Over the past decade, Gulammohammed Sheikh has experimented simultaneously with new media and old forms of visual storytelling. In a deliberate extension of his career-long exploration of narrative, autobiography and place-making, Sheikh’s new works directly cite his earlier paintings and return to an archive of art historical references accumulated by the artist over decades. But they also articulate aspects of his thinking about temporality and cultural history in new, politically provocative ways. The shift in Sheikh’s work, or perhaps just the new sharpness with which he enunciates his vision of culture, can be traced to the changes in political discourse and social life in his home state of Gujarat since the devastating riots of 2002.

This decade marked the national ascendency of Narendra Modi, who led the Gujarat government during the deadly pogroms that for several months of 2002 targeted Muslim neighborhoods, businesses and politicians across the state, including where Sheikh lives in Baroda (Vadodara). Sheikh and his family were forced to flee during the riots, as other intellectuals marked as Muslim had their lives threatened and homes destroyed. The years after the riots saw the temporary closure and then near-desolation of the department of Art History in the Faculty of Fine arts at Maharaja Sayajirao University, of which Sheikh was a formative force for nearly three decades, in acts recently likened by Ajay Sinha to the Nazi-driven closure of the Bauhaus. 1 And then, as Kavita Singh has noted, it saw a rising chorus of apologists for such actions in the name of economic growth, as “Vibrant Gujarat” became vaunted as the site for the triumphant unfolding of India’s historical potential. 2

In this context, Sheikh’s longstanding set of preoccupations with the histories of art and modernity, and their interpenetration with processes of secularization and identity formation, took on new urgency and new political meanings. But while his works can and should be read as political speech, they confine themselves to the expressive register and social space of art. They do so without apology and with some contempt for the hard terms of prevailing political discourse. Indeed, by their very complexity and referential character, Sheikh’s works demand more time and more erudition than are usually afforded either political discourse or contemporary art by their audiences. Among his recent works, perhaps the most uncompromisingly subtle, and also the most compelling for analysis is his large-scale installation Kaavad: Travelling Shrine: Home (2007).

Figure 1: Kaavad: Travelling Shrine: Home, 2008, panels 15-22.

Figure 1: Kaavad: Travelling Shrine: Home, 2008, panels 15-22. Visible from left, Sadhus, Sufis and Saints, acrylic and oil on board, two 8’ x 4’ panels, Gandhiji, acrylic and oil on board, 8’ x 3’, Seeker, acrylic and oil on board, 8’ x 3’, and Seekers and Skeptics, acrylic and oil on board, 8’ x 4’. (Artwork copyright Gulammohammed Sheikh, image courtesy of the artist.)

Like a series of smaller works made after 2004, Kaavad, Home, adopts the form of the wooden shrine, what is usually a portable, hand-held object with panels that can be moved to uncover an image of a deity. This version is eight feet tall constructed from panels that are a mixture of digital prints and paintings amongst which the viewer can ambulate. The work is absorbing, rewarding viewers with masses of detail and broad historical reference. Some paintings are based on Sheikh’s autobiographical works from the 1970s and 1980s, exuberant, worldly investigations into the role that religiosity plays in experience. But most depend upon an archive of images and historical figures that exemplify premodern and presecular modes of representation and being in the world.  One quarter of the work presents an imagined sangat (assembly) of “seekers and skeptics” (figure 1). This is an allusion to Benodebehari Mukherjee’s canonical Medieval Hindi Saints (1946-47), which imagined a gathering of the great historical figures of bhakti (devotional) tradition. Yet Sheikh’s invocation of the assembly departs significantly from the optimistic cultural nationalism of that earlier work.

Much of the work of Kaavad, Home was made possible by Sheikh’s enthusiastic embrace of digital media, including both digital photography and collage. With these techniques, he renews the formal rigor of his critique of representational painting, which he developed beginning in 1969. His works in the 1970s and 1980s, made before the advent of digital technology, experimented with modes of representation adapted from pre-Renaissance European, Mughal and Persian painting. They included “quotations,” to use his term, from reproductions of works from those periods, copied in oil paint in his own hand.  The painted panels of Kaavad, Home use that technique, although Sheikh’s critique of authorship is extended significantly by his collaboration with multiple painting assistants.  Other panels make use of Photoshop, in collages created directly from reproductions of historical works. In these digital ink jet prints, Sheikh sutures painting to photography in imaginative ways.

This paper focuses on these two aspects of Sheikh’s work—its critique of secularization and its use of digital media—in order to argue that Kaavad, Home provides a crucial opening from which to observe how the artist’s longstanding engagement with the history of representation is based upon a sophisticated critique of historicist temporality. This becomes clear when Sheikh’s Kaavad, Home is considered as a form of utopian discourse.  In its carefully assembled archive of historical precedents, the work constructs a counterfactual world history in which the secular is absent. Presenting the past as a profound resource and space of play, it asks us to reimagine temporality in the absence of the certainties of a progressive historicity now contaminated by the betrayals of India’s present. Through its critical use of known artistic forms and authoritative historical precedents, Sheikh’s work imagines alternative futures for the past and, therefore, provides a utopian alternative to the present.

 

Methods of Viewing Sheikh’s Kaavad, Home

In the catalog for Kaavad: Travelling Shrine: Home, Gulammohammed Sheikh describes the sort of viewing required for his work by telling an autobiographical fable. He reminds the reader that in the early 1960s, when he began to establish himself as an artist, “the visual image was supreme.” 3 The experience of viewing art was supposed to be a matter of visual sensation; the goal was to look “at art with wide open eyes and bec[o]me ecstatic.” A founding member of Group 1890, a short-term but seminal collective dominated by the charismatic artist J. Swaminathan, Sheikh was in the early 1960s a proponent of what began to be called the “numinous image,” an image of intrinsic power. Content, and the alternative viewing strategies it demanded, was considered “external,” he recalls, “and a kind of burden.”

