Sonal Motla Talks About Sheikh’s Karwaan Odyssey

Sonal Motla Talks About Sheikh’s Karwaan Odyssey

The central theme of the artwork revolves around the metaphor of life as a journey, navigating through challenges and adversity

Sonal MotlaUpdated: Sunday, April 14, 2024, 11:19 AM IST
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One Saturday afternoon, I headed to the Chemould Prescott gallery for a walkthrough with art critic Girish Shahne and artist Gulam Mohammed Sheikh. Girish chose to start the walkthrough with the pièce de résistance, Kaarawaan, a 21-foot canvas.

The central theme of the artwork revolves around the metaphor of life as a journey, navigating through challenges and adversity. Numerous references to life’s journey are depicted, with the imagery of a boat navigating turbulent seas serving as a focal point. The portrayal of two men bravely aiding a woman battling crocodiles symbolises the supportive relationships and alliances we form to overcome obstacles in life's journey. It captures the essence of resilience, bravery, and the bonds forged amidst adversity.

Nestled within the boat, at one end are hills and trees that evoke homeland memories, grounding one in reality or hope. At the other end are representations of artists such as Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, Jan van Eyck, Rabindranath Tagore, MF Husain, Vincent van Gogh, FN Souza, and others who appear to have influenced the artist. These influences are carried in the artist's boat of life, as the past converges with the present. This juxtaposition of trees and hills on one side of the boat, alongside representations of creative individuals, seems to draw inspiration from the Samkhya philosophy of Purusha (human beings) and Prakriti (nature). This metaphorical union is believed to be the very essence of creativity, dating back to the creation of the universe.

In a rich tapestry of references, a tree of life adorned with philosopher heads stands tall. A royal couple serenades from their balcony, while nearby, a woman in a Pahari-style painting delicately plays a musical instrument. Adjacent, a Jacobean figure offers contrast. A pregnant woman, blessed by an angel, symbolises hope amidst life's fluctuations, as workers diligently build a nearby house, emphasizing the continuity of labor. This scene echoes the essence of Pahari miniature paintings, portraying intertwined lives. An ailing man rests nearby, shadows of nautch girls linger, and Gandhi turns inward, with his walking stick. Atop the boat, defiant figures like Frida Kahlo gaze boldly into the unknown.

This work reminds me of Noah’s Ark. Many artists have painted Noah's Ark, including Theodore Poulakis, Jan Brueghel the Elder, and Gerolamo Bassano. Yet, in Kaarawaan, the boat's symbolism echoes beyond, transcending religious allegory to encompass a broader commentary on the human condition. Sheikh's portrayal is like Noah's vessel. It speaks to the journey of life, navigating through waves of experience and emotion. Each figure on the canvas represents archetypes of humanity grappling with existential questions and striving for resilience amidst adversity. It's a profound exploration of our shared journey through the complexities of existence, inviting viewers to reflect on their own place in the grand story of life.

In his world, the borders between art, literature, and history vanish. At 87 years old, Sheikh is an artist, writer, and historian, weaving these three facets into his distinctive body of work over decades. In his world, past and present intertwine, weaving personal narratives with shared histories.

Beyond grand narratives, the artist delves into intimate moments and introspection. Works like Majnun in the Forest and Tree of Sleep offer glimpses into the human soul, inviting viewers on a journey of self-discovery. Sheikh's contributions to the 1981 Place for People exhibition shaped his artistic dialogue, blending memory, surroundings, and global influences. Motifs like the tree of life and world maps, presented in formats like accordion books and kaavads, invite diverse interpretations, fostering engagement.

The current exhibition marks another chapter in Sheikh's quest to envision a world of hope and solidarity. The ark symbolises resilience amidst adversity, while contrasting double-faced panels offer varied perspectives. Each artwork serves as a potent reminder of art's transformative power to inspire change and bridge divides. Through his exploration of hybridity and syncretism, he fosters inclusivity and hope. His art embodies a deep sense of hope, believing in its ability to heal divisions and cultivate empathy.

Experience Sheikh's brilliance firsthand; the show is on till May 15 at Chemould Prescott, Fort, Mumbai.

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