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Maps and palimpsests in my work


Speaking in many tongues
Gulammohammed Sheikh Artist
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Do you think that you speak with many tongues, like The Speaking Tree?

I think every Indian speaks in many tongues, not me alone. Literally we speak at least three languages. Almost all of us, if not three, at least two, and many speak four. So, it is not that, but it is that we live in multiple times. For instance, if you walk out in India in a street you find, you know, these tribals, you know, sometimes labourers working, and if you go a few miles you will find their habitat and you are reminded of a time which is perhaps 500 years ago. There might be those, you know, whose time might go 1000 years back. You might go to South India and you will see that, you know, those temples and all that, and you will see that you are in the Sangam times, you know, it’s mediaeval. Rajasthan will also give you another impression, but if you are in Lucknow you might find yourself in the 18th century still, and in Girgaum, in the new modern city, you will see a future city, or something which is either in New York and in Chicago or wherever. And I think this is a daily experience, you know. We move in different times, as we move from space to space, and I think this is partly an inbuilt psyche. It’s something, you know, which every child carries, you know. So that is nothing unusual, I am not talking about anything which is very special. I think it is an experience which people might have even in many other countries, too. Only, you know, one realises that there is nothing wrong in belonging to different times, you know.

What is unusual?

I mean, you know your feet are there in today.

What is unusual? You seem consistently to be trying to find forms of pictorial equivalents to that multiplicity.

That’s true. Well, that was my endeavour, so I tried to sort of put that thing inside of it.

I mean, I understand why you feel it was banal to just enumerate, but of course that is fuelling you. Something of that quest is constantly giving... pushing you forward.

Yah, no, that’s true, yah. I still get excited about discovering another sense of time somewhere wherever I go. But in a sense, you know, I am extending it further, not only to India but wherever I... whichever place I go to. For instance last year, or no, the year before when we went to China, it was, you know, this was something which I had been dreaming of visiting the caves of Dunhuang, and Dunhuang is at a point, you know, in the Gobi Desert, you know, where 300 caves have survived. But it is a whole journey of what is called Silk Route, and you could literally begin from Ajanta, you know, from North Deccan, that is in Maharashtra. You go up to the north and touch Afghanistan and you come to, you know... some places where you will find some of the strains. I mean the Deccan experience goes up to Malwa, that is in Central India, and then right up to beyond Afghanistan it is Uzbekistan and it is in Tashkent and Samarkand that you see strains of Ajanta are still, you know, visible. And I suppose if you go further to Penjikent and then from there you go further to Bezeklik and you go to Talwan and you draw a whole line actually. You know, it’s a journey, you know, and you see the image of Buddha heads, the image of the great caravans, you know, the people who travelled. People were not static, they were mobile, and they moved all the time. Even in Dunhuang they said there is one particular face, early face, you know, he’s sort of Indian, and there are images which are not sort of, you know, Chinese. So, you have that kind of a communication. You have that kind of a journey, and similarly there is also music. You know, in music you see similar things happening, and it’s not one way, it’s sort of also in reverse the same story.  So, I would like Dunhuang to be part of mine, and I did some paintings in which actually when I was doing some paintings on China on this experience, I saw in Dunhuang a particular painting which I was quite captivated by, which I had seen a small reproduction of it, but standing in front of it was amazing. It was a large landscape with a lot of architecture. It is the old monastery, and this is the site of what they call Wuta’i Mountains. Now, Wuta’i Mountains is a bowl of Bodhisattva, but obviously these monasteries which they have painted are based upon the monasteries they knew, or they created, you know. And it’s a vast kind of a sprawling landscape and with a lot of sort of intricate architectural settings with mountains and with banners and with people moving about, and it was all over on the entire wall which I never imagined. It’s really, I mean it, so it is a kind of a compliment to Ajanta, because Ajanta is all physicality and human bodies, whereas here was a landscape and a kind of a vision which is sort of complimentary vision, and I began to quote it. In the paintings I did I used that... landscape, and I am still haunted by that. I mean I still use it again.

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: 6 minutes, 35 seconds

Date story recorded: December 2008

Date story went live: 18 November 2010