When Sheikh traveled to England to study at the Royal College of Art, he was already teaching the history of art—both a Western art survey and more specialized courses in Indian painting—at the Faculty of Fine Arts, where he had trained in painting. An unusually mature student, he was perhaps more independent than most at the Royal College, spending his time in museums rather than developing close relationships to teachers. He returned to India in 1967, traveling overland through Italy, Iran and Afghanistan, seeing a great deal of art, both in museums and at historical sites. When telling this part of the story, he sometimes focuses on the paintings he saw in Italy, but in the catalog interview he skips to his next visit to the frescoes of Ajanta. 4 Art historical knowledge enhanced his experience of viewing these historical works, he argues, rather than distracting from “the visual magic.”

He recounts that the first painting he made in response to this shift in his approach to content is Returning Home from a Long Absence (figure 2, 1969-73). 5 In the center of the painting is a dargah (Sufi shrine), surrounded by a dense, walled-in neighborhood.  Above and below the townscape are quotations from other images: one, the depiction of the Prophet Mohammad on Buraq, taken from a Persian painting, and the other, a photograph of Sheikh’s mother. Angels, taken from a Mughal painting, float out of the dargah’s back door and up towards the Prophet. When compared to his later works, this is a fairly simple composition, comprehensible as a single image. But because the quotations retain many markers of their original styles, the painting also privileges the kind of context, whether art historical or biographical, that Sheikh had previously dismissed as burdensome.

Figure 2: Returning Home After a Long Absence, 1969-1973.

Figure 2: Returning Home After a Long Absence, 1969-1973, 48 x 48 in, oil on canvas, coll. Ram and Bharati Sharma, New Delhi. (Artwork copyright Gulammohammed Sheikh, image courtesy of the artist.)

Figure 3: Kaavad: Travelling Shrine: Home, 2008, panels 23, 28, 3, and 6.

Figure 3: Kaavad: Travelling Shrine: Home, 2008, panels 23, 28, 3, and 6. Visible from left, Bird of the Inner Eye, acrylic on board, 8’ x 4’, Majnun in Dwarka, acrylic on board, 8’ x 4’, Speaking Street, acrylic on board, 8’ x 3’, and Returning Home, acrylic on board, 8’ x 3’. (Artwork copyright Gulammohammed Sheikh, image courtesy of the artist.)

This painting is the earliest work Sheikh typically included in discussions of his artistic development. A slice of its center is reproduced as one of the panels of Kaavad, Home. Together with a section of Speaking Street (1981), an early exploration of narrative, it forms one outside wall of the shrine when it is closed (figure 3).  Both of these early paintings are visually stunning, either in their original form or as represented as part of Kaavad, Home. But they also encourage a referential form of viewing in which the visual experience of the painting is accompanied by the impulse to decode. Sheikh’s works reward attempts to pull his compositions apart and consider the meaning of each element. To those familiar with Sheikh’s work, these two panels refer viewers primarily to their own memories of seeing the oils painted decades before, either in their original form or in reproduction. Overall, the experience of viewing approximates “reading,” calling upon language as well as visual sensation.

In Kaavad, Home, this referential form of viewing is put into motion, as it were. Walking between panels, the viewer constructs an idiosyncratic order for images, depending upon the point of entry. Images take on new meanings as parts of series, when a painting like Whose World?, which presents a Mercator map projection with highlights on the outline of the global south, is viewed alongside the mixture of digital technology and self-citation of Niharika from Google Earth (figure 4). The latter painting reconfigures Sheikh’s past representations of his home, called Niharika, and workplace in the Faculty of Fine Arts, and places those images on top of a painted facsimile of the satellite photograph of his neighborhood.

Figure 4: Niharika from Google Earth.

Figure 4: Niharika from Google Earth, acrylic on board, two 8’ x 4’ panels. (Artwork copyright Gulammohammed Sheikh, image courtesy of the artist.)

Figure 5: Kaavad: Travelling Shrine: Home, 2008, panels 9-14.

Figure 5: Kaavad: Travelling Shrine: Home, 2008, panels 9-14. Visible from left, Mute City, acrylic and gouache on board, two 8’ x 4’ panels, Mappamundi: Fortress, acrylic on board, two 8’ x 4’ panels, Walled City: Return of the Ghosts, acrylic and gouache on board, two 8’ x 4’ panels. (Artwork copyright Gulammohammed Sheikh, image courtesy of the artist.)

If the viewer continues walking around the shrine in either direction, then she is presented with pre-modern maps. The central panels of the open cube are based on the 13th century Ebstorf mappamundi, in which the world is encompassed by—and therefore also oriented by—the body of Christ. One version of that image, surrounded by an angel-filled sky, is flanked by two paintings based on Indic-style maps (figure 5). Those images use multiple-point perspective to represent the experience of walking in a walled city, rather than the birds-eye view of the Ebstorf map. On either side of the second mappamundi, whose circular form is this time surrounded by stylized clouds, are figures from various religious and literary traditions. Those include the Taoist immortal Shoriken, the Prophet Elias (Elijah) and the love-struck epic hero Majnun, who is shown in exile from Dwarka, an important pilgrimage site for devotees of Krishna.

Kaavad, Homes orientation toward the body, in its scale and as it engages with the viewer’s movement, works in tandem with its invitation to decode. This is crucial to the effect of the last set of external panels, which is the work’s first invocation of the form of the sangat (figures 1, 6). A set of lushly painted life-size figures sit facing the entrance to the center of the shrine. The quoted images retain the palette and much of the style of their originals, subtly marking how the gathering requires a movement across art historical contexts. Many of the figures are immediately recognizable as representatives of ascetic sects, their nakedness and poverty marking them as renunciants and seekers. Among the most familiar of the figures is Mohandas K. Gandhi, although the image Sheikh uses, by the painter Abanindranath Tagore, is less familiar than most. Another figure of symbolic weight is the sweeper, whose image is quoted from a 17th c. Mughal painting, but whose work and social position, Sheikh claims, have remained basically the same. 6

Figure 6: Kaavad: Travelling Shrine: Home, 2008, panels 15-22.

