Interview: Professor Gulammohammed Sheikh

Interview with Professor Gulammohammed Sheikh: Towards an alternative visual language

Print edition : July 02, 2021

Gulammohammed Sheikh at work. Photo: Bhavesh Patel

”Returning Home after a Long Absence” by Gulammohammed Sheikh, 122 x 122 cm, 1969-73, oil on canvas, Ram Sharma collection, New Delhi. Photo: By special arrangement

”About Waiting and Wandering” by Gulammohammed Sheikh, 137.6 x 114.7 cm, 1981, oil on canvas, Nilima Sheikh collection. Photo: By special arrangement

”Effects of Good Government” by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, 1338 C.E., Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, Italy. Photo: By special arrangement

”City for Sale” by Gulammohammed Sheikh, 223 x 305.2 cm, 1981-84, Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Photo: By special arrangement

The journal “Kshitij”, cover by K.G. Subramanyan, 1963, linocut. Photo: By special arrangement

The first issue of “Vrishchik”, November 10, 1969. Photo: By special arrangement

”Kaavad, Home” by Gulammohammed Sheikh, approximately 24 x 8 feet installation, 2008, painted wood, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi. Photo: By Special Arrangement

”Kaavad, Home” by Gulammohammed Sheikh, approximately 24 x 8 feet installation, 2008, painted wood, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi. Photo: By special arrangement

”Kaavad, Travelling Shrine, Musings & Miscellanies” by Gulammohammed Sheikh, 2007, gouache on wood, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. Photo: By special arrangement

“Tree of Life” by Gulammohammed Sheikh, final version, 1996-97, oil on canvas, Vidhan Bhavan, Bhopal. Photo: By Special arrangement

”Ark”, digital collage from “Kaavad, Home” by Gulammohammed Sheikh, 106.8 x 110 cm, 2008, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. Photo: By special arrangement

Another view of the “Tree of Life” mural installed at Vidhan Bhavan, Bhopal. Photo: By Special Arrangement

”Speaking Tree-1” by Gulammohammed Sheikh, 1996, oil on canvas. Mulvinder Singh’s collection, New Delhi. Photo: By special arrangement

”Freedom at Midnight” by Gulammohammed Sheikh, 1996, oil on canvas and wood, Jindal Foundation, Mumbai. Photo: By special arrangement

An interview with Professor Gulammohammed Sheikh.

Gulammohammed Sheikh is one of the best known contemporary Indian artists whose works have won critical acclaim internationally. He was born in Surendranagar, in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat, in 1937. He completed his art education in the Fine Arts faculty of M.S. University of Baroda, with a Master’s degree in 1961. He pursued higher studies in the Royal College of Arts in London during 1963-69, on a Commonwealth Fellowship. He taught painting and art history at his alma mater for more than three decades. During this phase, he emerged as a major Indian painter with a distinctive style of his own, with path-breaking works such as “Tree of Life”. He is also an eminent poet in Gujarati, with his volume of poems, “Athwa”, winning wide critical acclaim.

Gulammohammed Sheikh has been part of many prominent solo and group shows and exhibitions held at metropolitan centres of art like Paris, London, New York, Seoul, Mumbai and New Delhi. His artworks have found a place in the collections of prominent art galleries across the world, including the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi; the Peabody Essex Museum, Virginia, United States; the Victoria and Albert Museum of Art, London; and the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Japan. Among the many honours he has received are the National Award of Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi (1962), the Padma Shri (1983), the Kalidas Samman (2002) and the Padma Bhushan (2014).

My association with Professor Sheikh goes back to the early 1990s. The following conversation, which started much earlier, was finally completed through email during the months of October and November 2020. Here he speaks of his early influences, the factors that prompted him to move away from prevailing styles of art, his associations with fellow artists like Bhupen Khakhar, and his vision of art as an inclusive and emancipatory space that can transcend socio-political divisions. Excerpts from the interview:

Professor Sheikh, sir, I am thankful to you for agreeing to answer these questions from someone whose knowledge of the art world is pedestrian, to say the least. How would you describe your experience of coming of age as an artist? Did it happen with your painting, “Returning Home after a Long Absence”, which took almost four years to complete? Was revisiting home after a long absence an experience of great emotional charge that released your old associations with the place, particularly childhood memories?

