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A master artist paints a caravan of stories in his new solo

Gulammohammed Sheikh brings his evocative kaavad works and large canvases to Mumbai in a new solo after 20 years

Detail from 'Kaarawaan', acrylic on canvas, (2019 – 2023). Images: courtesy the artist/ Chemould Prescott Road/ Vadehra Art Gallery

By Avantika Bhuyan

LAST PUBLISHED 04.04.2024  |  10:10 AM IST

Over the years, one has seen different shades of Gulammohammed Sheikh—as an artist, an educator, a historian,a poet, a mentor, and more. However, one of his most impactful roles remains that of a storyteller, both in his prose writing in Gujarati and paintings. He manages to layer a single work with multiple narratives, which are rooted in history, memory, mythology, and various artistic traditions. A stark example of this can be seen at the upcoming exhibition at Chemould Prescott Road, titled ‘Kaarawaan and Other Works’, organised in association with Delhi-based Vadehra Art Gallery.

Featuring both large canvases and the kaavad—a traditional mobile medium for storytelling—the show encourages open-ended readings of his work. Some of the kaavad works are particularly interesting as they spotlight the everyday lives of the common man in the fast-proliferating urban jungle. In one of the panels, you get a sense of claustrophobia as the city seems to be closing in on people on the road. The chaos suddenly gives way to a more contemplative and despondent scene in the next panel, as Sheikh shows a lone labour at work, with two buckets in front of him. There is a certain theatrical quality about the kaavad works, evoking strong emotions in the viewers.

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These small-scale works are juxtaposed against the larger canvases, which have been put together by Sheikh and his team—each of whom is mentioned in the artist’s signature. The titular work, Kaarawaan, reads like an autobiography, featuring scenes and people, who have left an indelible impact on Sheikh’s artistic and personal journeys, ranging from M.F. Husain, Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi to Kabir, Bhupen Khakhar, Frida Kahlo and Nainsukh.

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For Sheikh, the question of how to encapsulate the experience of a lifetime in a single work seized him a couple of years ago, leading him to rummage through a “world of worlds" that he lived in. He borrowed the idiom of the boat from [18th century Pahari painter Nainsukh’s work, A Boat Adrift. “After a series of drawings, I focused my eye on the ‘Speaking Tree’ to make authors and activists ‘speak’. The vista in Nainsukh’s boat then turned into a kaarawaan," says 87-year-old Sheikh, who is showing a solo exhibition in Mumbai after 20 years. “Trees formed a forest, [philosopher] Ramanuja and disciples invited European elders to congregate, Kabir sat weaving, and gradually the arrival of artists brought the tilting boat to balance. A long process—marked by inclusion, erasures full of tension, toil and eventual exaltation—formed the scene as it is now."

'Dus Darwaze' (recto), 'Forest Fire' (verso), casein on canvas mounted on board (2019 – 2024)

Though Sheikh and his team started working on this canvas just after the covid-19 pandemic, the seed for it was sown much earlier. Once the deadly effects of the virus subsided and the world started to return to a certain sense of normalcy, his assistants came back, new ones joined in and they all embarked on a collective voyage to fill the boat. “It meant scouring an archive of images from the world of art to seek those who would join this journey. The oceanic waves took months of toil, as much to populate it with those who would float, swim and soar across," explains the Baroda-based artist.

There are certain recurring motifs in both the kaavad works and the large canvases. Key figures of St Francis, Mahatma Gandhi and Kabir make an appearance time and time again. Sheikh has always stressed on the fact, even in his past works, that by erasing aspects of their lives from our collective memory, we are condemning ourselves as a society. “Gandhi has to be re-stressed in our life: he stands against all the dark forces that we are surrounded by. Kabir too stands as a beacon of light. They both stand against a choking amnesia of history, freedom and larger humanity," he says.

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The human condition has always been at the heart of Sheikh’s practice. And he has found a unique vocabulary, which transcends both traditional artistic idiom and puritanical Modernist practice, to express his ideas. The gallery note mentions two paintings, Road II, and Speechless City (1975), which were done in response to the Vietnam War and the Emergency. They spoke volumes about the erasure of human freedom. “He achieved a definite breakthrough around 1980 in a small group of paintings he contributed to the exhibition Place for People(1981). In these paintings, he freely mixed memory images with visual elements drawn for his immediate environment and pictorial and spatial conventions drawn from Ajanta, Hamzanama, Trecento painters and Benodebehari. Besides achieving the artistic freedom he had long aspired for with these paintings, he also found a way of opening passages between the personal and the social, the present and the past, the near and the distant," states the note.

The kaavad works allow Sheikh to take his preoccupation with the human condition further. For instance, the cityscapes are layered with images of specific buildings and architecture. Nestled within these are scenes from the lives of craftspersons, the homeless, the labour, whose effort goes into making the city but are sadly relegated to the margins. The kaavad, titled ‘City Blues’ deals with the mindless construction of malls and monumental structures in the face of the marginalised being pushed further to the edges. “Labourers and their children, along with common folk, combat the structures being thrust upon them. The other kaavad, ‘Deluge, Water, Life’, was triggered by the news of devastating floods in Kashmir, especially Srinagar. I began to meditate upon Samudramanthan (Churning of the Ocean) while retracing images of floods with waters entering homes and hearth. This was followed by the retreat of waters, and then water turning into a source of life," Sheikh elaborates.

His association with the medium has only deepened over the years. “For instance, The Deluge…has fifty images on its doors. I must have done about a dozen kaavads, the largest being a life-sized one made in 2011, in which you can enter. The format affords an opportunity to depict the multiplicities of time and life experiences in a single work," he says.

Kaarawaan and Other Works can be viewed at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, between 5 April and 15 May, 10 am to 6 pm (closed on Sunday)