Figure 6: Kaavad: Travelling Shrine: Home, 2008, panels 15-22. Visible from left, Sadhus, Sufis and Saints, acrylic and oil on board, two 8’ x 4’ panels, Disciple of Kabir, acrylic and oil on board, 8’ x 3’, Sweeper, acrylic and oil on board, 8’ x 3’, and Seekers and Skeptics, acrylic and oil on board, 8’ x 4’. (Artwork copyright Gulammohammed Sheikh, image courtesy of the artist.)

Gandhi and the sweeper are pictured on the inner sides of the gateway. Just as in Sheikh’s monumental work addressing communal violence, City for Sale (1981-84), the life-sized scale of the painted figures forces the viewer to imagine herself as part of the group and to measure her complicity in the social body they imply. Whereas the earlier painting deliberately refers to an existing political community, the city of Baroda (Vadodara), the Kaavad, Home sangat can only be imagined. Its figures are collected from across hundreds of years and dispersed geographical regions. And the painting leaves open the question of what kind of community might be constituted by their assembly.

The shrine itself is empty. In place of a divine image is space, with three digital collages forming the walls and ceiling around it. Each digitally assembled image uses a pre-modern representational strategy: the speaking tree, the ark as a site of assembly (figure 7) and a map-like form. Each of these images has a resonant counterpart in at least one of the painted external panels of Kaavad, Home. These digital works also promote a decoding impulse in viewers. Indeed, when compared to the paintings, they provide more information to the viewer about their sources. The quotations Sheikh takes from reproductions printed in art historical studies or sold as postcards are placed in entirely new representational contexts, but they retain details that are lost when they are repainted. For instance, the cracks in the surface of a fresco by Fra Angelico remain in the quotation of Christ’s mourners that appears at the base of Sheikh’s Speaking Tree. Such referential details are also, if differently, crucial to the effect of the photographed cityscapes that ring the ceiling of the inner chamber, on a print dominated by a beautiful, angel-filled sky.

Figure 7: Ark.

Figure 7: Ark, inkjet on 300 gsm Waterford paper fixed on board, two 8’ x 4’ panels. (Artwork copyright Gulammohammed Sheikh, image courtesy of the artist.)

Sheikh describes Kaavad, Home as “basically a three-dimensional painting.” In addition to the mobile habits of viewing that Sheikh has cultivated in his viewers for decades—a familiarity with narrative strategies based in multiple entry-points and complex compositions—the work also elicits habits of viewing more familiar to installation. Scaled to the human body, Kaavad, Home encourages a kind of self-consciousness about the bodily nature of art viewing. But unlike almost all installation art, Kaavad, Home is committed to the image and to thinking through the politics of representation and its relationship to the production of meaning. In that respect, it is a direct outgrowth of Sheikh’s longstanding set of concerns with the history of painting and the capacity of painting to spur historical thinking.

Secularization, Art History and Uchronia

Gulammohammed Sheikh taught the history of art at the Faculty of Fine Arts for two decades before taking up the position of Professor of Painting in the same institution in 1983, replacing his mentor K. G. Subramanyan. As he made that transition, Sheikh published two art historical essays in the just-founded Journal of Arts and Ideas. These writings, both clearly based in slide lectures, articulate the relationship between his critical approach to art history and his practice as a painter. Sheikh marshals art historical resources to argue against post-Renaissance modes of viewing and in favor of what he calls “mobile vision,” which is the embodied mode of apprehending a painting encouraged by Kaavad, Home. He also connects these modes of viewing to different ideas about artistic subjectivity.

Sheikh begins by critiquing the Renaissance innovation of single-point perspective and the emergence of a scientific approach to nature. 7 Writing about Velasquez’s Las Meninas, Sheikh connects single-point perspective to the particular form of artistic subjectivity associated with representational painting. 8 He writes, “the shadow of the artist hovered over every illusionistic picture like a ghost,” over-determining the meaning of the painting and foreclosing the creative and critical engagement of the viewer. 9 By contrast, pre-Renaissance European paintings and Persian and Mughal paintings encourage the eye to travel through pictorial space, allowing the viewer room for interpretation. Both articles describe aspects of “mobile vision” by reading examples of non-post-Renaissance art and then likening them to work closer to the experience of Sheikh’s Indian audience: in one, he discusses Benodebehari Mukherjee’s Medieval Hindi Saints, and in the other, he turns to Pithoro painting, a “primitive” wall-painting practice connected to rituals of spirit possession. These cases, a modernist take on the “medieval” period and a “primitive” pictorial practice documented by his artist colleague Jyoti Bhatt, serve as examples of a different subjective relationship to art, one that rejects the emphasis on rationality found in post-Renaissance painting. 10

In the intervening decades between these statements and Kaavad, Home, Sheikh’s critique of post-Renaissance art changes focus away from the emergence of modern artistic subjectivity and toward the development of a secular category of art. This shift is smaller than it might seem. The reading of post-Renaissance art history Sheikh adopts hinges upon the emergence of anthropocentrism, and links the development of particular conventions of vision and representation to a newly secular world order. As John Berger writes, paraphrasing Erwin Panofsky’s own adaptation of Martin Heidegger’s “Age of the World Picture,”

The convention of perspective, which is unique to European art and which was first established in the early Renaissance, centers everything on the eye of the beholder. It is like a beam from a lighthouse – only instead of light travelling outwards, appearances travel in. The conventions called those appearances reality. Perspective makes the single eye the center of the visible world. Everything converges on to the eye as to the vanishing point of infinity. The visible world is arranged for the spectator as the universe was once thought to be arranged for God.

This passage is from Berger’s influential critical introduction to art history, Ways of Seeing, which Sheikh cites in his 1983 articles. In the 1980s the non-secularity of Sheikh’s historical alternatives to post-Renaissance art may not have been the prime objective of his argument. But the archive he assembled proved to be a crucial resource as he later crafted his secular critique of the historical process of secularization.