You are not off the mark, EV, but it is difficult to speak with any degree of certainty before thinking about other markers in my life as an artist. Coming to Baroda in 1956 after having spent 18 years of my life in Surendranagar, a small town in erstwhile Saurashtra, was like a second birth. Some years after that, the decision of choosing painting as a lifelong profession after my first solo exhibition in Bombay in 1961 was yet another definitive marker.

And yes, going to visit my home town, Surendranagar, in September 1966 after having spent three years in England was a destabilising experience, yet strangely enticing. Whereas I felt strongly drawn to recovering the haunting memories of my childhood, I also saw myself flung far from them. There was obviously no question of return as I had already built for myself a new life, away from the constrictive practices and the inhibitive world of a small-town ethos. I began to write [a series] about the pleasure and pain of finding and losing home in Gujarati called Gher Jataan during the period when the painting “Returning Home After a Long Absence” remained in incubation.

The experience of writing and painting on the same theme engaged me physically and ideationally for four years to resolve what appeared to be a schizophrenic crisis of belonging and un-belonging. The long struggle led me to accept both situations, as I did in life, which also led me to develop an equally plural idiom in my art practice. I realised there was no reason to consider images of disparate origins as antagonistic, especially if a sustaining connectivity could be found to make them coexist in a dynamic diversity. The idea of looking for the objective of unity that we were taught in art schools seemed a spent-up delusive ideal. Multiplicity and diversity could also be equally desired goals to pursue.

The seeds of combining ideas and images of diverse origins came to me from my deeper engagement with pre-modern Indian painting during my stay in England and the abiding lure of pre-Renaissance painting, particularly the Sienese, tracked during my wanderings in Europe, especially Italy. The idea of the collage that I had used in smaller works earlier, formed the initial base. It was however a daunting task to connect images of diverse nature and animate them in a dynamic interaction. How would a photograph sit in the company of a “quoted” detail from a Mughal or Persian painting, in tandem with images conjured from memory or imagination? But that is exactly what I did. What appeared to be hybrid and eclectic in fact opened up immense possibilities of exploration. So, I made a conscious choice to favour hybridity against notions of “purity”; and the multiple against preoccupations with a singular image. The option of using quotations from various sources without reservations or feeling a sense of guilt was liberating. Besides re-looking at tradition, what was most inspiring was re-imagining and even creating memory. Most of all, it grounded the imagery in specific yet numerous times and places.

But let me come to the main issue. “Returning Home...” opened doors for me. It served to be a base for a longer journey ahead. It was nearly 10 years later, when I began painting “About Waiting and Wandering”, that there was deja vu. The intentions and pictorial elements of “Returning Home after a Long Absence”, the various stations of my quest, reappeared transformed into a fuller experience. The process of painting engaged me for a couple of months in an intensive yet spontaneous quest to retrace the journey afresh. The quotations of an Ingres nude or a figure from the Ukiyo-e came and fused into a lived interior. The impulse behind Sienese urban-scapes figured imperceptibly in the childhood memories of living in a close-knit group of houses. I do not know whether it can be described as a sense of fulfilment but it was close to that.

You belonged to a distinguished tradition of artists who also wrote on art. You also taught art history. You have mentioned that the act of teaching sharpened your perceptions of the past. Would you elaborate on the significance of these two activities for your practice as an artist?

Yes, some of my predecessors and peers, from Abanindranath Tagore to Gieve Patel, who practised as artists, also wrote on art, so it wasn’t anything exceptional. Initially, I wrote mainly in my mother tongue Gujarati, poetry and prose, besides writing on art. I learned to write in English at a later stage.

Teaching art history came accidentally. I had studied art history as a part of the degree course in painting, not exclusively as a specialisation. So not having had professional wherewithal in the discipline of art history, I was left with inventing my own devices to teach. The syllabus we had was liberal enough to allow different approaches and interpretations. My background as an artist taught me to look at works of art as objects of delight and wonder before linking them to their historical origins. This approach involved a deeper look at art objects with greater attention to detail and revealed hidden aspects otherwise often missed. Trying out alternative modes of looking led to discovering ways of understanding non-naturalistic colour schemes, say for instance, in the Mewar or Basohli qalams (schools of painting). Employing the sense of taste, smell, touch and flavour rather than depending upon the standard devices of prism or spectrum, it was possible to come closer to unlocking the indigenous system of perception.

