Two weekends ago, my wife, daughter and I saw a fascinating exhibition titled: Each Night put Kashmir in Your Dreams by the Indian artist Nilima Sheikh. What made this experience special was having Dr. Madhuvanti “Madhu” Ghose (the first Alsdorf Associate Curator of Indian, Southeast Asian, Himalayan, and Islamic Art at the Art Institute of Chicago) lead us through Nilima’s work.
Madhu did a fantastic job of bringing Nilima’s works to life by connecting the works to the history and challenges in Kashmir. For me, this talk brought back a flood of childhood memories. Back then, Kashmir was like the “Swiss Alps” of India – a place where nature and beauty co-existed perfectly. Unfortunately, over the last six or seven decades, Kashmir has been undergoing huge conflict which has changed its reputation. It is a pity to see what’s happened to one of the most beautiful places on the earth.
Nilima Sheikh’s works of art portray both this beauty and the destruction. They offer us a catalyst to contemplate conflicted and contested territories not only in India, but on a global scale. I was inspired by the quality of her work and surprised by how it affected me emotionally. I’ve not paid much attention to her work in the past, but she’s on my list to keep track of for the future.
Coincidentally, a week later, my wife and I had the absolute pleasure of attending a small event where Nilima Sheikh and her husband, Gulam, were the guests of honor. Gulam is considered to be one of the most influential artists alive in India, having been awarded the prestigious Padmashri award in 1983 and Padmabhushan in 2014, and he’s quite well known internationally, both as an artist and as a writer. His painting quoting some of the scenes from the Ramayana have been inspiration for many artists, including myself in grade 7, when I won 2nd place in an international competition for my painting quoting the Mahabharata. What an honor to meet this legend in person.
It turns out that Gulam is from Gujarat, the same state in India, where my family originated. We enjoyed getting to know each other (speaking in Gujarati, the language of Gujarat). The common language and history allowed for a deeper connection. Funny how no matter how far you are from home or how many years you’ve been away – the familiarity of meeting someone with a similar background is comforting and bonding. This meeting was especially thrilling for me to meet Gulam, who had inspired me as a child, and Nilima, who has inspired me as an adult. When we got home that evening, settling into bed for a good night’s sleep was difficult as thoughts of life, art, childhood and India swirled around in my head. It was an experience that I will never forget.