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A life on the lines: Celebrating three decades of Nasreen Mohamedi’s work

When she was alive, Nasreen Mohamedi’s work was barely noticed by the market and almost never reviewed. Today, an exhibition in Madrid celebrates her as a modern master. Who was this reclusive artist?

Written by Pallavi Pundir | New Delhi | Updated: November 22, 2015 1:00:07 am
Here was an artist whose work was getting smaller in size, who was working only in lines, and restricting her works to a particular element. It was based on the idea of renouncing many things – figures, colours and objects. (Source: Jyoti Bhatt and Asia Art Archive) Here was an artist whose work was getting smaller in size, who was working only in lines, and restricting her works to a particular element. It was based on the idea of renouncing many things – figures, colours and objects. (Source: Jyoti Bhatt and Asia Art Archive)

In a room without furniture, a woman sat in silence, watching the shadows flit across the bare, white walls. On other days, she would be on the floor, with an architect’s drawing board, pencil in hand, and an array of precision instruments scattered around her. In Baroda of the 1970s, Nasreen Mohamedi had found a quiet corner for herself in a studio apartment. After classes got over at the fine arts department of MS University, there were no more claimants to the artist’s time. Her diaries reflected the severity she surrounded herself with. “I feel the need to simplify,” reads one entry, while another, on a ruled paper, says, “The shadow came and stood in its place like yesterday.”

Mohamedi was born in Karachi in 1937. She grew up in Mumbai during the nationalist struggle and Partition. She studied in London and Paris, before finally settling down in Baroda. Yet Mohamedi’s travels did not leave an obvious stamp on her sensibility. Her drawing board comprised blank sheets of paper. Her favourite medium was the pencil. She drew lines, and intricate stretches of solid graphite, that alternated with blank spaces. She refused to theorise her work, leaving them open-ended, and, many times, untitled. She walked on a path she carved out for herself at the time when her contemporaries such as Tyeb Mehta and MF Husain were soaring high on colours and the grandeur of figurative narratives. She chose to hone an exceptional understanding of abstract art.

Twenty-five years after her death (she passed away in Kihim, near Mumbai, of Huntington’s disease at the age of 53 in 1990), Mohamedi is being celebrated as a global modern master. An ongoing exhibition — a collaboration between Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Delhi, The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York — brings to us three decades of Mohamedi’s work. Titled “Nasreen Mohamedi: Waiting is a Part of Intense Living”, the show is on in Madrid till January 11, 2016, and will travel to New York on March 1 till June 5.

It brings together the largest collection of her works (207), and, for the first time, bridges the gaps in the story of Mohamedi’s life, both personal and artistic.

Mohamedi was born to a close-knit family, one of eight children. Her mother passed away when she was very young. Her father was modern in his outlook and believed in educating girls. He owned a photographic equipment shop in Bahrain, among other family businesses in the country. Trips to the desert city would eventually set off Mohamedi’s deep interest in photography. They also had a family home in the village of Kihim, Bombay, where she spent a lot of time walking by the sea.

Not much is known about her artistic skills in childhood, but in 1954, Mohamedi secured a place at St Martin’s School of Art in London to study fine arts at the age of 16. In 1961, she went to Paris on a scholarship. In between London and Paris was a brief stay in Bombay, when she joined the Bhulabhai Institute for the Arts. Soon after, Gallery 59 hosted her first solo exhibition. She met influential abstractionists Gaitonde and Jeram Patel in the city. While Gaitonde became her mentor, helping young artists like her and Zarina Hashmi develop a sublime aesthetic of abstraction, it was Patel who became her longtime friend and colleague. In a seminal essay titled Elegy for an Unclaimed Beloved: Nasreen Mohamedi 1937–1990, Mohamedi’s close friend and art historian Geeta Kapur notes, “If in the Indian situation we want to find a single complementary (also in a paradoxical sense, contradictory) artist vis-a-vis Nasreen, it should finally be Jeram Patel.”

Mohamedi’s earliest works come from her time in London, where we see an instant rejection of the human anatomy. There are a few stray attempts to capture the human form, but those include lines and broken contours. “Sometimes, if she drew figures, she would concentrate on the clothes, the patterns of the sari, for instance. The body never appealed to her,” says curator Roobina Karode, a student of Mohamedi, who has helped organise the current exhibition.