Similarly, the application of the idea of multiple perspective made the sense of space in Mughal and post-Mughal painting accessible instead of falling upon the cliched yardstick of linear or illusionistic perspective which would render them “faulty”. Teaching art history taught me so much, gifting me a lifelong engagement with savouring the treasures of world art. It made me a kind of virtual, almost relentless traveller into the world’s traditions of art. This discovery of the diverse forms came in handy in locating the imagery I needed for quoting in my subsequent paintings and then, digital works.

The 1960s and 1970s were turbulent decades. Your generation of artists had to evolve a new idiom without harping back to the Nationalists or the Cosmopolitan modernists. Was there a conscious effort to turn away from certain traditions in Indian art in your works? I have in mind artists like F.N. Souza, M.F. Husain, and S.H. Raza who used abstractionism of various kinds. We also had artists trained at Santiniketan, who were using moral allegories to recover the past from a particular perspective. Against this complex background, artists like Bhupen Khakhar and you went beyond the binaries of international/indigenous, inside/outside or national/regional. This must have involved intellectual and artistic struggles of various kinds. Could you comment on them?

We were all trained in the international modernisms of cubist, abstractionist or expressionist modes practiced by the artists of the previous generations whom you have cited. Our own generation, including artists of the Group 1890 that I was a part of, also began their careers with one or the other kind of these modernist options. You have put your finger on it: we wished to disinherit those tried options and the binaries we were saddled with because our concerns and orientations were quite different. It was a question of finding an alternative visual language. Looking at some aspects of what survived of the pre-modern Indian pictorial tradition,

Bhupen found an opening in the hybrid forms of the colonial period firqa painting which portrayed professional traders as exotic, exportable items for the British or an anglicised clientele. Turning their political implications upside down, Bhupen employed devices of firqa prototypes by lovingly portraying images of a local barber, a watch-repairer or a shoe-mender drawn from the street or the shop next door with the result that they became likeable, gentle human beings with whom we could identify. 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. We consciously aimed at art foregrounding the human image, without any sense of hesitation or guilt of it being dubbed “illustrative”. Yes, it was a chosen form of the hybrid to stand against notions of purity, and seek a divorce from the dilemma of belonging to either the “modern” or the “traditional”.

The idea of the sacred runs through your works as a muted melody. In your later works, it gets articulated through the figures of Kabir, Meera, Gandhi, Majnu, various figures of saints and angels. Even demons and sceptics. I do understand it does not point to a belief system. You have mentioned the music of Kumar Gandharva as one of the many influences on you at a particular point in your journey. Will you say your invocation of the sacred functions as a site of resistance against the pervasive violation of the sacred in our social and political fields? Or does it signify something transcendental?

Yes, I do want to refer to the sense of the sacred in the context of communal brutalities of our times. We notice that one set of beliefs is used as a motive to attack the other but why do we forget that most people often have more than one belief? We know that even today many temple-going believers often bow at the Sufi shrines, in a Gurudwara, even at the church sites. And the vice versa is true as well. My belief is that people often have multiple beliefs despite being born into one, which enable them to invoke the sacred in whichever form it appears.

It is true some of the greatest art is born of religious beliefs and practices, yet it is not difficult to see that much of what existed as sacred in the pre-modern artistic traditions drew upon multiple and diverse sources, often not specifically religious as is exemplified by the traditions of music, visual arts and architecture. We also know that practitioners of these works of art often belonged to belief systems other than those of their patrons.

The makers of Ajanta murals were not Buddhist monks, but professional artists who may or may not have belonged to the Buddhist fold. Muslim poets wrote hymns for Hindu deities, musicians sing ragas in praise of Hindu and Islamic holies. How do we separate them? Did this take away the sacred from the system? Can it not be applied to our times? Is sacred a property to be acquired and possessed or a gift to be shared with all? Why should the sense of the sacred be denied to those who are not believers by choice? Is it not possible to retrieve it from the bounds of religious beliefs and practices?