Sheikh’s art historical writings should be read alongside his artist statements from around that time, which describe his investment in the idea of visual autobiography. As he said in an interview with fellow painter Gieve Patel, he was on a “journey from art to life,” rather than the opposite. “By painting,” he said in 1985, “[I] learned how to look at life through art, [so I] know that art was used as a catalyst to create concepts for living.” 11 Central to that project, he consistently claimed, was the need to come to terms with anachronism. In his best known statement of this problem, he writes, “Living in India means living simultaneously in several times and cultures. One often walks into ‘medieval’ situations and runs into ‘primitive’ people. The past exists as a living entity alongside the present, each illuminating and sustaining the other.” 12 The question for him in the 1970s and 1980s was how to develop modes of representation that could at once capture this experience of anachronism and critique the historical processes that produced it. In the period that followed, as he endured the ever-increasing communalization of social life, the question became quite different. In the catalog for Kaavad, Home he describes it as how “to retrieve the sense of the spiritual from organized religious practice and to transpose it to the realm of the secular.” 13

In thinking through the category of “the spiritual,” Sheikh has worked primarily with the figure of Kabir (1440-1518), the so-called “weaver saint” whose anti-dogmatic poetry emphasizes the direct experience of the divine. Discussing Kabir’s appeal, Sheikh quotes, “tera sain tujh mein hai, jag sake to jag [or] your preceptor is within you[,] awake to see him.” 14 The “non-sectarian” form of the sacred that Kabir’s poetry offers is an attractive rejoinder to a public discourse in which religion appears largely in its dogmatic forms. Those dogmatic forms of religion, Sheikh argues, are a product of the processes of secularization that hardened the borders of religious communities and the boundaries of religious thought. Kabir’s poetry, by contrast, allows Sheikh to articulate the proximity of aesthetic and religious experience, the sense of “ecstatic empathy,” to adopt his startling phrase, at the core of both. 15

In groups of gouaches on paper that he showed in Delhi in 1998, and in large-format oils shown in 2001, Sheikh developed many of the images that he used in Kaavad, Home. Two of the most important of these are directly related to Kabir’s thought and to the intellectual tradition that surrounds him as a thinker. The first is appropriation. As is true for all of the major bhakti poets, ever since Kabir’s poems began to be repeated and sung, in the 15th century, contemporary poets would join their poems to his tradition simply by inserting the phrase, kahat Kabir (Kabir says). Sheikh’s invocations of the weaver saint similarly extend the tradition of thought that carries Kabir’s name.

The second crucial move Sheikh made in these works is to begin to bring together sets of figures, in a move that eventually turned into the sangat in Kaavad, Home. In 2001, he painted Across Divides, a large triptych that imagines a gathering of wanderers from across religious traditions—the same set whose figures appear in the later work. “I like to bring them together in dialogue,” he said, noting that even if it is not known if Kabir and Mirabai, another important bhakti saint, knew each other,

in our lives we do connect them. We have construed our own history. This is the history that we have to excavate from the debris that has crushed us all: the form of history that separates things, makes us choose, one or the other. 16

Sheikh imagines this dialogue as a jugalbandi, which in Hindustani classical music is a performance in which two soloists of equal standing play a duet.

This passage allows us to consider how the sangat, as a form, might be understood as an exercise in utopian thinking. It is instructive to compare these panels of Kaavad, Home to their most important precedent, Medieval Hindi Saints. Sheikh wrote about the mural as part of his work co-curating Mukherjee’s retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. He worked on that project between 2004 and 2007, just when he began to experiment with the form of the portable shrine. Mukherjee’s massive fresco, which is probably his best-known work, was made in the foyer of Hindi Bhavan at Vishvabharati University in Santiniketan just before Indian Independence and Partition, from 1946 to 1947. Sheikh reads the work as a “visionary dream of a historic India on which to project its future,” in which major figures of the bhakti tradition are gathered together amongst followers pursuing everyday tasks.

The saints are shown without the identifying marks used in popular visual culture, in which symbols fix the identities of individual figures. Mukherjee’s mural, Sheikh writes, “project[s] the saints as silent revolutionaries rising from within the populace and introducing them as harbingers of change.” These figures address the “emergent, modern citizenry of an independent nation. The spiritual thus gets vested in the ‘secular’ cultural practices of arts and literature.” 17 Sheikh highlights how the saints’ followers make up the landscape—the assembled figures fill the nation-space, both metaphorically, as the body politic, and literally, as their bodies make up the land itself. Only Varanasi, the holy city associated with the saint Tulsidas, is represented by its characteristic architecture.

Like Mukherjee’s mural, Sheikh’s sangat imagines dialogues between saints and mystics. Sheikh uses the same terms—a placement of the spiritual within the secular field of art—to describe Mukherjee’s work as he did for his own. But unlike Medieval Hindi Saints, the figures to which Sheikh refers come from across the world, across belief systems and across a huge expanse of pre-modern time. Further, their assembly does not constitute a landscape nor does it occur in any particular nation-space. Indeed, Sheikh’s use of the sangat form does not seem to be prompted here by the imagination of an alternative space. What is at stake instead is the construction of an alternative time, another kind of “visionary dream … on which to project [a] future.” In other words, it resembles what Reinhart Koselleck calls uchronia.

In his essay on “The Temporalization of Utopia,” Koselleck writes about the late-18th century emergence of a new form of utopian writing that takes place in the future. 18 He attributes this first to the newly complete geographical knowledge—the emergence of a historical moment in which all of “the utopian spaces had been surpassed by experience”—and second to secularization, which he describes as the loss of an imaginative investment in “the divine world beyond.” During the so-called Age of Enlightenment, he notes, the future became the most rewarding site of exploration, in texts like the 1770 novel The Year 2440 by French author Louis-Sébastien Mercier. By the 1918 moment in which constitutional law expert Carl Schmitt wrote Die Buribunken, the second utopian text Koselleck discusses, such faith in progress remained, but had become ripe for satire.

