Essence of My Art: Gulammohammed Sheikh in Conversation with Vasudevan Akkitham

Essence of My Art: Gulammohammed Sheikh in Conversation with Vasudevan Akkitham

in Interview
Published on: 18 March 2020

Vasudevan Akkitham

Former head of the department of Fine Arts, M.S. University, Baroda, Vasudevan Akkitham is a prominent Indian artist whose works are part of several reputed collections such as the Kerala Lalit Kala Akademy, Madhavan Nair Museum, Cochin and the Chester Herwitz Family Collection, USA.

Gulammohammed Sheikh in conversation with Vasudevan Akkitham

Artist Gulammohammed Sheikh dons many roles in life—painter, poet, educator, writer, art historian—all of which emerge from and coalesce into his engagement with contemporary sociopolitical concerns. Born in Surendranagar, Gujarat, Sheikh discovered his passion for poetry and painting while in school. The city of Baroda, where he moved to after finishing school, played a crucial role in his life and works. He did his Master’s in Painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University, Baroda. His three years’ training at the Royal College of Art, London, introduced him to art and artists from all over the world. When he returned to India, he accepted a teaching position at MS University, where he continued to teach art history and painting for nearly three decades.

Gulammohammed Sheikh has exhibited widely in India and abroad. His solo and group exhibitions include the Vii Tokyo Biennale, Tokyo, 1963; Contemporary Painting of India, Belgrade, 1974; Mappings, The Guild, Mumbai, 2004; Kahat Kabir, Vadehra Gallery, New Delhi, 1998; Returning Home (a retrospective of work from 1968–1985) at Centre Georges Pompidou, Musee National d’Art Moderne, Paris, 1985; two-person show (with Bhupen Khakhar), Walsh Gallery, Chicago, 2002, etc. As a painter, Sheikh sought to present life as he knew and experienced—a spectacle of fantastical images and colours, drawing the viewer into a dynamic maze of memories, histories, dichotomies and narratives.

Sheikh believes that writing and painting share a meaningful relationship and, in him, both facets have always supplemented and complimented each other. His collection of poetry with his own illustrations, Athawa, was published in 1974. An appended edition of Athawa appeared in 2013. His poems have been published in various literary journals in Gujarati like Vishwasmanav, Kshitij, Kumar, Sanskriti, Milap, etc. He published a series of free-form verse, Ghar Jatan, in 1968, and has edited and designed journals and books and also done linocuts for special editions of the journal Vrishchik. Sheikh edited Contemporary Art in Baroda that traces the history of contemporary art and art education in Baroda from the nineteenth century till the end of twentieth century. 

Paintings of Gulammohammed Sheikh are exhibited in public and private collections across the world, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, Peabody Essex Museum in USA, etc. The Government of India honoured him with Padma Shri in 1983 and Padma Bhushan in 2014. He was also conferred with Kalidas Samman in 2002, Ravi Varma Puraskar in 2009, and National Award by Lalit Kala Akademi in 1962. He was also conferred D.Litt. by Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata.

Following is the edited transcript of the interview with Gulammohammed Sheikh conducted by Vasudevan Akkitham on August 29, 2019, Baroda.

Vasudevan Akkitham (VA): Your interest in art history and teaching in the art history department had informed your work. Is it something very intrinsic about your practice as a painter?

Gulammohammed Sheikh (GMS): I would say that artists in Baroda, all studied art history. From first year to sixth year MA, all of us did our dissertation, so we were fairly aware of world art. Whether you wanted to go further into it was up to you. Many artists have gone further. So, for me it was natural that if I was offered a job of teaching it, it would be an extension of what I had studied. So, art history and art went side by side. One was not a by-product of the other. It was simultaneous. You were interested in the art of the world. The great art of the world. You wanted to know. You wanted to learn. A seminal book in those days was Voices of Silence by Andre Malraux. It is not conventional art history. He remembers one particular art work and then you move to another art work which is 10 centuries away from it and he meditates on it. So, we were used to such art history, which means, in other words, each of us was making our own art history. Each artist who has studied art history made his art history. You like this and you like that. So, you pick those things out and you look at them again and again. This is what happened to me. When I was in England, I was interested in Italian art. So, I picked out. I was not so much interested in say, English painting. I got interested in it later, but not at that point of time. I think the Baroda example is very important because Baroda artists do have an awareness of art history and it reflects in one way or the other. Rightly or wrongly, but it does. In my case, when I taught art history for 18 years, I was constantly surrounded by great works of art which I saw in the books and in the museums, so it was but natural for me to see them in the context of what I was doing in my studio. Either they got into my work or work got into them. That is a story which is difficult. . .