A painting like “City for Sale” still speaks to the present generation. It is able to encompass the everyday and also look beyond it. In fact, in your paintings, the quotidian has been treated in great detail and it tends to merge with a larger flux of time which points to larger things. Does this enable you to incorporate contemporary history into your art works?

If there is one element that defines the world of realities we live in, it is incontrovertibly the flux: it is both overarching in its outer grip and internally inhabiting every nerve of our life. “City for Sale” approximates the flux you are in and out all the time. It also sights our own demons, many sitting within us disguised or exposed but rarely acknowledged. It also plays on ironies of flipsides: one part of the city is in turmoil while the other is in the throes of daily life. I chose simpler, almost literal devices like a straightforward naturalism with an identifiable scale of figures to make the viewer slip into the flux.

At this point, I should ask you about the dialogue between the poet and the painter in you. Your poems like “Jaisalmer”, “Konark”, “Delhi” and so on recreate minute details of observation characteristic of a painter. You have mentioned the tradition of Ragamalika/Ragamala paintings where poetry is embedded within painting. In your evolution as an artist, you have also used the verbal in many forms in later paintings, in the form of quotations, for instance. Could you comment on the relation between the visual and the verbal in your imaginative perceptions as an artist and poet?

I have often cited the case of Ragamala paintings to bring home the truth that verbal and visual expressions are neither exclusive nor antagonistic. There is no one to one relationship between the two. The fact is that paintings based upon ragas from two different qalams do not necessarily portray the same mood in the same or similar scheme of colours. The Malwa portrays it in a muted idiom of colours whereas Mewar may configure it in a blazingly bright palette.

About my painting and poetry. I am happy to swim in both the streams like a rite of passage from one into the other without feeling the need to draw dividing lines or parallels between their open-ended yet individual realms. What I enjoy most is the possibility of combining or distinguishing the scales of both practices in tone, tenor and mode depending upon the compelling needs of the moment.

Your career as an artist and a poet ran parallel to the modernist movement in Gujarati, Hindi and many other Indian languages like Malayalam. You and your colleagues moved away from canonical aesthetic modernism to incorporate popular culture. The way you and Bhupen Khakhar use the street and the bazaar are examples of this trend. You have published poetry in “Kshitij”, a journal started by Suresh Joshi. You and Bhupenji had run a journal called “Vrishchik”. Looking back, how do you evaluate this modernist phase of Indian art and literature, based on your knowledge of its creations?

It is difficult to answer it all in brief, but I will try. For us, modernist movements in literature and art ran parallel, and each nourished the other. In my case, employing free verse in poetry ran close to the freedom to experiment in painting. Bhupen went to street culture in his early works and entered the subaltern world of the middle class and gay identity both in his paintings and later in his short stories. The Gujarati journal Kshitij fed us with the best of world literature made accessible by Suresh Joshi. In my individual case, the early 1960s were marked by an intensity of struggle both in painting and poetry, full of anxiety and exhilaration. In a larger perspective however, this modernist phase of art and literature appears to be a period of great internal churning and external turmoil. The sociopolitical upheavals that took place in India shook us to the core. It was also a kind of wake-up call: the lure of international avant-garde had obscured our vision from the volatile realities on the ground. We chose to drop out from the rat race to figure out our own internal callings. I think, in general, the struggle was worth the risks.

Vrishchik, being in English, became a medium for initiating the artist community to come out of its isolated cocoons to connect, interact and speak out. It also enabled us to claim our rights as artist-citizens and served as a vehicle to mount an agitation to reform national institutions like the Lalit Kala Akademi. At a personal level, editing Vrishchik served as an excuse to learning to write in English, besides its professed objectives. It literally propelled me to write on art in English, partly due to the lack of informed readership and absence of interaction in Gujarati; apart from obtaining an opportunity to reach out to larger audiences and interaction with professional art writers.

In one of your lectures, you mention that Indians lack visual literacy. One of Kerala’s best-known literary critics and thinkers, Kesari Balakrishna Pillai (1889-1960), who wrote extensively on modern European art way back in the 1930s, has observed that Keralites can only appreciate mimetic art. They are unable to appreciate abstract art or anything subtle in a visual image. The emphasis on the pedestrian and the pedantic in our education system also has rendered our sensibility mediocre. Art criticism has vanished from newspapers and even respected cultural publications. How would you comment on this situation? Is there a serious retreat from anything imaginative and intellectual in our common life? What the little magazines did in the 1960s and ’70s may be remembered here. They nurtured a new sensibility that made “complex viewing” possible.

