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Literary activities (Part 1)


Teaching history of art
Gulammohammed Sheikh Artist
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At this period of time... while I was fending for myself, you know, there was a job available for me and Bendre called me, who was the dean, and said, ‘Would you teach art history?’ Teaching was not an option because I was still a student. I was in my second year MA. So, ‘I said, but how do I teach because I have to finish my MA’. He said, ‘No, you teach junior classes and continue your studies in MA’. I said, ‘But is that...?’  So, he said, ‘Yeah, that’s fine, fine with me, if it is okay with you’. I said, ‘Wow, fantastic!’ Because I would get a salary. It was a handsome salary of 250 rupees a month. Can you believe it?  It was like a windfall. And this was a job of a tutor in place of a lecturer that, Ratan Parimoo, my senior, who was going to Courtauld to do further studies. And I just, you know, I was thrilled with the opportunity to teach. But I didn’t know what I will be teaching and it was a bit comic thing because, you see, my own classmates were often sitting there because they even told me that I should be taking some of the MA classes. I said, ‘But then where?’ They said, ‘No, in junior MA you teach and in senior MA you sit as a student’. That’s very funny. I think all my friends, Nagji and Chhatpur, used to make fun of me. Actually, in the first class I went and junior students, I was, I must have been, what... 24 or something like that, and I think they refused to recognise me as a teacher. But it was fun, great fun. I enjoyed all three years. Vivan Sundaram was one of the students in that period of time and many others, you know, who came.

So, those 3 years I taught and painted. I painted a great deal. I sort of produced, you know, in a, literally dozens of paintings. My exhibition had something like 60 paintings, something like that. Then I did watercolours, no, I did woodcuts. I did lino cuts, large lino cuts, 6 foot. I also did woodcuts and lino cuts both. I didn’t learn, etching was not known. Etching was considered to be a kind of a secret. People would not part with that secret. One of those strange things, you know, with artists, sort of do not allow others to know or learn. But we know that later Jyoti Bhatt learnt it and made it available and then there were workshops and... Baroda, in fact, became a ground for making graphic popular. Although there were a few other places also but this was one of the thing. So, it was mainly painting and lino cuts that I did, mostly oil, occasionally with water-bound pigments but... 

Was it partly through the teaching of art history that you sorted out where your real passions lay?

Well, I think it came my way. I do not know what it was but that was the subject which we taught all first-year students. It’s called story of art. And in a way I think it was an eye-opener because I had to learn so much in order to teach. So, I had to, you know, literally rummage library to see, you know, I had to teach history of all art. Story of art meant that you start from primitive times and bring it up to present day and then take eastern and western and everything together. And I think perhaps it did sort of, you know, open some areas in my preoccupations and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I greatly enjoyed doing that because every time there was something new to learn. You know, you sort of, you were teaching medieval and you had done the, the next year, before doing that, when you opened the book and you found there hundreds of other things. You know, that’s what, and then you think, oh, my God, you know, what to do. And you get so excited. You know, you impart it to your student. And I think in a way it also allowed me to learn about belief systems. This is one issue which is important. One is that what I had seen in Kathiawad during my childhood, both within the family and outside, is that people at one level, though there were divides or there were, they observed different religious practices, there was also a kind of a overlap, a kind of a understanding of the sacred, of the other or rather a sense of the sacred. So, they respected practices of others. I mean, I remember that there was this shrine called Geban Shah Pir, it’s a Sufi saint, I suppose, in Wadhwan, this town which was next door and there people of all communities came and, you know, literally paid their offerings. Similarly, I remember that in my time there was this singer called Abraham Bhagat who sang all what we call bhajans, bhajan means devotional songs, all of sort of Hindu gods and goddesses. It was very, very popular. In my own family there were practices which would be called mixed practices. So, there was that kind of a... you know, overlap of... and at a popular level, people respected each other’s beliefs. So, if there was a marriage procession and it passed by a mosque, they would stop the band and they would go ahead and then, you know, restart. So, this was a kind of a known thing and generally I think there was that kind of a... understanding. I think in a way the story of art opened for me a kind of a similar avenue. You learnt about Christianity, which you did not know enough about. You know, you had no exposure to that and I think art opened those doors. I learnt about Islam through art. I didn’t learn from my education. It came to me because I had to teach that. So, I had to pick up books and learn about this. So, I had to learn about different kind of a, you know, factions of Christianity. I was interested in Byzantine and then, you know, Russian icons. One had to know about that. It may not have been articulated in that manner at that point of time but, looking back, I think it all formed a kind of a basis for my understanding of art and I realised that art was the greatest humanising factor. And it was the art that sort of travelled and that sort of made people look at things, you know? For instance, in Islam there are a lot of paintings which are religious paintings, paintings of Prophet and all that, which in today’s world you are not even allowed to speak about. But when I looked at those things, I got very deeply sort of engaged in it. They were so inspiring and they opened so many areas within me that I thought that I must now explore this further. So, going to England was not to learn at Royal College of Art. Going to England for me was a stepping stone to look at the world art, that I would be able to see all that I have seen in books and I think that dream was largely fulfilled being in England.

Gulammohammed Sheikh is an Indian painter, writer and art critic who has been a major figure in the Indian art world for half a century. His artistic career is closely associated with the renowned MS University of Baroda in Gujarat where after gaining his Master's degree, Sheikh went on to teach in the Faculty of Fine Arts, and where he was appointed Professor of Painting in 1982.

Listeners: Timothy Hyman

Timothy Hyman is a graduate of Slade School of Fine Art, London, in which he has also taught. In 1980 and 1982, he was Visiting Professor in Baroda, India. Timothy Hyman has curated many significant art exhibitions and has published articles and monographs on both European and Indian artists.

Duration: 9 minutes, 26 seconds

Date story recorded: December 2008

Date story went live: 18 November 2010