AV: If you look at some works that you have done in RCA, you can see that they are influenced by a certain kind of Pop imagery and approach. When you came back and you started doing a series of landscapes, a series which has to do with your own hometown, which includes Returning Home; one can see that you are actually looking at those works from one single point of view, from one vantage point. But with the works that you did like the Place for People (1981) exhibition, one can see that you open it up like a kaleidoscope. The influence of your constant looking at the miniature painting tradition suddenly blossoms in those works. Would you look at it in that way?

GMS: Agreed, you are right. I have said somewhere that 1890 was the period when what we painted was not anything unusual. We were using the language which was used by our predecessors like the Progressive Artists. But it was calling for a change which took place a few years later. [J.] Swaminathan started to do different things, after 1890 [artists’ collective], not during the days of 1890.

For me going to England was an opportunity to look out, because my paintings of horses had come to a cul de sac. I did continue with  horses in some paintings but then it came to an end. After wandering round London and coming back to my studio in RCA I began to think of trying out a different mode of work. It is quite possible that  I started making collages after my tutor Peter Blake's practice of    collage as a mode of expression. I continued to make collages on return to Baroda and tried it out in Inmates of Shiv Mahal Compound. So, in a way collage opened a way for me. Now, a collage is something where you have disparate images and you mix them together. So in 1969, when I began a painting, but I didn’t know what I was going to paint, so I started with an image of a woman vaguely resembling my mother and painted a horse-like figure on the horizon. The painting remained with me for three or four years. I kept on working and in the last year (1963), I finally painted the portrait of my mother from a photograph that I had taken of her, painted a chinar tree which came from a Persian painting,  painted angels and the prophet from another Persian painting, also  painted a  wall—like the  a wall near the house where I spent my childhood in Surendranagar. Then I added a group of houses which were purely made up from imagination; none of these resembled the house I had lived in. Oh, perhaps the chinar tree came from a Mughal painting! So, Mughal painting, Persian painting, and something realistic from a photograph. So, there were multiple things. Could you combine these  in a single painting? In a collage you can. But usually you don’t paint a collage. I began to paint it and tried to make sense out of it. I thought that these are multiple views and why don’t I go on making more works in that manner. But as you said rightly, I did some landscapes, for three or four years, it went on and then it was around 1979, while we were living in Residency Bungalow I was sitting inside and drawing what was visible through the door and then I went out and started drawing the door and the rest from outside. And when  I combined both—the inside and outside view—it triggered a new idea. I thought, yes, it is two views, why don’t I use them both? That is how—About Waiting and Wandering came about. Multiple views, multiple perspectives, and I discovered that I was not inventing them, Mughal artists had already used the device. While teaching art history, I got it confirmed. Later, I also came to know about Hamzanama and other paintings. That way art history did feed into my work.

Waiting and Wandering or rather About Waiting and Wandering is like a journey. That you have an interior in which there are these two women, one is sort of nude and the other who is combing her hair. Then it cuts to an outdoor view with a tree and houses, there is a couple on  bed, then you come down and you have some kind of a landscape of a small town India—there are the dogs there, people there, in fact there is a self-portrait also, standing on the side of the road with a backpack. And then you turn on the left and you return to  the tree and the landscape and a train running. So, you have taken a kind of a circuitous journey, from inside out, from a large landscape to a close-up, etc. This interested me. So, I discovered  from Mughal painting, especially  in the Hamzanama folios  presence of  such devices. Suppose there is a pond, then  it is painted as though it is seen from above. And when you see figures are shown frontally and images of house, animals from sideways. Distance is not shown through linear perspective. For instance, the figure at the top (at a distance) and the  figure at the bottom (close to our eyes)—are not shown different in sizes. In a realistic painting, the distant figure would be smaller compared to the figure closer to us. So, the landscape [in Mughal painting]  proposes a new perspective : it is drawn through the eyes  of a person who walks through it]... So, you are walking into the painting. Every figure you approach, it is of the same size, both distant and proximate. What interested me most was the exploration of space. So exploring on the left, exploring on the right, exploring from bottom to top, top to bottom, which in fact opens out the space, so you can enter the picture frame from any point and exit from any other point. The painting is not focused on the centre; there are multiple points from where you begin, and from there you begin to choose your own itinerary, your  entry and exit. So, this is the kind of thing I did  in the series of four paintings beginning with About Waiting and Wandering  The second in the series Speaking Street is roughly like the Ghanchivad street [in Surendranagar] where I grew up. There is a little mosque there, people pray there, and then there is an angel who is hovering over some figure, which is quasi-autobiographical. Then there are things happening in different houses, different rooms—so, a number of stories are happening within.