You are right. Our educational system has failed us. The obsession with digito-verbal literacy has drowned us in a surfeit of information, robbing the mind of its ability to engage in ideas or in the pursuit of knowledge. And visual literacy is reduced to the consumption of what Mr Pillai calls “mimetic” form in a country, not in Kerala alone, where wondrous forms of non-mimetic art have prevailed for centuries. There is also a landscape of intellectual barrenness, with the print media promoting crass mediocrity. Basically, it is a larger syndrome of having lost a sense of history or the need for a knowledge-based education. I feel most pained to know that love of language seems to be disappearing. So, pleasure seems to have gone out of the process of learning.

Visual literacy and intellectual curiosity have to be cultivated and nourished from kindergarten. And we need an army of committed teachers. I am not saying there are no good schools and teachers, but for a country like ours we need those in millions through a national campaign. I have seen small children being taken round museums even in the so-called less developed countries like Indonesia. What prevents us from taking such initiatives? The digital technology should allow us to bring art closer to our lives. Added to this is a pandemic of suppression of free thought and expression. The minuscule minority engaged in the practice of arts is under threats of assaults by moral and political brigades for crossing boundaries. Creative thinkers are now engaged in evolving new devices to combat the diktats of these suppressive forces. Recalling Brecht’s words, we must continue to sing about the dark times.

Your discovery of “Kaavad” marks an important moment in your journey as an artist. You reclaimed this travelling shrine into contemporary history as a site of multiple viewing, as a procession of images that speak to each other even as they speak to you, as a series of pictorial frames that force you to move along even as you take the images in. You have written: “What I devised is not meant to be a religious object. It actually seeks alternative meanings in order to retrieve the sense of the spiritual from organised religious practice and to transpose it to the realm of the secular.” It embodies something essential in your philosophy as an artist and thinker. Could you elaborate?

A shrine by its very nature is meant to provide spiritual space for a personal encounter with the deity for prayer or worship. The Rajasthani Bhopa carrying a kaavad, or mobile shrine, facilitates the devotee to have a darshan of the deity. I tried to replace the presence of deities by creating space for the viewer to look inwards. Quoting examples of the profane, even demonic and the sceptical, beside the spiritual is meant to locate them within the self, proposing internal atonement in an inverse form of prayer. Images of multiple belief systems as opposed to an exclusively singular one used in conventional kaavads opens the scope of the spiritual onto a larger terrain. And, yes, it was also an attempt to bring in the sacred within the non-divine, secular practices.

The format of the smaller kaavads, like a personal shrine, is meant to be handled by the viewer by hands to open and close the doors to supplant singular viewing with physical engagement. The physical act may reveal possibilities of making combinations and permutations of images, as they indicate traversals inside and outside from door to door in a continuum synonymous to a virtual pradakshina [circumambulation]. The larger kaavad was made to accentuate the physical act of moving round while entering and exiting its interior to come face to face with saints, devotees and sceptics quoted from multiple belief systems. It also invites the viewer to join the sangat, or assembly : in their life-size avatars or in their diminutive selves floating on waters. The interior spaces are designed to invoke the spaces of land, water and sky for the viewer to inhabit them one by one or simultaneously.

Your mural painting, “Tree of Life”, is one of monumental proportions, but it also tends to deconstruct the very idea of the monumental in art. This, I think, happens in the way you “narrate” life through the multiple signs and symbols of art which are not confined to one era or a single culture. Though I have not seen the mural, I have seen the reproductions of its images and symbols and read about them. How important is it for you to “narrate” the lived world of reality in the panoramic space you create? Do the scale and proportions of this work, which must have demanded physical exertion of a colossal nature, fulfil something deep in you where the artist and the artisan in you met and became indistinguishable?

