Four generations a facet of contemporary Indian art: Gulammohammed Sheikh (Interview)

October 18th, 2011 - 1:34 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Oct 18 (IANS) An interesting aspect of contemporary Indian art is the presence of four generations of artists-like a large family, says renowned painter and scholar Gulammohammed Sheikh, one of the founders of the second wave progressive movement in 1963.

“One of the most interesting aspects of contemporary Indian art is the presence of four generations of artists who are aware of one another,” Sheikh, 74, told IANS in an interview.

“The progressive years of the 1950s, our generation of the 1960s, 1970s and the young artists of 2000 work like a large family. This is unique because we are living in multiple times. Our sense of history is different,” said Sheikh, whose canvas transforms maps of Gujarat, India and the world into refined abstract art.

The Vadodara-based artist, who was awarded the Padma Shri in 1983 for his contribution to art, is in the capital after 10 years with a solo exposition, “City Kavaad and Other Works”, at the Lalit Kala Akademi.

The showcase presented by the Vadehra Art Gallery opened Oct 12 and will last until Oct 24.

The mixed media exhibits pull the viewer into Sheikh’s strange relationship with his state of birth - Gujarat - and the urban world.

“Kavaad: Travelling Shrine: Home”, a series of three-dimensional works that Sheikh presented at the Mori Art Museum in 2008; a monumental installation, “City: Memory, Dreams, Desire, Statues and Ghosts - Return of Hiuen Tsang” from an exhibition in Shanghai; and a series of digital books retelling collective religious myths are a testimony of Gujarat’s violent politics and rich history in the context of events that have influenced global geopolitics.

Recalling his affair with city and maps, Sheikh, who is married to artist Nilima Sheikh, said he was looking for a reference for a world map to carry his urban re-mapping forward while in Europe.

“Basically, the mapping arises out of wanderlust. I have used maps all my life while travelling in Europe and painted maps,” Sheikh said.

“I found a 13th century European picture postcard of a world map at the British Library bookshop. It was called the ‘Ebstorf Mappa Mundi’ or ‘Ebstorf’s Map of the World’. I used digital technology to enlarge it and made a series of 25 world maps - re-interpretative in nature (and presented them in Mumbai in 2004),” said Sheikh, an alumnus of the Royal College of Art.

The next thing was to make something he was familiar with - the city of Vadodara where Sheikh taught at M.S University in Fine Arts.

“We (a team of associates) searched Google Earth and found a satellite map of Vadodara. I chose to make a print of it,” the artist said.

It was a map of the central part of Vadodara - of both the old and new city.

“We enlarged it on a 24-foot installation and drew freely on it. We first drew streets and squares and then filled it from our imagination. We wanted a city with relics from all historical sources and from the different genres of Indian paintings,” the artist said.

The giant became the microcosm of Sheikh’s city.

“There is a Chinese connection in my work too. When I went to Shanghai, I wanted to bring elements of Chinese art from the Song period in my work. I painted the return of Hiuen Tsang to Vadodara - and used Chinese icons to tell the story of his journey,” the artist said.

“The use of Chinese idioms was of special significance because the department of archaeology at M.S. University had excavated a 3rd century ’stupa’ at Devni Mori in the state and had found an inscribed urn with ashes. It was believed that the ashes were those of Lord Buddha’s.”

Holding himself inspired by Indian, Chinese, Persian and Western genres in his art, Sheikh is associated with the history of progressive revival in the arts in 1963 after the first wave - a year after independence - in 1948 in Mumbai.

“In 1963, a group of 12 artists hosted an exhibition in New Delhi, which was opened by Jawaharlal Nehru. The preface of the catalogue for the exhibition was written by poet Octavio Paz, who was the then Mexican envoy in India.

“We called ourselves the group of 1890 (after a house with that number) and tried to create a new progressive manifesto asserting our beliefs rooted in the unfettered creative spirit. We were disillusioned with the Progressive Movement of 1948,” he said.

“Octavio responded to our plea and wrote about it,” he said.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at

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