Third in the series was Revolving Routes in which I put an image of myself surrounded by pieces of papers literally flying around and then on the left top,   my childhood images like a whirling dervish, (but it was  actually  drawn from  Abanindranath’s image of Rabindranath Tagore dancing like a Baul singer) and a figure speeding on a bicycle. On the right, there is  the house where I lived in, the Residency Bungalow and the city of Baroda on the bottom right and a 'Speaking Tree' with images of my mentors and friends embedded in it. So in a way, these are stories— personal, sometimes private, sometimes social, cultural and political. You weave as many things as possible. And literally you make it like a journey. A viewer can make [his/her] journey from wherever he/she  chooses to begin.

The fourth painting in the series, City for Sale, came out from the experience of living in Baroda. The city had become, rather unfortunately, a place where a large number of communal riots took place. Once  there was a write-up in a newspaper that Baroda had surpassed other cities in the occurrence of a number of riots in a single year, and acquired a dubious distinction. So, I started the painting it in 1981; I wanted to paint the city. There are three large figures, standing on the right  over a match [matchbox] to light a beedi, and then there are women  and then there are houses, and people. A marauding crowd physically assaulting and denuding a hapless figure to see if he is circumcised or not. . .

AV: It also in a way connects the three characters in Flagellation of Christ with three people on the right-hand side. Of course, here they are seen to  light a cigarette or beedi or whatever.

GMS: Yes, in one sense you are absolutely right. Flagellation by Piero della Francesca has the so-called minor or subsidiary figures painted large. They are standing in front, three of them, and actual flagellation is taking place in the background. Similarly in City for Sale, the scene of riot is taking place somewhere on the top, on the left. Whereas the huge figures, the looming figures, are frontally placed, all on the right.

AV: They are ordinary people.

GMS: Yes, they are ordinary people. Also, there is that hoarding painter. . .

AV: . . .and the matchbox is also a potent symbol.   

GMS: Yes, the matchbox is also a potent symbol of the event of an incendiary nature.

So that way these four paintings in a way became seminal for me.

AV: But you had done an etching called Riot.

GMS: Yes, in ’73 or around that time. And I used the image from Hamzanama where a woman is being punished. So, I used that image in that etching called Riot, to turn the meaning upside down, to give it a new meaning. So, that way I was using my background of art history to creative advantage. So these four paintings became a trigger; after that I did a number of works, but how many works  can I talk about?

There are two works  that I can talk about. One is Kaavad: Home. I had seen a traditional Rajasthani kaavad[1], a painted box with images gods and goddesses or from the epics used by performers which they wear on their body and sing stories of  gods and goddesses. I was interested in the idea of the  box and I wanted to make that box myself. Not that I wanted to paint gods and goddesses, I would rather do my own thing. I chose the format of kaavad, and in the end made a number of kaavads and then I thought why just a small kaavad? How would it be if it were a kaavad you could walk into? So, I designed a kaavad which was 7-feet high and 24 foot wide; you could walk into it and it would open on all four sides. So, that was Kaavad: Home in which I quoted among other images, some from my own paintings, paintings that I have done before, and also quoted from different traditions of painting.

Simultaneously, I was interested in painting  books and made what is called concertina or an accordion format book. It is a book which can be opened and closed from both sides. About 30 pages. I was interested in the permutations and combinations the accordion format book allows. Here you need not follow serial numbers of pages but open let us say from pages 6 and 7 to pages 16 and 17 or start looking at it from the last page.. You can make a series of combinations back and forth.

