Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Artist in Society

The Baroda-based artist, Gulammuhammed Sheikh, a Padma Bhushan awardee, talks about the life of the artist as well as his own work

Photos: 'Returning Home', oil on canvas; the artist

By Shevlin Sebastian

What should an artist do if there is grave injustice in society? Should he become an activist and go out and fight on behalf of the people? Or should he stay aloof? These questions have tormented artists for centuries.

The Baroda-based artist Gulammuhammed Sheikh, a Padma Bhushan Awardee tackled this vexing subject during a question-and-answer session at a talk organised by the Kochi Muziris Biennale.

“My job is to paint,” he says. “It is not to agitate. I should find ways of working through my medium to reach out to people. Art is the only way I can reach out. It is a perennial debate of whether the artist should join hands with activism.”

Sheikh recounted the debate among intellectuals in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil war. There was a young British poet, Christopher Cauldwell, who was considered to be one of the finest. “The poet was so moved by what was happening in Spain that one day he left for the war front,” says Sheikh. “Unfortunately, he was killed [on February 12, 1937] because he did not know how to fight.”

Within the intellectual community there was a debate. Did the poet make the right decision? By getting himself killed, it was a huge waste of potential. What should an artist do in such a situation? “Some felt that it was right to join the war,” says Sheikh. “But there were others who felt that following one's vocation is the right way.”

Sheikh believes in the latter concept. “Your aim should be to remain true to your profession and push yourself to the maximum,” he says. “However, art does not prevent people from killing others. Art is made so that people can reflect about the actions they are doing. Why are they killing human beings? Why do they hate the 'other'? In the end you will become a better person. It is a long drawn-out business. It is not that as soon as you do a painting, the riots will stop.”

Meanwhile, when asked about the link between the artist and religion, Sheikh says, “The world has multiple faiths. I am interested to know how Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Jains perceive the world. However, I want to explore every religion without being judgemental. I would like to see how a Jain monk lives. How does he move about without wearing any footwear?

The members of the Digambara sect do not wear any clothes. Isn't that fascinating? What drives me is a sense of wonder.”

And Sheikh has also been wonderstruck that Kochi has made a mark internationally. “It is wonderful that Kochi has hosted an international Biennale,” he says. “And it was amazing that it was not Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata, but a place in the south. What I saw at the Biennale was extremely enriching. I am very glad to be here.”

Sheikh had come to Kochi to visit sites where he can put up a work for the upcoming Biennale in December, 2014. And he also gave a talk to an audience, which comprised artists and art lovers, regarding his work, which was titled, 'Walking The World'. “This is because I have wanderlust,” he says. “And whereever it is possible, I go walking.”

In 1969, Sheikh returned, after a three-year sojourn in England, and made a painting called 'Returning Home'. “I brought in an image from my childhood in Kathiawad, where I grew up,” he says. “I also borrowed an image of the prophet Mohammed from a Persian painting. The boundary wall in the painting was similar to the one in the area where I lived as a child, along with a mill and a mosque. And right in front I have put a photo of my mother. This was an attempt to re-create my home.”

However, today, Sheikh is best known for his monumental mural, 'Tree of Life', commissioned by the New Vidhan Bhavan of the Madhya Pradesh legislature at Bhopal at a cost of Rs 20 lakh.

In the work, which is about three storeys high, there is a door and images of legislators among the branches of a large tree. “They are discussing issues like the Narmada Dam agitation and the Bhopal gas leak,” he says. “By the tree trunk, I have placed a chair. This is to indicate the chair of the government. Around the chair there are many characters hovering about. During the time of King Vikramaditya, he had 32 dolls which would come to life the moment he sat on the throne. They would ask the king whether he deserved to sit on the chair. So I thought this was the right kind of symbol to use in a political space like this.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

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