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Friday 2 March 2012


- To defeat a narrow vision

Ananya Vajpeyi
In a large sculptural work from 2011 titledWeathervane, the artist, Gulammohammed Sheikh makes a set of signs, all pointing in different directions, all inscribed with images and slogans that ought to have converged but somehow tend instead to contradict one another: “Incredible India”, “Vibrant Gujarat”, and in the same vicinity, an etching that shows Gandhi as a young satyagrahi. The message seems clear: in spite of its historical legacy of the politics and teachings of Mohandas Gandhi, and its current promise of a prosperous economic future, Gujarat does not in fact know which way it is going.
As perhaps with any society in the process of becoming seriously disconnected from its own ethical moorings, Gujarat at the present moment appears to be entirely sure of itself. From all accounts, especially those provided by Gujarati intellectuals in internal exile, like Tridip Suhrud and Ganesh Devy, it seems that today’s Gujarat exemplifies the consensus society. Dominant groups of all kinds — particular Hindu sects of relatively recent vintage, the middle-class that aggressively aspires to a certain kind of consumer capitalist lifestyle, the sizeable Gujarati diaspora in the West, the social and cultural organizations that constitute the sangh parivar, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, as well as large corporations both Indian and transnational, collectively reinforce a climate of ideas and a set of practices that very few people within the state, of whatever caste or religious community, could even imagine challenging.
For to challenge such a seamless consensus, one would have to either be able to recall another, very different time, or assume a distant vantage from which to view the grotesque spectacle of the utter collapse of traditions of tolerance, coexistence, diversity and dissent in a part of India that hardly a century ago produced not just Mahatma Gandhi and many of his closest associates, but also other founding figures of a variety of persuasions and professions, like Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Sardar Patel and Vikram Sarabhai. Alas, the flip side of perfect consensus is utter amnesia. Gujarat, apparently obsessed with “growth”, has forgotten itself.
Was this the home of key Gandhian spaces like the Gujarat Vidyapeeth and the Sabarmati Ashram? Of some of the most significant postcolonial institutions like the National Institute of Design, the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology, the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, and the Institute of Rural Management, Anand? Was Ahmedabad the city in India that had the architecture of both Louis Kahn and Le Corbusier? Did Gujarat’s wealthy elites and entrepreneurial classes once include Jains, Vaishnav Banias, Bohra and Khoja Muslims, and Parsis? How has a mere decade of BJP rule under Narendra Modi erased the entire cultural and institutional ecology of what really was — until not so long ago — a vibrant Gujarat?
Gulammohammed Sheikh and Nilima Sheikh, painters both, based in Baroda for most of their lives, are among the few of the artists and intellectuals still living in the state whose work continues to be rich in reflections and recollections of another Gujarat. Gulam Sheikh’s recent exhibits in Delhi at the Lalit Kala Akademi in October 2011, some of which reappeared at the India Art Fair in January 2012, engage very deeply with cities, with history, and with traditions as they were shared between communities, particularly Hindus and Muslims, in Gujarat and elsewhere in India. His leitmotif is complexity: the deep and almost inextricable ties between the living and the dead, between self and other, between systems of belief, styles of art, and historical memories that Gujaratis today seem eager to disavow as belonging equally and essentially to their region and their heritage. Sheikh’s vision militates incessantly against a purified, sanitized and manufactured version of “Gujarati asmita” — the uniquely charismatic character of a properly Gujarati identity, usually translated into the rather less nuanced and even vaguely ominous “Gujarati pride”.
Sheikh’s works in the series, Kavaad (named after a type of travelling boxed shrine found all across Western India and the Deccan) and City plunge right into the living faiths, the religious practices, as well as the terrible violence that both make and mark the common cultures of Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat. His meditations on the moments in our contemporary experience when there was a complete breakdown of the possibility of peaceful coexistence between communities sometimes take him further afield, for example to Ayodhya in 1992 and Bombay in 1992-93, or to Kashmir over the past two decades, or even to the Partition in 1947, which stands at the root of so much sectarian strife on the subcontinent. Some of his images reflect on social and economic tensions that have nought to do with religion. In a striking set of paintings and collages, a pale blue sky, filled with wispy roseate clouds as well as a floating population of gods, angels and all kinds of fantastical creatures from the Persian, Indian and Christian mythologies, stretches over a landscape of ruined mills and abandoned factories.
But really anchoring and punctuating Sheikh’s canvases throughout, are two persons: Kabir, the medieval poet, and Gandhi, the modern leader. Images of these two men, quoted from other well-known artworks and remembered from a number of Indian traditions of painting (and photography), proliferate all across Sheikh’s imagined universe. It is as though the Mahatma and the weaver, two who fashioned their uniquely personal and powerful symbol of ‘Ram’, who condemned hatred across religious divides, who questioned belief when it was marred by prejudice, and who, though separated from one another by almost 500 years, provided for their compatriots an inner voice of reason and a deep core of faith most especially in times of devastating political conflict — these two figures are Sheikh’s own bulwarks against the moral confusion and material destruction that rages in Modi’s Gujarat.
In the midst of the dizzying welter of historical events, in bloodied contexts, the constant picture of Gandhi on the move, of Kabir at his loom, both intent on a singular truth that they saw with clear eyes — a truth that Gujarat of all places ought to be the custodian of, a truth that is becoming more and more obscured by the political darkness into which that part of our country has wilfully plunged itself.
The consensus needs urgently to be broken.

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