In 1969, Baroda was a city ravaged by communal violence. Riots burned in various mohallas and the ideas of communal harmony that artist Gulammohammed Sheikh had grown up with seemed distant. In Surendranagar, where he had spent his childhood, he had been aware of religious segregation but had until then observed “that there was a kind of mutual respect for each other’s beliefs despite the distance” between the two communities. Now, he found the sectarian violence bewildering. “For the first time, my identity was questioned. It made me aware of the politics that we had brushed aside until then. Until the ’60s, most Indian artists felt politics would pollute their art and should be kept out of their work. Likewise, personal narratives were generally kept out of artistic expression. However, we thought our experiences could help us find our way,” says Sheikh, 82.
That experience left a lasting impact. While the immediate outcome was the 1973 etching, Riot, where he directly addressed the violence and bloodshed, the period also strengthened his resolve to address socio-political concerns and contemporary issues. Sheikh began sharing his personal journey through his work and charted a new course for Indian art through emphasis on narrative figuration.
While the market value of his work has steadily climbed, thousands of young artists have learned the nuances of art history and painting from him at the prestigious Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU), where the artist-pedagogue taught for almost three decades, till he took voluntary retirement in 1993.
“We would attend his classes because he was such a great teacher and we wanted to learn from him,” says art historian and curator Chaitanya Sambrani, who has edited the recently released anthology At Home In The World: The Art and Life of Gulammohammed Sheikh (Rs 4,500, Tulika Books in association with Vadehra Art Gallery), a comprehensive study of his art spanning six decades. A student of art criticism at MSU, Sambrani joined the department after Sheikh moved to teaching painting in 1982. He recalls how Sheikh had an “extraordinary concern for his students”. “I think the term ‘encylopaedism’ coined by (author) Coilin Parsons would be a fair characterisation of his approach that is deeply informed by scholarship. He is very much a scholar-artist who loves to read and write as much as he loves to paint. He is a polymath and it is hard to pin him down as being an expert of only one subject,” says Sambrani.
As a young man of 18, Sheikh vividly recalls how nervous he was when he embarked on the journey from Surendrangar to Baroda. Having barely ventured out of his hometown till 1955, he was unsure if he would find his way to Baroda and had convinced the son of the local librarian to accompany him till Ahmedabad. Baroda was to become not just his seat of formal learning, where Sheikh discovered his artistic vocabulary, but also where he established lasting friendships and found love. “It opened up a new world,” says the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan awardee. There, he met his future wife Nilima Dhanda, when the history graduate from Delhi came to pursue her Master’s in Fine Arts from MSU. The two bonded over their shared interest in history and art. When they decided to marry in 1971, the ghost of love jihad had still not reared its ugly head. “Nilima’s family was highly educated and liberal and had no objection to our marriage. My family, too, did not raise any questions. Nilima was accepted in the family fold quite naturally and with pleasure. If there was a concern at all in my family, it was about how Nilima would communicate with them if she didn’t know Gujarati. But their anxiety was dispelled when Nilima spoke in Gujarati with the women folk and children,” he says.
At MSU, lessons were not confined to classrooms and teachers such as KS Subramanyan, NS Bendre and Sankho Chaudhuri would engage students even after college hours and encourage them to develop their individual artistic vision. A frequent traveller to Mumbai, Sheikh would often visit the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute, where several artists, including MF Husain, Tyeb Mehta, VS Gaitonde and Prafull Dave, worked. At the inauguration of his first solo at Jehangir Art Gallery in 1961, Husain read out a poem.
In 1962, a group of artists gathered in Gujarat’s Bhavnagar to form Group 1890 — named after Jyoti and Jayant Pandya’s house number where the meetings were held. It comprised 12 members, Sheikh was the youngest. Established as a movement distinct from The Progressive Artists Group, which was influenced by modern European art, and the Bengal school, that was rooted in traditional Indian art, the collective sought a new language for Indian modernism. “That was the time when there was a ferment among young artists all over the world to express themselves and make a statement perhaps slightly different from the previous generation. We decided to have a large exhibition, with each artist represented by a body of work,” says Sheikh. In 1963, he left on a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art, London, before the group’s first and only exhibition was inaugurated by the then prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru at the Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi. By the time Sheikh returned in 1966, the group had already disbanded but not without bringing attention to its concerns.
While there was an evident shift from his early depiction of human figures without facial features, and, horses, it was from a distance that Sheikh truly discovered the history of Indian art. In London, he carefully studied the miniature tradition at the Victoria and Albert Museum; the paintings of the Kota school also became the subject of his dissertation. Between 1963 and 1966, on road trips across Europe, he viewed the work of the Renaissance masters he had read about.
There was a whole generation on the move, hitchhiking, and I joined them. Once I got a long ride from Rome to Milan, another time I travelled with a Japanese boy for 15 days through the Alps, right up to Vienna, stopping in small towns and villages, wherever there were great museums. Hitchhiking also gave an opportunity to talk to those people, learn about their way of life,” says Sheikh.
Back in India, he continued to travel, across Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. “It was a rediscovery when I went back to familiar places. I started teaching art history in Baroda again, but I would wonder if it was possible to bring the two worlds together,” says Sheikh. A seminal work from the period, Returning Home After Long Absence (1969-73), had a tree from a Mughal painting, houses and a mosque and a photograph of his mother Laduben in a white sari, painted from a photograph of her he had taken. “This was in sharp contrast to what my predecessors were doing.
