Nilima Sheikh, renowned Indian painter.
The Mittal Institute’s inaugural Distinguished Artist Fellow, Nilima Sheikh, will join us from April 17-27 in residence on the Harvard campus from her home of Baroda, India. A renowned painter, Nilima has been a career artist for more than 50 years. We spoke with her about what led her to apply for a DAF, and her hopes for her Cambridge experience.
Mittal Institute: Nilima, congratulations on being named our first DAF! You earned a degree in painting from the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, and began exhibiting professionally in 1969. Can you talk to us about those early years as an artist?
Nilima Sheikh: I was one of the lucky few in my childhood to have learned about making art in school from an inspiring artist couple Kanwal and Devyani Krishna, instead of the conventional art teacher. They taught us the joys of creativity, of bending the rules of prescriptive art making and exposed us to the sensitivities and adventures of an artist’s life.
They taught us the joys of creativity, of bending the rules of prescriptive art making and exposed us to the sensitivities and adventures of an artist’s life.
When, after completing my graduation in History from Delhi University, I was still interested in studying art in an art school, it was Krishna who sign-posted me to go to Baroda, to enroll at the Faculty of Fine Arts in the MS University; and to seek out KG Subramanyan to learn from. Studying painting at Baroda under the mentorship of KG Subramanyan introduced me to the linguistics of varied art-making processes. I learned through his pedagogy, his practice, but also through the ambience in Baroda. It was, at the time, an invigorating confluence of diverse schools of thought: the Bauhaus shaped modernism, the professionalism and academic realism of Bombay, and the pan-Asiatic identities from Tagore’s Santiniketan in Bengal. The Faculty of Fine Arts was the first art school on India to offer courses in art-history and critical studies with the purpose of creating a pedagogy that combined practice with theory and awarded degrees rather than diplomas. I enjoyed these courses and the influence of painter- art historian-teacher Gulammohammed Sheikh (whom I later married) was significant in opening up the art of the world to me.
I had my first opportunity to exhibit my work professionally in 1969, while I was still studying for my Masters in Painting.
Mittal Institute: What are some of the main themes of your art? Have these themes shifted or changed over the years?
Nilima Sheikh: My work draws inspiration from pre-modern art histories and Asian art forms like the manuscript painting (popularly called miniature paining), scroll and screen painting. From the outset I have needed to find a personal voice and speak to and of female sensibilities.
From the outset I have needed to find a personal voice and speak to and of female sensibilities.
I have addressed themes such as home, displacement, violence, loss, longing while exploring art-historical lineages, notably in relation to the lands in the north of India and South Asia. A feature that has been present in my work for many years has been in bringing together the painted image with text and lyric.
I often like to go back to append a theme I have previously worked with. And often pick up a theme to retrace. I do not seek a linear progression in my themes.
Beyond Loss panel 4.
Mittal Institute: Can you talk about what mediums you work with?
Nilima Sheikh: Our training in Baroda was not only in oil painting. We started with water-colour and rudimentary tempera paints. We were encouraged to try other skills, even mural techniques.
I am deeply influenced by the manuscript/miniature painting of South Asia and Persia, and have tried to learn from their spatial structures, narration, aspects of the ornamental as a structuring device and surface delineations. Even though I use certain methods and materials used in making miniatures, it is the technology that informs my work not the technique. I have tried different types of tempera media on handmade paper, canvas and board. The formats and modes of installation I employ are influenced by diverse Asian, but also pre-Renaissance European schools of tempera painting. I devise my forms of telling by adapting traditional forms like manuscript paintings, scrolls, Pichhvais (ritual backdrops), folding or enclosing screens and altarpieces.
This exploration of the tempera medium started with an impulse that I should try and use the technologies used in the traditions of painting I personally respond to. It is not that I do not admire the magnificent traditions of oil painting of Europe. It is a question of developing a personal language.
It is not that I do not admire the magnificent traditions of oil painting of Europe. It is a question of developing a personal language.
Mittal Institute: You have had many solo exhibitions, and in 2014 you even created a large mural called “Conjoining Lands” for the Mumbai airport. When you look at your career, is there an exhibit or creation that you are you most proud of?
Nilima Sheikh: That is very difficult to say. It is a cumulative process. Each work or series of work have their own satisfactions and dissatisfactions.
Exhibit: Terrain Carrying Across Leaving Behind.
Mittal Institute: At Harvard you are participating in classroom meetings and will also give a public lecture. What are you most excited about for your experience?
Nilima Sheikh: There are going to be a medley of experiences, it seems. I look forward to the opportunity of sharing my work and engaging with the concerns of the remarkable people from the academic community, as well as students. Visiting the amazing museum collections with the eminent experts from the institution and learning from their knowledge as well as from the artworks are occasions, I would not have anticipated. I feel immensely privileged.
Nilima Ji will be with us at the Mittal Institute from April 17 – 27 and in that time, will give three public lectures, visit classrooms, meet with curators at the MFA and Peabody Essex Museum and more. Learn more about her seminars.