It did fulfil a long-cherished desire to make a mural in a public space, particularly after my deep engagement with the mural “The Effects of Good and Bad Governments” (1338-39 CE) by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in Siena. I was happy it was initiated by the architect of the Vidhan Bhavan (Legislative Assembly) Charles Correa despite the unbelievable/unusual fact of it being sponsored by the Government of Madhya Pradesh. Yes, it was indeed a challenge to cover approximately 31 x 21 feet of living space, but I managed it by engaging a number of assistants to carry out the rather formidable project. The process began with the idea of using the tree as a repository of life and it was tried out in three exploratory maquettes, out of which the third was eventually used for enlarging to the actual scale. The tree in the first one was somewhat submerged in the chaotic continuum of life, in the second it served as a churning rod pulled by oppositional forces to invoke the tumultuous times of the independence of the nation. In the third variation, it appeared as a resort hosting images drawn from a conglomeration of multiple times and places from the region of Madhya Pradesh or India in general. Situated in a political space, it contained overtly political dimensions. The chosen allegory of the throne of King Vikramaditya and 32 dolls from Simhasanbattisi was meant to remind the law-making legislators (placed on left and right flanks) of the Vidhan Bhavan of their duty to deserve the seat they occupy. It referred to contested landmarks like the Narmada dam and the Union Carbide factory; besides quoting sites and characters, both historical and mythical.

The making of the mural became an exercise in the collective; a series of workshops where my assistants and I got engaged in exchanging ideas and modes about image-making, demanded by the epic project of a complex nature. The pleasure of working with assistants turned collaborators led me to continue the practice till date.

In your lectures and also our occasional conversations (I remember the one we had at the Kerala Literary Festival in Kozhikode), you had mentioned many examples of painters and poets crossing boundaries of religion, language, region or country to create art which was plural and polyphonic. This happened in medieval India where languages like Persian and Arabic came into contact with Sanskrit and Pali. It is difficult to categorise what is secular and what is religious in their creations. Such intercultural and inter-textual influences have shaped much of Indian literatures and art. However, Indian aesthetics does not enable us to visualise such plurality as an essential feature of Indian art or literature. Your comments on the scroll and the mural enable us to speak of an alternative aesthetic tradition of India. An aesthetic that does not castigate an art object for being “impure” or “hybrid”. Could you elaborate this a little more?

We have lived with multiple systems, practices and ideas, both social and political, as well as with multiple beliefs, both diverse and heterogenous, for centuries. In the pre-modern times, there was a passage connecting the deeply religious, quasi-religious and secular to the sacred and vice versa. To cite a few examples: the 15th century Chandayana composed in Avadhi and written in Persian script by Mulla Daud is, in fact, a tale of triangular love, with undertones of Sufi ideas. Elsewhere, the mythical hero Hamza, believed to be an insurrectionary rebel in the times of Haroun al-Rashid, was also believed to be an uncle of the Prophet. The stories of his heroic adventures, as well as the Persian translations of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, were painted by Hindu and Muslim artists at the Mughal court. One of the finest Ramayanas with over 400 folios was painted at the court of Maharana Jagat Singh of Mewar in the 17th century by Sahibdin along with Manohar.

As far as ideas of the sacred or spiritual are concerned, they were and still are received with equal devotion no matter whether they spring from the Sufi or Bhakti traditions. Guru Nanak collected the poetry of Surdas, Kabir, Meera and Bulle Shah and from Hindu and Islamic scriptures to compose an anthology of hymns which came to be venerated as a holy book. These are still being sung in the Gurdwaras all over the world. So, the sacred was not just something that was housed in a temple or a mosque: singing could be an act of worship, the making of painting or sculpture could be an act of worship.

Those examples are from court or urban cultures. In the vast traditions of popular culture, poetry and music composed by poets and singers, including women in rural and tribal lands, produced an amazing mix of diverse cultures. Carried by wandering minstrels from place to place, their heterogenous forms remained alive on their own mettle, often fighting the forces of the dominant urban.

Much of this, and much more of our vastly complex traditions, is conspicuously absent from the kind of aesthetics taught in our literary and educational systems. We need to shift our attention to these subaltern traditions to formulate the idea of an inclusive aesthetics. We need to construct an alternative aesthetic of ideational and practised multiplicity, diversity and heterogeneity instead being stuck to an aesthetics of finality based on the shastras, a desi-margi divide or the contested syndrome of unity in diversity.

