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Nilima Sheikh

Indian Contemporary Artist
Born 1945, Delhi
Lives and works in Vadodara and New Delhi, India

Nilima Sheikh belonged to a generation of artists who are trained formally in Western methods but remain dedicated to the traditional forms such as Indian miniature painting. She was born in Delhi but she studied painting at the MS University, Vadodara and has also worked there as a faculty for most of her working life. A veteran of several solo and group exhibitions all over the world, Nilima has explored scores of social issues through her work. From When Champa Grew Up where she explores the life of a tortured adolescent bride to the recent Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams about her favourite state, her works are always replete with a profound sense of humanism.  

Education

1971

Master of Fine Arts, Faculty of Fine Arts, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, India

1965

Bachelors in History, Delhi University, New Delhi 

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LIFE AND WORK

UNDERSTANDING Nilima Sheikh

A Distinctive Start:

Nilima Sheikh is one of those contemporary artists who form the perfect bridge between classical and contemporary times. They were trained formally in Western methods but always remained dedicated to the traditional forms such as Indian miniature paintings. She was born in Delhi in 1945 and initially studied History for her graduation. But later she went on to learn painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University, Baroda. She also became a faculty at the same institution and made Baroda her second base. Those years coincided with the wave of modernism in Baroda led by the likes of K.G. Subramanyan. It differed from the progressives of Bombay in a sense that it delved much deeper into Indian traditions but at the same time, tried to reinvent their craft by staying clear of older schools such as the Shantiniketan.

Nilima Sheikh, River: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind, 2001, casein on canvas

An Emotional Journey

A veteran of several solo and group exhibitions all over the world, Nilima has explored scores of social issues through her work. Her themes are easy to understand and connect due to the rich emotional elements. Naturally, she is also concerned with gender issues faced by women in India. The best example of her interest in this regard is the series “When Champa Grew Up”, where she explores the life of a tortured adolescent bride. Here she starts by presenting a very happy, idyllic life of a young girl who spends her time playing and cycling. But it changes drastically as she is married off at a very tender age. She loses her freedom as well as her innocence as she gets abused and tortured in her new home. These images are direct, simple yet very unnerving and that is why they have an extremely powerful impact on the viewer.

Nilima Sheikh, When Champa grew up, 1984, gum tempera on canvas

A Dream of Kashmir

Over the years, Sheikh has developed a very special connection with the state of Kashmir. To some extent her traumatic experience in Gujarat riot also encouraged her to be more politically vocal. She started with a series called Dying Dreaming but moved on to create a far more embitious series of paintings called “Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams” is inspired by the poems of Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali, whose famous lines “I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight” lends the name to this series. She is not only inspired by his dense and evocative writings but also draws heavily from traditions such as Indian as well as Persian miniature paintings, wall paintings of Central Asia and several Kashmiri folk traditions. She has also allowed her own experiences, memories and those of many of her favourite authors to shape this monumental body of work.

Even when commenting on socio-political conflicts, she has always maintained a graceful posture, choosing to comment on the composite culture of Kashmir along with the political violence in recent times. All these pieces contain incredible details and as one looks closer, more and more layers with diverse meanings and symbols pop out.

Nilima Sheikh, Dying Dreaming, 2010, casein tempera on canvas

Conversations with Traditions

While she has been a part of many national and international shows and projects, as an educator, Nilima Sheikh has also actively taken part in public interactions that help in taking art to a broader audience. "Conversations with Traditions: Nilima Sheikh and Shahzia Sikander" is probably the best known show which presented paintings of these two artists from India and Pakistan at the New Asia Society Museum in New York in 2001. Throughout such shows she has always tried to explain her inspirations, methods and motives, thus enriching the listeners with rare insights.

Nilima Sheikh, Lal Vakh, 2011, tempera on Sanganeri paper pasted on board

Going Miniature

Out of various Indian traditions, the one that drew the attention of Nilima Sheikh was the miniature paintings. In fact, she altered her focus completely in the middle of her career and started seriously doing miniature paintings. She has tried her hands on different mediums and combined elements of oral traditions, folklore and myths with historical events as well as elements from her own experience. She has also spent time in the hinterlands working with traditional artisans and studying their dying heritage. For instance her work with the Pichwai painters of Nathdwara is well known and she admits that some of her experiments using Gum Tempera were inspired by these traditional artisans.

She has often fused the texts of oral traditions with her imagery to tell the complete story. One can always expect to spot a bit of Gujarat or Rajasthan in her art but at the same time she has also drawn from other Asian traditions such as the Ukioy-e (Japanese Woodblock paintings). She is not always stuck with miniature either. For instance for the Vivaldi Theatre production of Umrao, she painted life sized sets which received much acclaim.

Nilima Sheikh, Dying Ravan, 2005, tempera on sanganeri paper pasted on board

Bibliography