The show, which covers her early works in the late 1950s to the late 1980s, explores subtle transitions from one medium to another — from early sketches to canvas-based watercolours and oils, to finally pencil and graphite. While sourcing art for the show, Karode found 70 works, never shown before, from various private collectors across the world. Some of the works have been loaned by the Glenbarra Art Museum Collection in Japan, the Mohamedi estate in Mumbai, the Talwar Gallery in New York and artists such as Jyoti Bhatt and Nilima and Gulammohammed Sheikh.

At St Martin’s, Mohamedi’s fascination turned towards nature-inspired abstraction. She painted only a few canvases, mostly naturalistic representations of her surroundings, and then abandoned them forever. She would move on to geometric patterns and, finally, the grid in the 1970s.

The grid also shifted shape — from the initial two-dimensional structures that spread out from edge to edge, emboldened by dark lines, Mohamedi moved to lighter ones. Even the lines were fewer. While abstraction took many forms in India in the works of Ambadas Gade, Gaitonde, SH Raza and Mohan Samant, Mohamedi’s domain remained distinct. She was not inclined to be a part of the post-Independence narrative in the modernist visual art. “Most of her peers were trying to work with oil as a medium, moving to larger canvases, working on a bigger scale, their narrations were getting grander. Here was an artist whose work was getting smaller in size, who was working only in lines, and restricting works to a particular element. It was based on the idea of renouncing many things — figures, colours and objects. I don’t think anybody chose to work in such a vocabulary,” says Karode. In one of her diary entries, Mohamedi notes this state of mind: “Maximum out of the minimum”.

Her lines, it appears, ran in tandem with her own life — with age, the shades became lighter, the lines minimal, until one could sense the evanescent ripples slowly fading away into the blank page.

She refused to theorise her work, leaving them open-ended, and, many times, untitled. When her contemporaries such as Tyeb Mehta and MF Husain chose the grandeur of figurative narratives and colour, she honed an exceptional understanding of abstract art. Another untitled work from 1960. (Source: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art) She refused to theorise her work, leaving them open-ended, and, many times, untitled. When her contemporaries such as Tyeb Mehta and MF Husain chose the grandeur of figurative narratives and colour, she honed an exceptional understanding of abstract art. Another untitled work from 1960. (Source: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art)

From Paris, she returned to India in 1970 and first headed to Delhi. This new art hub was dynamic and interesting, and, while living in a barsati in Nizamuddin, Mohamedi was reunited with many of her Bombay colleagues. Some of them included artists like Gulammohammed, Nilima Sheikh and Arpita Singh. Photographer Jyoti Bhatt recalls staying over at her place around that time. “She was a very saintly person, very simple. She gave me a few books on photography because her family had a photography shop in Bahrain. She
got me interested in mathematical designs. She was interested in Islamic art and it has a lot to do with mathematics,” says the 81-year-old.

In 1972, Mohamedi was appointed teacher at the Faculty of Fine Arts at MS University. That move helped her find a lace in the larger community of artists. While the art community was small and close-knit across the country, Baroda, says Gulammohammed, was as intimate as an extended family. There, Mohamedi became close to him and his wife Nilima. “I used to meet her in Delhi but it was only in Baroda that I got to know her well. We taught in the same department. We used to share a studio. She was doing her best work around that time and I got to see those,” says Nilima, who became a close friend. The late artist gifted Nilima and Gulammohammed her last oil painting when the two got married. It is a part of the current exhibition.

But only in her diaries would she reveal herself. The diaries, which she kept assiduosly from the 1960s to the 1980s, have helped critics and scholars understand her process. Often, while creating new works, Mohamedi would surround herself with old ones. “As if for reference,” says Nilima. “I used to find that part of her creative process very interesting.” She also loved music, particularly Bhimsen Joshi.

Karode also happened to be Mohamedi’s neighbour in Baroda. She vividly remembers her love for woven saris, especially those with lines. “She had a delicate understanding of style. But her saris weren’t just black and white. She also wore deeply saturated reds or greens,” says Nilima, “She was fond of colour. It is not true that just because she drew in black and white, she wore them too. She had a sensuous relationship with colour. She liked colour in other people’s works. Black and white was just a choice she made in her own art.”