I came to know or I learnt about the digital media in the last years of the previous millenium. There was an art gallery called 'Art Underground' which made it possible for us to learn and use the computer for art-making. Not that I did everything on computer, instead I got interested in combining the printed with the painted image: that the image is conceived and made on the computer and then printed in inkjet and then painted in part.

Another foray was to make maps. In my paintings I had used images of cities exploring their spatial dimensions from small towns to bigger cities like Baroda But actually I wanted to explore larger areas  like making map of the world. I was looking for a world map somewhere. I wanted something circular. And in the British Library book shop I came across a picture postcard. It was called Ebstorf mappa mundi. ‘Ebstorf’ was the name of a place, ‘mappa mundi’, the map of the world. I bought it and with the help of my computer specialist facilitators we enlarged it. Using that map I began to make my own mappa mundi. In the process I removed some parts, added some, cut out some and after printing that map painted it partially in water colour. That way I ended up making some 25 or 30 mappa mundis, some as big as five feet.

I was invited by Victorian Tapestry Centre in Melbourne for weaving my work into  tapestry. And I sent them images and they chose a mappa mundi. Ebstorf mappa mundi, I later discovered, was destroyed during the Second World War when the allied bombing destroyed a number of churches, among which was a church in Hamburg where it was displayed. The bombing destroyed the map. One of the reasons why I chose it was to remake it because it was destroyed. Remaking of the world map is, in a way, a remaking of the world. Crazy idea but that is something which interested me. But the story of the tapestry is also interesting because they chose the mappamundi image and wove the tapestry. They asked me to come and see it. It was 13 feet wide. The original work that I had given them was an imperial size work. Roughly two feet by two-and-a-half feet. Suddenly, it occurred to me that the original map destroyed in the world war was nearly 13 feet wide. My God! Such things do happen in your life. How did the Australian tapestry makers choose to make it as big as that? So in a way, certain things do happen. I was very happy. I have not seen the completed tapestry but I have got images they sent.

Then you asked me about Kabir. Yes. When I was doing paintings—like City for Sale and several other paintings, there is also one about the demolition of Babri mosque—I was looking for an image or an icon which I could project as an alternative of the terrible times in which we live. And I found that Kabir is one such image that I can use. Why Kabir? I had read Kabir right from my school days. And I was attracted to his poetry. You know his poetry, is of three types. One is which is in Bijak, his famous collection of whatever that he wrote. It is very spiritual, adhyatmik. Then there are dohas, the couplets. These couplets are not adhyatmik at all. They are satirical. They lash out at the superstitions and all kinds of social inequities and malpractices. Third one are the padas or songs. So, Kabir is known both for something absolutely spiritual besides being a severe critic of socio-cultural evils. And Kabir does not belong to any one particular religion, he is always in between. He talks of Ram. But his Ram is not the Ram of Ramayan. Ram is some divine being but in his case it is a generic name for the most sacred. The best thing that Kabir says is about the individual self. Jyon til maahin  tel hai, as there is oil in a sesame seed; jyon chakmak mein  aag, as there is a fire in flint (the stone); tera saayin tujh mein, jaag sake to jaag, the one that you are looking for is within you, awake if you can. That you are seeking is not outside. Like the mriga or the deer that has got the kasturi [musk] in its navel, but wanders around the world looking for where the smell comes from, like that he says don't wander round searching for spiritual guide, your saayin [the spiritual entity] is within you. And when I saw that there were few Kabir paintings traditionally. Very rare. And then I found that in most images of Kabir he is shown with  a Vaishnava tilak on his forehead. Kabir actually was not a Vaishnava. He militated against organised religion, [be it] Islam or Hinduism. He actually angered both the communities. But some Vaishnava lobby appropriated him. I wanted to retrieve Kabir from all these things. So, I chose one image which was from an eighteenth-century painting from the collection of the British Museum and did away with the false tilaka. From there I made my own Kabir. So, I did a series of works using his couplets. Kabir still continues to figure in many other paintings.

In one painting I decided to focus on the face of Kabir with images spread over  the face. So, turned into  a sort of a landscape on which images are  floating. Another one  is called Heerna, which is a Kabir poem,— Kumar Gandharva has sung it very beautifully. So, I made my heerna [deer] as a motif on the face of Kabir. There are a number of heernas, like the maya mrig [a mythical deer], one which looks back and front [indicating that it is terrified], also suggesting violence. For the images of violence  I quoted from [Francisco] Goya; from the photograph of a military general shooting the Vietkong soldier point blank, a Bollywood hero shooting around  alongside  images of hunters who shoot arrows at deer, etc.