The painting was related to my life and to the world. I was working in a new idiom that I had developed by combining a variety of sources. I thought that through these sources I will find my own way and my journey began,” says Sheikh. Through more intimate works, he would often introduce the viewers to his inner circle. If Inmates of Shivmahal Compound (1967) featured his co-occupants at the out-house of Shivmahal Palace — Bhupen Khakhar, Krishna Chhatapar and Nagji Patel — and their common crush, Miss World Reita Faria, in 1972, Sheikh painted himself with his wife Nilima in We Two.
The youngest of five siblings, Sheikh grew up in a lower middle-class Muslim family. His father, who held several jobs at different times, was a devout Muslim who insisted that the children pray at the mosque five times a day. Though finances were meagre, Sheikh recalls how the family would look forward to visits to communal feasts and village fairs. During his school days, Sheikh discovered the world through Hindi and Gujarati literature, reading authors such as RV Desai and Jhaverchand Meghani and Gujarati translations of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. Having opted for Sanskrit as a second language after the option of Persian was discontinued post Independence in his school, he became familiar with Vedic and Upanishadic literature and the poetry of Kalidasa. His earliest writings began to be published in a handwritten Gujarati magazine, Pragati, that he designed with his teacher, poet Labshankar Rawal. He was only 15 then. While he learnt about the developments in modern art through the English art journal Marg, in middle school he found his first art teacher Tuljashankar Trivedi, who familiarised him with the technique of watercolour. It would be his interaction with artist and writer Ravishankar Raval, who was in Surendranagar recuperating from an illness, that would prompt Sheikh to pursue a career in art. “When he left, he asked me to send him reply postcards, but with sketches alongside. He told me, if I didn’t sketch, he wouldn’t answer. I made a sketch in every postcard, which he answered promptly,” says Sheikh.
It was at his behest that Sheikh applied for art studies at MSU. On a scholarship of Rs 50 per month, he supplemented his income with commissioned portraits and writing assignments, till, in 1960, Bendre invited him to join the faculty as a teacher of art history on a salary of Rs 250 a month. He was still to complete his Masters then. “I asked Bendre saheb how would I manage and he said, ‘Idhar padho, udhar padhao (study in senior class and teach in junior classes)’. I had to evolve to teach art history because I was a trained painter, not an art historian,” says Sheikh.
His classes turned out to be a huge success. His student, artist Vivan Sundaram, 76, recalls, “Gulam used to teach us a course called the ‘Story of Art’ and would, sometimes, hold the classes outdoors. He was very expressive and just as charming even then.”
In Baroda, Sheikh also became part of a literary group established by Gujarati writers Suresh Joshi and Bhogilal Gandhi. Through their weekly meet-ups, he became familiar with works of authors such as Charles Pierre Baudelaire, Pablo Neruda, Jean-Paul Sartre and Franz Kafka. He started contributing in literary magazines and journals such as Kshitij and Vishwamanav. From poems in “a romantic song format”, he later turned to free verses full of angst. “In certain circles, he is better known as a Gujarati literary figure — primarily as a poet and writer, and, secondarily, as a visual artist. There is no direct equivalence between what he writes and what he paints but they are two equally important aspects of the man,” says Sambrani.
In 1969, the two pursuits came together in some ways when he co-founded the English journal Vrishchik with fellow artist and close friend Bhupen Khakhar. In the magazine, artistic experiments and political concerns found space. “We even published letters by American soldiers fighting in Vietnam and some of them were heart-wrenching,” says Sheikh. The iconic press photograph The Napalm Girl gave impulse to his canvas In Road 2 (Vietnam) (1972), with the image of the naked girl fleeing repeated three times.
The ’70s were a seminal period for Indian art, when political views began to be foregrounded in artwork. “(KG) Subramanyan made his terracottas referring to the birth of Bangladesh. Krishen Khanna painted images of the military generals. The younger artists were exploring their own personal life-perspectives which led them to acquire a sense of history and politics,” says Sheikh.
Perhaps, among the most compelling examples of this is Sheikh’s work Speechless City (1975), painted in the wake of the Emergency. It showed darkness on empty streets where the silence is broken only by the cacophony of birds and predatory animals. Painted a decade later, the 223 x 305.2 cm City for Sale (1981-84) was Sheikh’s largest work till then and referenced how sectarian violence had become commonplace in Gujarat. In the multilayered canvas, people headed for a movie while blood was being shed on the streets.
His appeal for peace saw him turning to the weaver-saint Kabir, who has continued to recur in his works since the 1996 Kahat Kabir series, and Mahatma Gandhi, whom he had grown up admiring. The two icons came together in the much celebrated digital collage print, Ark, based on Nainsukh’s 1765-75 painting where a boat floats in turbulent waters. One end of the ark has Gandhi, from a painting by Abanindranath Tagore, and, on the other, sits Kabir, from a late Mughal painting. In between is Sheikh’s sangat (an assembly of the virtuous and sceptics) that includes followers of different belief systems, both Eastern and Western. It also includes figures of St. Francis of Assisi, poet Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khana and artist Bhupen Khakhar. “The increasing sectarian violence in recent times is the most disturbing aspect of our life today, especially the targeting of innocent individuals by mobs. Art is the only refuge. It will have to develop a language to withstand and combat forces of violence and hatred,” says Sheikh.
In the years since he has retired, Sheikh leads a quiet life immersed in art and literature. The artist couple live not far from the MSU campus, engaging with students who often visit him for discussion and advice. The quest for new discoveries still continues. He has worked with new media such as digital reproductions, and engaged in new ways with the old such as the kaaavad (miniature box shrines) and the 13th century Ebstorf Mappamundi (map of the world). His exploration as an artist was probably best described by him in an interview to fellow artist Gieve Patel in 1985: “By painting, I learned how to look at life through art, know that art was used as a catalyst to create concepts for living.”