The first book is what Koselleck calls a “naïve utopia of the future,” in which the author imagines a world in which all citizens are writers, whose writings are a testament to the collective moral perfectibility that provides continuity to secular history. The second, a “negative utopia,” is the inverse of the first. Schmitt’s text is a parody of the belief in progress as well as the idea that human beings could “execute and master history.” 19 The apparent reversal of Mercier by Schmitt is only made possible by the ideas about temporality and history that are shared by both texts. Koselleck argues that the future is available to both utopian thinkers as a result of Enlightenment-derived understandings of history, in which human mastery and historical continuity are emphasized even as the understanding of human nature is newly seen as historically contingent rather than God-given.

For Sheikh, however, the progressive historicity that underlies such utopias of the future is untenable. It is first belied by the multiplicity of his experience of historical time, which he first expressed in his 1980s artist statements. But further, the future had been rendered pernicious by the results of the faith in progress that characterized India’s early post-colonial state. Sheikh expresses a sense of betrayal by the outcome of Nehruvian dreams of a secular, socialist and industrialized India. Just as post-Enlightenment thinkers could no longer look to unexplored spaces on the earth, Sheikh cannot look to the future as unoccupied territory. The past provides more fertile ground for thinking through alternatives to the present. As he writes, the premodern context from which he assembles his set of seekers and skeptics is a deep reservoir of historical possibility, which he imagines as an era when “there was no one religion, or one system or one belief or one idea, but multiple systems, multiple beliefs, multiple religions, and multiple ideas.” 20

In his 1980s artists statements, Sheikh used the term multiplicity to describe the temporality of his present moment. But in the intervening years, that sense of an everyday anachronism, and the flexibility it both demanded and made possible, seems to have eroded. Now, Sheikh can only find multiplicity in a constructed past. His uchronia is built out of imaginative acts of equivalence-making, whose ground is an archaic past defined negatively as non-modern.  Sheikh finds figures from various times and places for whom the absence of secularity allows for a fluid approach to the ethical life. That fluidity is, again, negatively defined, recognizable by its incommensurability with a contemporary moment in which both religious practice and democratic politics are built upon appeals to bounded identities.

The only modern figure allowed in the assembly, Gandhi, represents a critique of such ideas about identity. The fierce debate about the ultimate relationship of Gandhi’s political practices to democracy shows how uneasily his techniques of political engagement sit alongside the forms of citizenship that have been put into practice by the Indian state. His invocation of Gandhi, and particularly of Abanindranath Tagore’s portrait of him, is similar to his reference to Mukherjee’s Medieval Hindi Saints. Both gestures allow Sheikh to assert the connections between his work and an authoritative genealogy of Indian modernism in which questions of indigeneity, aesthetics and the relationship between religion and political identity are central.

But the multi-civilizational, multi-religious assembly that Sheikh imagines, as well as its temporal separation from the present, contrasts sharply with the largely Hindu, continuous civilizational imagination at the heart of the earlier artists’ aesthetic nationalism. 21 Just as a utopia of the future has become foreclosed after the disintegration of state-led high modernism, the distinctly national cultural past that was so ripe for the imaginative thinking of Indian modernists in the first half of the 20th century is no longer as available to Sheikh at the beginning of the twenty-first. The fluidity of bhakti tradition, which appeared to Mukherjee as a resource for the Indian nation, has solidified as a byproduct of historical process of religious identity formation that are themselves the signal result of the evolving relationship between religion and politics in India. In response, and as critique, Sheikh imagines a past in which such processes have not yet begun, and recasts that past as a resource for thinking through a future in which the fluidity of identity and practice can be acknowledged and championed.

Digital Collage and Utopian Space

The painted version of Sheikh’s sangat, which should be considered an uchronia of the past, is devoid of markers of place. But the digital print Ark, hung in the center of Kaavad, Home, places that assembly within recognizable geographical spaces of Gujarat.  Ark may be the most densely referential of all of the images included in Kaavad, Home, beginning with the titular boat, which is based on a ca. 1765-75 painting by Nainsukh (1705-1778). A digital image of the hull of Nainsukh’s boat floats in the tempestuous body of water of Sheikh’s design that provides the ground for Ark.  Inside the boat is a calm lake ringed by the modern architecture of a typical Indian city, which Sheikh identifies as Baroda. Images of Kabir and Gandhi sit on either end of the boat, overlooking the group of saints and skeptics whose smaller figures have been placed facing one another in the middle of the gray-blue water of the lake. Images of the Mughal sweeper figure and modern artist Bhupen Khakhar (1934-2003), shown painting at his easel, are also in the lake, though they stand off to either side. Finally, above this scene floats a narrow ellipse-shaped collage of photographs of over-built urban landscape, which Sheikh writes is his hometown of Surendranagar.

The richest among these references is the drawing by Nainsukh, which was published in B. N. Goswamy’s landmark volume on the painter. 22 Goswamy describes the drawing as an illustration of a folk tale in which a ruler consults a holy man for the recipe for an aphrodisiacal potion even as his city is in peril. The boat careens in the current, weighed down by people, for the city’s entire population and army accompanies the man. Massive numbers, including elephants, horses and even a mountain, are contained by the boat.  In the distance is a great fire; perhaps they are fleeing disaster. These actions are witnessed by two nobles sitting on the bow and stern; one is likely a portrait of Nainsukh’s patron, Balwant Singh. Reading the texts, which remained undeciphered by previous commentators, Goswamy reports that these men are musing on the misplaced priorities of the central figure. Goswamy argues that Nainsukh refers here to a genre of folk tales that warn against destruction and folly, although the specific target of his allegory is unknown.

