worst sufferers of any kind of strife are those who are menders/vendors on the pavements or the small craft and business community. They bring the city back to life slowly as they have to work there to earn. In the communal strife of 2002, too, those who were killed were the small crafts people who worked with their hands. So we [Sheikh and his team of assistants] did a cartography of the whole place, took pictures, improvised on them and tried putting it on the map.

Kaavad creations

Another work on an audacious scale is Kaavad: Travelling Shrines: Home. Sheikh historicises and also contemporises it. He expresses all that he felt was good and bad with the city where he was born and where he lived and studied and which he saw was changing. Kaavad was premiered at the exhibition Chalo India: A New Era of Indian Art at the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, in 2008.

"MAPPAMUNDI: SEARCHING FOR Laila", a work from Sheikh's City series.-

Kaavads are small-sized, lightweight shrines, and have three-dimensional wooden paintings that are essentially religious in nature. The Kavadiyas or the performers open layer after layer of painted narrative to tell stories until they reach a climax of religious ecstasy. Sheikh needed to tell several stories, but in a larger format. When he saw a mammoth Kaavad at the Crafts Museum in New Delhi, he knew he had found his medium. But he insists he had no desire to turn it into a religious object, rather the contrary. I could, however, refer to a belief system, he asserts. Sheikh's Kaavad is brave in attempt, fearless in execution and epic in range. It is almost a room-sized assemblage of many-leaved doors that can fold and unfold in complex configurations. When shut, it appears like a box, eight feet high and covered with images.

While making a Kaavad for his own stories, Sheikh was reminded of his childhood days in Kathiyawad, Baroda, and how respecting one another's belief systems (especially between Hindus and Muslims) was part of the popular culture. But in 2002, his beloved Gujarat was torn apart. Sheikh feels that the history of the violence goes back to 1992 when the Babri Masjid was demolished, though it had taken root in 1969. He adds, In the 1980s, too, Baroda was torn by a continuous, almost relentless, spate of riots. (Those were the days when he painted the City of Sale, which portrayed the irony of Bollywood potboiler Silsila running in a local cinema hall while riots raged outside. )

Sheikh says that the initial trigger for Kaavad was the period of the early 1980s a period that actually stretched almost to 2002 apart from several great experiences that enriched his artistic vision: learning Sanskrit as a second language, university education in Vadodara, familiarity with different beliefs, studying European art in England and learning about the peculiarities of Western art, what Renaissance masters such as Piero della Francesca and Leonardo Da Vinci painted and why, and much more. Sheikh says that all this helped him lose interest in the organised religious practices learnt in childhood.

While Sheikh's small-format Kaavads take viewers back the riot-ridden days and their impact, the bigger ones narrate tales of hope and love. For instance, in the shrine called Kaavad Ayodhya/Mirage, the dark outer panels portray Ayodhya cityscapes, while the central panel reproduces the infamous news picture of kar sevaks hammering away at the Babri Masjid. To complete the story, Sheikh uses hovering images of Rama as imagined in Rajasthan's Bundi paintings.

Another important shrine is Alphabet Stories. He explains, Alphabet Stories was in response to children's books being tampered with in the 1990s, especially after the communal strife.

Sheikh satirically rewrites the alphabet book: Ga for Gandhi, Ksh for Kshatriya, Ka for kamal, La for lotus and Tra for trishul. He deliberately uses disturbing words such as farar, Naroda Patiya, matadhikar, lahuluhaan and shahadat to stress how they force an unwilling look into the unsavoury past.

But his larger Kaavads or panels are all about hope and are filled with people like Kabir, Gandhi, Sufis and sheikhs, and the speaking tree. None of these images is painted in isolation. These have an entire gamut of art history, mythology and legends behind them.

"KAAVAD: HOME". THIS Kaavad with folding doors and walls is made of boards mounted on steel structures. It tells the story of Sheikh's return from England in 1967 to his hometown.-

Despite a recent cataract operation, a bypass surgery and a bout of viral fever, Sheikh did not seem tired when this writer met him at the show. He displayed his long accordion fold books meticulously executed miniatures telling stories about mythological events such as the Manthan, where the gods and the demons churn the seas for the nectar of immortality. Sheikh gives this churning a contemporary definition by showing figures of Hitler and Gandhi with guns and missiles churned out of clouds and waves. These waves and cloud patterns have been picked up from Pahari, Mughal, Persian and Rajasthani art styles and they show Sheikh's immense interest in these art forms.

Cities burnt out by violence

Another of his accordion fold books, Whose Kashmir, is a moving account of cities that were burnt out by violence in Palestine, Turkey and Kashmir. In this complex book, Sheikh utilises Mappamundi or the map of medieval Europe (a 13th century circular map of the world that was destroyed in the Second World War) to convey beautifully the loss of the beautiful Kashmir Valley. He uses the chinar tree and Kashmiri shawl as the backdrop. This long book also shows Kabir at his loom, St. Francis preaching to the birds, Majnu looking for his Laila, Mary Magdalene rushing to touch Christ, and so on. This accordion book is symbolic of my hope of seeing a world at peace with people like Kabir and lovers like Majnun, says Sheikh.

The artist clearly expresses his anguish about the ever-continuing communal strife in the country. He also insists that it is not about religion but larger issues. Does he feel safe to paint his heart in a disturbed city like Vadodara where the outlook on freedom of expression is often narrow? Yes, I paint what I want. Any kind of strife, be it in Palestine, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan or India, affects me as a human being. One is free to read meanings into my works, Sheikh says.

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