I am aware that you have had many Keralites as your students. You had close association with K.G. Subramanyan who was originally from Mahe, in North Kerala. Most of the Kerala painters and artists live outside Kerala as they cannot find an audience or a supporting environment there. Have you had occasions to interact with K.C.S. Paniker and the artists of his Cholamandal group? How do you evaluate the contribution of Kerala artists to modern Indian art?

No, I have not had any personal interaction with K.C.S. Paniker, nor much with the artists of Cholamandal.

Broadly speaking, students from Andhra and Karnataka, and a lone student from Tamil Nadu, had begun to come [to M.S. University of Baroda] from the 1950s onwards. Among the earliest of the students from Kerala was Usha Menon (who later married a Rajasthani student Dushyant Singh Rathore) and M.R. Renjan, who joined the Department of Painting; Soman K.P. and Valson Kolleri joined the Department of Sculpture and R. Nandakumar, Shivaji Panikkar and Chitrabhanu K.C. joined the Department of Art History from early to late 1970s through 1980s.

If I am not mistaken, Ayyappa Panikker, who was a friend of my literary mentor Suresh Joshi, too, visited Baroda around the same time and came to the Faculty of Fine Arts at my invitation and gave a scintillating talk on aesthetics. Akkitham Vasudevan reminds me that he landed in Baroda in 1979 along with Abhimanyu V.G. and Prabhakaran K. soon after they had met me at an artists’ camp in Kasaragod to which I had been invited. Ajay Kumar had landed a year earlier. They were followed by Prabhakaran, Surendran Nair, M. Sashidharan Nair, Shibu Natesan, Radha Gomathy Iyer and others, who all joined to study painting, and Alex Mathew, N.N. Rimzon and Asokan Poduwal, who joined the Department of Sculpture. Many of these are well-known names in the art world of India today.

I was taken by surprise to learn that some of them were quite well-read and had read Suresh Joshi in Malayalam translation, while they were surprised that I had not read anything of Vaikom Muhammad Basheer! K.G. Subramanyan left Baroda for Santiniketan in 1982 and I moved from the Department of Art History to the Department of Painting to teach in his place in 1983. In the late 1980s, a group of students including Alex, Prabhakaran and Jyothi Basu and a lone north Indian woman artist, Anita Dube, charged by a radical brand of Marxism, found Baroda to be a fertile ground for forming the “Indian Radical Painters’ and Sculptors’ Association” under the charismatic leadership of K.P. Krishnakumar, an artist of exceptional merit who hadn’t joined as a student, but had come to live and work in Baroda, unlike the other ideologue of the group K.M. Madhusudhanan who studied printmaking at the Faculty of Fine Arts. The basically non-partisan but liberal and politically somnolent art institution was not prepared for the heated political debates which ensued, leaving some tension on the campus for a couple of years. It was remarkable that several of these were highly accomplished artists and their presence generated a much-needed energy and political consciousness. The group eventually got dispersed after the tragic suicide of their leader.

I was deeply moved by a couple of installations made by Rimzon after leaving the college, dealing with communal violence vis-a-vis the ideals of ahimsa. Valson Kolleri, more recently, built a haunting assemblage of bunkers with bundled-up bodies like disposable objects, besides making the unusual habitats out of raw earth and wild vegetation. Madhusudhanan turned to filmmaking but has also produced an amazingly complex sets of drawings which portray the stark and dark political realities after the dismantling of the Left internationally.

Another comrade in arms, Jyothi Basu, created a malevolently seductive and futuristic vision of the world in his dazzling yet disturbing cityscapes. Surendran Nair is among the finest of his generation in India who has managed to weave incredibly complex narratives using known and imagined mythologies. Anita Dube, after she left Baroda, produced haunting sculptures using human bones mounted with velvet called “Blood Wedding”. I must also confess my great admiration for the artist-duo Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, both exceptional artists in their own right, for marshalling local and international resources to found the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, one of the finest international exhibitions in the world today. So, the artists from Kerala have added a brilliant chapter in the ongoing journey of what we call contemporary Indian art.

E.V.Ramakrishnan is a bilingual writer who has published literary criticism and poetry in Malayalam and English. He has been Professor and Dean and Professor Emeritus at Central University of Gujarat between 2010 and 2019.

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