It is intriguing that Sheikh decided to replace the interior of the boat, a peopled landscape that constitutes a kingdom, with Baroda’s Sursagar, a large lake or talav (tank/reservoir) in the middle of the city. The lake was fortified with stone walls in the 18th century, making it suitable for ritual, practical and leisure purposes, and it is now in the center of the city, ringed by residences and small temples. In 2002, just after the quelling of devastating “riots” that included the targeting of Muslim politicians and public figures, a 111-foot statue of the Hindu god Shiva was erected in the middle of the pond. 23 Sponsored by the Vadodara Municipal Corporation and in the works since 1995, the statue was championed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Its rituals were managed, up until recently, by the MLA for the adjacent Raopura legislative district, Yogesh Patel. 24

Art historian Kajri Jain has documented the building of several such Shiva statues across India, among other similar “big statues” of deities, and explored their potent efficacy as a visual practice. She finds that very few such statues are placed in the middle of Indian cities, as with the Sursagar Shiva. It is much more common for “big statues” to be placed on the outskirts, serving as new roadside attractions made possible by the increase in automotive travel. 25 But the Sursagar Shiva is typical insofar as it is spectacularly large, dwarfing every surrounding building by several stories. It has become a new sort of monument in a city dominated by less overtly religious spaces of leisure and tourism, including the large park and palace associated with the rulers of the erstwhile princely state and the highly contested and politicized space of the university. 26

While such statues have their own particular effects, they should also be seen alongside other acts of resignification common to Indian cities, including the destruction and/or discovery of religious sites and practices of renaming. 27 Thomas Blom Hansen has written extensively about these signifying practices as undertaken by the Shiv Sena in Bombay/Mumbai, including the renaming of the city itself. 28 Using the category of utopia, he recently described how similar fights over the spaces of the Maharashtrian city of Aurangabad have gone beyond the symbolic practices and discourses of history familiar from the Mumbai case to include the present-day implementation of a 1970 master plan that disproportionately targets Muslim areas of the city for demolition and rebuilding. 29

In the wider context of these spatial practices, Sheikh’s placement of the sangat inside the Baroda Sursagar is deeply meaningful. It transforms his uchronian vision of a past untrammeled by the solidified, politicized form religiosity that motivates projects like the monumental Shiva into a properly spatial utopian imagination, an alternative past and future for Sheikh’s home city. The photographs he uses of the lake’s relatively humble skyline are dotted structures built across various periods since the 18th century, including several temples. Inside the lake, he places the sangat figures at a careful approximation of human scale.  The photographic images, including those from reproductions of paintings, allow him to construct a recognizable place within the allegorical picture form that he borrows from Nainsukh. This technique allows him to imagine an alternative to a present-day Baroda dominated by Hindu majoritarian politics. In its place, Sheikh imagines a space of religious multiplicity, seeking and skepticism.

One final point of interest about this version of the sangat is the inclusion of Sheikh’s close friend and fellow artist Bhupen Khakhar. Khakhar, who passed away in 2003, was one of the most inventive and iconoclastic of India’s contemporary artists. As I have written about elsewhere, he inspired extraordinary levels of devotion in the Indian art world. 30 Even when he was alive, and certainly after his death, he held the status of artist-as-truth-teller, a secular and contemporary combination of the seeker and skeptic figures that Sheikh finds in pre-secular world history. 31 As Sheikh notes in the catalog, Khakhar had long been interested in devotional cults and their visual cultures. He tells how, when Khakhar fell in love with a Radhaswami follower, he attended the group’s satsangs, but, as Sheikh writes, “I do not know how much he remained in and how much he watched from outside.” 32 Khakhar must have needed some distance to paint such practices, Sheikh suggests, and at times his paintings included in-jokes that marked the artist’s ironic distance. But Khakhar’s attitude toward Hindu devotional practices was fluid and ambivalent, exhibiting just the kind of flexibility that Sheikh sees lacking in an age of religious dogmatism.

Complexity and Art as Political Speech

Sheikh’s work quite earnestly champions the civilizational flexibility that is demonstrated by Khakhar through irony and humor. The strategies both artists adopted are appropriate to a political context in which invocations of the religious past are very likely to be considered provocative. The risks faced by Sheikh are no doubt more acute because of his Muslim name, as well as his invocations of India’s Muslim past. Both have made him a perennial target for hardline Hindutva activists emboldened by the success of their attacks against the artist M. F. Husain for his modernist takes on the Hindu goddess and, earlier, on the secularist arts organization Sahmat. 33 Sheikh has asserted his continued right to referentiality very simply, by continuing to make references to past forms of art central to his practice.

In doing so, Sheikh’s work knowingly extends India’s tradition of political speech within modernism, in which references to a carefully selected archive of premodern/precolonial Indian art were central to the production of a sense of a political, as well as artistic future. Indeed, even as Sheikh claims the strategies and images of Abanindranath Tagore and Benodebehari Mukherjee as his own, he also implicitly critiques the limits of their archive. In place of a national premodern, Sheikh offers a fascinatingly global sense of an art historical and cultural past, an image archive unified more by habits of thought—seeking, skepticism—than by ideas of citizenship. Sheikh began to compile his archive of references back in the mid-1960s, but he has deepened and extended it in the decades since. In so doing, he adds a significant critique of Indian modernism to the critique of art historical modernity, which he, like Abanindranath and Benodebehari, plants firmly in the West.

This critique is a product of Sheikh’s lifetime of learning, based mainly in art historical and cultural research. Kaavad, Home exhibits the sort of voracious appetite for knowledge that becomes the core of a person’s character. Sheikh held up such learning as a value during the crisis following the attack by Hindutva activists on the Faculty of Fine Arts in 2007, the same year he made Kaavad, Home. At the time, a Vishwa Hindu Parishad activist drew support from local Christian leaders to accuse a young art student of offenses to religious sentiments. In the days following the attack, Sheikh argued that what is at stake in such events is nothing less than the role that culture—meaning, in his terms, the so-called “high” culture of art, literature, etc.—might play in human life. 34 To him, the Hindutva attack was characterized by the kind of bad faith that would be basically impossible to sustain in a public based in a richer sense of selfhood. In the idea of the self that Sheikh grounds in the premodern past, subjectivities are complex and the boundaries of identities are fuzzy.

Sheikh’s vision of cultural multiplicity contains a reconfirmed commitment to complexity, defined in art historical, cultural, religious and temporal terms. In his work, complexity has an absolute aesthetic value, but I would like to suggest that complexity can also be seen as Sheikh’s principal political strategy. Or, perhaps it is clearer to say that complexity is the strategic mode by which Sheikh questions the discursive basis for political speech. For Sheikh’s main claim is that the cultural flexibility found in a presecular historical moment can provide a counterpoint to the fixed identities mobilized by modern politics.