As a teacher, Mohamedi’s methods were unusual. Karode remembers Mohamedi taking her students outside the classrooms instead of keeping them indoors. Vivan Sundaram distinctly remembers her classes at the MS University. “She wanted to let the students know that they should observe minute details in nature, and not simply imitate them. She looked for the essence in simplicity and form and that was her main work,” says the 72-year-old artist.

Nilima, who taught in the same section and focused on colour and design, says, “She radicalised the idea of drawing. It was interesting that she never engaged with the volume and depth of an object. She dealt with spatial relationships.” Mohamedi often held small exhibitions in her living room, where she would display her sketches in an L-shaped formation on the floor. The students would walk in a line, see the works, hug her and leave. “Not a single word would be exchanged. Silence didn’t mean lack of communication to her,” says Karode.

Mohamedi’s personal diaries reveal the contours of her imagination. The pages, of which around 20 are on display at the exhibition, depict a quiet, inner dialogue within the artist’s head. “They reveal a thoughtful and intense process. They have a quality of a Haiku or a Rumi saying,” says Sundaram.

“She wrote much more in the ’60s and ’70s. As time went by, diaries became emptier,” says Karode. Her earlier writings included selected passages or references from Garcia Lorca, Rainer Maria Rilke, Friedrich Nietzsche and Albert Camus, along with entries that referred to Sufi, Upanishadic and Zen traditions. In the diaries, she noted the distinct influence of artists such as Paul Klee and Vassily Kandinsky.

Mohamedi also took photographs throughout her working life, some even during her extensive travels as an art student in London. She never intended to display the photographs in public. “Derived from the physical experience of walking, encountering, stopping, positioning, turning 180 degrees on one’s heels to view a mere object at ground level, it is the photographs that mark, without any programmed intent on Nasreen’s part, the intersection of late modernist and minimalist aesthetic. There is in these photographs a sense of design, even a discreet theatre,” notes Kapur.

Mohamedi’s artistic output is still not entirely summarised, owing to the fact that most are intentionally undated, unsigned and untitled by the artist. This poses a challenge for art historians and scholars. Most of her works have, over time, made way to private collections across the world, especially in Japan and the US. “There will always be some ifs and buts around her works because they are of such kind that it is not easy to construct an art historical narrative. There is a lot more to understand about her,” says Karode. The Reina Sofia and the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibitions, says Deepak Talwar, is a culmination of efforts of many years, “by those who were swept by her work and then stepped up either as a gallerist, curator or collector, including a decisive step by Kiran (Nadar) to support a comprehensive exhibition of Nasreen in 2013,” says the 50-year-old owner of Talwar Gallery. Talwar Gallery has been a key part of this research, along with Milton Keynes Gallery, the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and Tate Liverpool.

The interest, however, says Nilima, was always there. “She was an artist’s artist. The art community doted on her and her work. Even among the international cognoscenti, she was well loved. Of course, at that time, artists were not as well marketed as now,” she says. Karode, however, recalls reading just one review of the late artist while she was alive. “Everyone knew she was doing unique stuff, but she did not get the attention she deserved when she was alive,” she says.

In the 1960s, Mohamedi knew that she had the Huntington’s disease. A neurodegenerative disorder, it affects muscle coordination and leads to mental decline and behavioural problems. It is also genetic. She had seen her younger brothers pass away of the illness. “We know that Nasreen’s body was losing its motor functions from the 1980s, becoming gradually dysfunctional. There was at the end an oddly splayed movement of the limbs that could develop into the dance of a flying puppet,” writes Kapur. In the later years, she would use her architect’s drafter to manage involuntary movements and draw. She used precision instruments to go about geometric abstract designs. Several of her friends would take her to the hospital when she would fall sick. She finally left for Mumbai in 1990. “Just before her departure, she wrote a letter to all her friends. It was as if she had a premonition about her death,” says Bhatt.

Mohamedi passed away on May 14, 1990 in her village of Kihim, Mumbai. Her grave is an unadorned mound of earth near the sea.

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