AV: If you look at the paintings you have done in the last decade or so, starting with the Kabir paintings, or starting before that, you can very well see that there is some kind of lamentation over polarisation of religious communities. It is something which is central or simmering under most of your works.

GMS: We are all troubled by the way things are going. I don’t have to say that; we have seen ghettoisation happening in front of our eyes. We have seen how communities have been made to [fight], the same communities when left to themselves do not have a history of constant conflict. Conflicts are created; these are all of political nature. So, one does lament about one’s country, city and the kind of atmosphere, that we create an atmosphere of hatred. And I don’t know how to deal with it, where do we go? But in the end all one can say that when all discourses have broken down, art happens to be the only medium, or the only alternative left to us which spells hope. Art is not giving up hope. So, art is something that allows you to meditate, to also respond to these happenings which are going on, despite its limited appeal or range—because our art does not reach the masses. Because our institutions have failed in transmitting these images to people. Our print media or our whatever other media you know, has not used art to show that there are alternatives. Life has many problems. Of course, life is very complicated. But many of these problems are created problems.

The job of art is to keep asking questions. Job of art is to keep raising these issues. Job of art is to keep hope alive.

AV: All along this interview, we had this painting behind us. It documents your marriage to Nilima [Sheikh]. Maybe you could say something. . .

GMS: It was painted after we got married. It did not matter to my family, which was a ‘conventional middle-class Muslim family’ that I had married a girl who did not belong to the belief system in which my family believed. Her parents did not have problems because they are a very sophisticated, emancipated people, both doctors. They welcomed it. When we got married and I took Nilima  to Surendranagar—we went with our child Samira—the family very warmly embraced her. Till date, there has not been any issue; it is not an issue. But there are issues which we hear about in the society. There must have been many like me in the ’70s or in the ’80s and later. But after that it has become more and more difficult: issues regarding two belief systems, issues regarding two caste systems, issues regarding various other things. If you marry a Dalit, it is an issue. If you inter-marry, it is an issue.  

So, I would like to say that the painting in fact celebrates moment of being together. We were still floating, but anyway we all float in one way or the other.

AV: To conclude this interaction, I would like to ask you about the contemporary art in the world and in India. You can very well see that art is not divided, segregated anymore like painting, sculpture, etc. There are many information streams which are converging into art, if you look at installations, photography etc., that are the new mediums. What would you like to tell the young aspiring artists?

GMS: Well, art and artists have broadened their perspectives in the last, let us say, half a century. If one were to think of the days when I landed in London, we were much enamoured by what was happening across continents, in America or Europe, but now, as far as India is considered perhaps we have returned home. I am using home as a metaphor to suggest that  that we are far more rooted and are on our two feet now. In a way, let me invoke Gandhiji, who said, not in exact words but something like this: I would like doors and windows of my little hut to remain open for the winds of the world would pass through. But I would like it to be firmly rooted in the earth on which it stands. So, in that sense, Indian artists in the last 40 years or so that I have been observing have been far more self-confident than they had been before. Not only that we have broken barriers between painting and sculpture, even video and other media, they we have learned to practice literary everything. I think there have been two or three generations of artists that I have seen coming up and each of the generations have something to offer. I have learnt a great deal from your generation. People like you, people like Atul Dodiya, people like Jitesh Kallat or Shilpa Gupta who is much younger. I look at those who are involved in video and other things as much as I look at painting. What I am trying to say is that we have embraced technology and appropriated it and made it as though it belonged to us and turned it into a kind of a medium which serves our purpose. We have learnt that making a video or making an installation is equally  making art.  At the same time, we have not given up painting. Using our hand, head and heart, it is still practised. And those who paint are not averse to those who work in video or installation. And those who work in video and installation still look at paintings. That arouses a great  hope for a better future for our art.

AV: On that note we will wrap it up. Thank you.                                                                               


[1] Kaavad is a storytelling tradition of Rajasthan. The medium of storytelling—a portable, wooden shrine—is also called kaavad. It has multiple panels that unfold stories from the epics.