CSSAAME Banner dotted line

Author Bio

Karin Zitzewitz is Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Culture at Michigan State University. Her book, The Art of Secularism: The Cultural Politics of Modernist Art in Contemporary India was published by Hurst & Co Publishers (UK) and Oxford University Press (US/India) in 2014. Based on extensive fieldwork in Mumbai, Vadodara (Gujarat), and New Delhi, the book tracks the changes wrought by the rise of Hindu nationalism on the practices of four modernist artists and on the character of art world spaces. The manuscript was awarded the Edward C. Dimock Prize in the Humanities from the American Institute for Indian Studies. It was named a 2014 New Republic book of the year. For more from the author, visit her website.

Citation

Zitzewitz, Karin. “Past Futures of Old Media: Gulammohammed Sheikh’s Kaavad: Traveling Shrine: Home.” CSSAAME Borderlines, 11 March 2016. http://cssaamejournal.org/borderlines/past-futures-of-old-media/

Bilbliography

Asad, Talal, et al. Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

Bordewekar, Sandhya. “‘The art community must act now—before it is too late’ (Interview with Gulammohammed Sheikh),” Art News Magazine of India, 12:3 (Autumn 2007): 69-70.

Foucault, Michel. “Le courage de la vérité:  l’ascète, le révolutionnaire, et l’artiste,” Esprit, 12 (2008): 51–60.

Gopal, Sarvepalli, ed. Anatomy of a Confrontation: The Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhumi Issue. Delhi: Viking, 1991.

Goswamy, B. N. Nainsukh of Guler: A Great Indian Painter from a Small Hill State. New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2011 [1997].

Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. Monuments, Objects, Histories: Institutions of Art in Colonial and Post-Colonial India. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

Hansen, Thomas Blom. “The City as Utopian Space,” paper delivered at the 42nd Annual Conference on South Asia, University of Wisconsin, Madison. 20 October, 2013.

Hansen, Thomas Blom. Urban Violence in India:  Identity Politics, ‘Mumbai,’ and the Postcolonial City. New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2001.

Heidegger, Martin. “The Age of the World Picture,” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (New York: Harper, 1977), 115-154.

Human Rights Watch. “’We have no orders to save you’:  State participation and complicity in communal violence in Gujarat,” April 2002, published on-line at http://www.hrw.org/legacy/reports/2002/india/, accessed 26 June 2009

Jain, Kajri. “Sacred Exhibition Value and Territorial Spectacle: Post-Reform India’s Automotive-Iconic-Cement Assemblages,” paper delivered at the South Asia Center, Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington. Thursday November 15, 2012.

Koselleck, Reinhart. “The Temporalization of Utopia,” in The Practice of Conceptual History:  Timing History, Spacing Concepts (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2002), 84-99.

Moss, Jessica and Ram Rahman, eds. The Sahmat Collective:  Art and Activism in India Since 1989. Chicago:  Smart Art Museum/University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Panofsky, Erwin, Perspective as Symbolic Form. London:  Zone Books, 1996.

Patel, Gieve, “My Journey has been from Art to Life,” Express Magazine (Sept. 8, 1985).  Baroda Archives, Scrapbook 1973-1989.

People’s Union for Democratic Rights report, “‘Maaro! Kaapo! Baalo!’:  State, Society, and Communalism in Gujarat,”, Delhi, May 2002, published on-line at http://www.pudr.org/index.php?option=com_docman&task=cat_view&gid=58&Itemid=63, accessed 26 June 2009.

Ramaswamy, Sumathi, ed. Barefoot Across the Nation: M. F. Husain and the Idea of India. London: Routledge, 2010.

Sheikh, Gulammohammed. Artist statement in Place For People (Jehangir Art Gallery, Bombay, 9-15 November, 1981 and Rabindra Bhavan, New Delhi, 21 November-3 December, 1981).  Collection of Vivan Sundaram.

Sheikh, Gulammohammed. Kaavad: Travelling Shrine: Home. New Delhi:  Vadehra Art Gallery, 2008.

Sheikh, Gulammohammed. “Mobile Vision:  Some Synoptic Comments,” Journal of Arts and Ideas, 4 (October-December 1983): 43-52.

Sheikh, Gulammohammed. “Ruminating on ‘Life of the Medieval Saints’ by Benodebehari Mukherjee,” in Benodebehari Mukherjee (1904-1980) Centenary Retrospective (New Delhi: Vadehra Art Gallery and National Gallery of Modern Art, 2007), 37.

Sheikh, Gulammohammed. “Viewer’s View:  Looking at Pictures,” Journal of Arts and Ideas, 3 (April-June 1983): 5.

Sheikh, Gulammohammed in conversation with Kavita Singh, in Gulammohammed Sheikh: Palimpsest (Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi and Sakshi Art Gallery, Mumbai, 2001) 5.

Sinha, Ajay. “Art History and the Indian Bazaar, Review of Gods in the Bazaar:  The Economies of Calendar Art by Kajri Jain,” Art History, 31:5 (2008): 809.

Singh, Kavita, catalog essay in Gulammohammed Sheikh: City, Kaavad and Other Works (New Delhi: Rabindra Bhavan and Vadehra Art Gallery, 2011).

Tere, Tushar, “Netas kept out of Sursagar Shivratri Celebrations,” Times of India, 27 February, 2011, published on-line at http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-02-27/vadodara/28637984_1_puja-celebrations-shiva-idol-sursagar-lake, accessed 28 October 2013.

Zitzewitz, Karin.  Art of Secularism: The Cultural Politics of Modernist Art in Contemporary India. London: Hurst & Co Publishers, 2014.

CSSAAME Banner dotted line

 

Notes:

  1. Ajay Sinha (2008), “Art History and the Indian Bazaar, Review of Gods in the Bazaar: The Economies of Calendar Art by Kajri Jain,” Art History, 31 (5): 809
  2. Kavita Singh, catalog essay in Gulammohammed Sheikh: City, Kaavad and Other Works (exhibition catalog) (New Delhi: Rabindra Bhavan and Vadehra Art Gallery, 2011), p. 6.
  3. Gulammohammed Sheikh, Kaavad: Travelling Shrine: Home (exhibition catalog) (New Delhi: Vadehra Art Gallery, 2008), p. 2.
  4. Interview with Gulammohammed Sheikh, Vadodara, 2009.
  5. For more on Sheikh’s paintings of the 1970s and 1980s, see Karin Zitzewitz, Art of Secularism: The Cultural Politics of Modernist Art in Contemporary India (London: Hurst & Co Publishers, 2013).
  6. Kaavad, Home, 11. Bishandas, The Hermitage of Sheikh Phul, ca. 1620, color on paper. Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi. Reproduced in the Huntington Archive, Ohio State University. http://huntington.wmc.ohio-state.edu/public/index.cfm?fuseaction=showThisDetail&ObjectID=30029117&detail=small, accessed September 25, 2013.
  7. Erwin Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form (London:  Zone Books, 1996); Martin Heidegger, “The Age of the World Picture” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (New York:  Harper, 1977), 115-154.
  8. Gulammohammed Sheikh, “Mobile Vision: Some Synoptic Comments,” Journal of Arts and Ideas, 4 (October-December 1983), pp. 43-52. Though he published this piece just after Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things became available in English translation, Sheikh writes that he had not read that work before writing his own account of Las Meninas.
  9. Gulammohammed Sheikh, “Viewer’s View: Looking at Pictures,” Journal of Arts and Ideas, 3 (April-June 1983), 5.
  10. Asad, et al, Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2008).
  11. Gieve Patel, “My Journey has been from Art to Life,” Express Magazine (Sept. 8, 1985). Baroda Archives, Scrapbook 1973-1989.
  12. Gulammohammed Sheikh, artist statement, Place For People (exhibition catalog), Jehangir Art Gallery, Bombay, 9-15 November, 1981 and Rabindra Bhavan, New Delhi, 21 November-3 December, 1981.  Collection of Vivan Sundaram.
  13. Sheikh, Kaavad, Home, p. 8.
  14. “Gulammohammed Sheikh in conversation with Kavita Singh,” in Gulammohammed Sheikh: Palimpsest (exhibition catalog), Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi and Sakshi Art Gallery, Mumbai, 2001, p. 5.
  15. Sheikh, Kaavad, Home, 4.
  16. Sheikh, Palimpsest, p. 14.
  17. Gulammohammed Sheikh, “Ruminating on ‘Life of the Medieval Saints’ by Benodebehari Mukherjee,” in Gulammohammed Sheikh and R. Siva Kumar, eds., Benodebehari Mukherjee (1904-1980) Centenary Retrospective (New Delhi: Vadehra Art Gallery and National Gallery of Modern Art, 2007), p. 37.
  18. Reinhart Koselleck, “The Temporalization of Utopia,” in The Practice of Conceptual History:  Timing History, Spacing Concepts, tr. by Todd Samuel Presner and Others (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2002), 84-99.
  19. Koselleck, “The Temporalization of Utopia,” 93.
  20. Sheikh, Palimpsest, 5.
  21. On Abanindranath Tagore’s notion of the Hindu canon, see Tapati Guha-Thakurta, Monuments, Objects, Histories: Institutions of Art in Colonial and Post-Colonial India (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).
  22. Goswamy, Nainsukh of Guler: A Great Indian Painter from a Small Hill State (New Delhi:  Niyogi Books, 2011 [1997]), 234-5.
  23. Human Rights Watch, “’We have no orders to save you’:  State participation and complicity in communal violence in Gujarat,” April 2002, published on-line at http://www.hrw.org/legacy/reports/2002/india/, accessed 26 June, 2009 and People’s Union for Democratic Rights report, “‘Maaro! Kaapo! Baalo!’:  State, Society, and Communalism in Gujarat,”, Delhi, May 2002, published on-line at http://www.pudr.org/index.php?option=com_docman&task=cat_view&gid=58&Itemid=63, accessed June 26, 2009.
  24. Tushar Tere, “Netas kept out of Sursagar Shivratri Celebrations,” Times of India, 27 February, 2011, published on-line at http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-02-27/vadodara/28637984_1_puja-celebrations-shiva-idol-sursagar-lake, accessed 28 October, 2013.
  25. Kajri Jain, “Post-reform India’s automotive-iconic-cement assemblages: uneven globality, territorial spectacle and iconic exhibition value,” Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power, published online May 8, 2015 DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2015.1034132 .
  26. ee Karin Zitzewitz, Art of Secularism for a longer discussion of the communalization of M. S. University, Baroda.
  27. This literature is huge and wide-ranging, beginning with the discussions of “disputed structures” leading up to the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992. See Sarvepalli Gopal, ed., Anatomy of a Confrontation: The Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhumi Issue (Delhi: Viking, 1991).
  28. Thomas Blom Hansen, Urban Violence in India:  Identity Politics, ‘Mumbai,’ and the Postcolonial City (New Delhi:  Permanent Black, 2001).
  29. Thomas Blom Hansen, “The City as Utopian Space,” paper delivered at the 42nd Annual Conference on South Asia, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 20 October, 2013.
  30. See Zitzewitz, The Art of Secularism.
  31. My argument borrows these categories from Michel Foucault’s “Le courage de la vérité:  l’ascète, le révolutionnaire, et l’artiste,” Esprit, 12 (2008), 51–60.
  32. Sheikh, Kaavad, Home, p. 4.
  33. Sumathi Ramaswamy, ed., Barefoot Across the Nation:  M. F. Husain and the Idea of India (London: Routledge, 2010) and Jessica Moss and Ram Rahman, eds., The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India Since 1989 (Chicago:  Smart Art Museum/University of Chicago Press, 2013).
  34. Sandhya Bordewekar, “‘The art community must act now—before it is too late’ (Interview with Gulammohammed Sheikh),” Art News Magazine of India, 12:3 (Autumn 2007), pp. 69-70.