Gulam Mohammed Sheikh’s prints unfold stories

At Gallery Sumukha in Bangalore artist/curator N.Pushpamala creates a two-part retrospective of veteran Gulam Mohammed Sheikh’s printmaking years, and this exhibition spans 1956—2021. From woodcuts to linocuts to etchings and serigraphs this monochromatic medley creates a meandering of both figurative as well as architectural and abstract images that become a travelogue that runs through time in a cinematic choreography.

Image: Sumukha Gallery

Ek achambha dekha re bhai

The image on Gallery Sumukha’s invitation is at once a hybrid juxtaposition of a lion on a cow, that seems most comfortable and has the grace and gravitas of cows in Nathdwara paintings.The single line from the poet Kabir tells us of Gulam’s love for his favourite poet and his immersive journey in the odyssey of metaphors and moorings bathed in Nirgun poetry.The cow seems to be in conversation with the lion.

Ek achambha dekha re bhai, thada singh charave gai — a lion keeping watch over pasturing cows.

This etching aquatint evokes rare sensitivity and has about it a supple sense of the sublime.The lighter and darker horizontal division adds to its quaintness even as it creates a contrast in the structure of form. Gulam’s love for poet Kabir has been a lifelong quest in the understanding of Nirgun poetry and weaving its elements into the overlaps of imagery that must flow from one work to another.

Contours in this etching are tensile and create a tenor of his love for both Bhakti poetry as well as a cultural ethos. He says: “The characters that come to me are out of a multiplicity and simultaneity , it is the imaginative world of Kabir Das that has often filled me with a sense of belonging to them all.”

The sitting woman 1957

Image: Sumukha Gallery

One of the earliest works in this historic show, is a winsome woodcut , a feminine portrait that has been created in lithe lines and minimalist rendering.The Sitting Woman is bare breasted and created with sinuous lines.This 1957 woodcut is a sublime study of shringara and the beauty of feminine fervour. Gulam is known for his love for telling stories no matter what medium he chooses to portray.


This February when he had his painting show in Delhi at Bikaner House he spoke of his love for human figures that goes back to the Renaissance period.His penchant for creating human figures of the same size, both distant as well as proximate, tell us of his passion for the exploration of space. This singular image of feminine identity opens out the space, so as viewers we can enter the picture frame and partake of multiple corollaries. Interestingly the woodcut is not focused on the centre, but in its longitudinal, wholesome candour it speaks across ages.


Mayamriga linocut, silkscreen

Image: Sumukha Gallery

The monochromatic linocut and silk screen print of a double headed deer has the lyrical delicacy and elegance rendered in Persian miniature painting style. Treatment of form is a study in anatomical accents; the tail, a fraction of the neck and the under belly of the animal is white contrasting with black and Sheikh effectively uses white lines on the negative surface to create rhythmic continuity. The placement of the two heads is iconic, when looked at individually it completes the animal figure without disturbing the other. Gulam deftly composes a metamorphosis of combining two deer into one.

The double headed deer is an esoteric work of elegance .The language of sentience is at once a charismatic cohesion of contours and form. Precision and perfection both become the arc of allure. Gulam says it evokes the Bijak verse of Kabir, which he read as a school boy. “ This one is called Mayamriga and born of my Heerna (deer) , series based on a Kabir poem,— Kumar Gandharva has sung it very beautifully. So, I play with my heerna as a motif .This maya mriga (a mythical deer) with the double head is symbolic. ”

Image: Sumukha Gallery

Gulam’s attraction to Kabir’s poetry brings on the tone of the spiritual, the adhyatmik. The two heads cut across the hour glass of time. Reminds us of Greek mythologies and hybrid animals and birds too. His placement is a depiction of the journey of the spirit of the deer. Gulam says: “ I am using mysticism as well as the device of reversal in a surrealist mode, quizzical and quixotic .”

Gulam quotes Kabir. “ The best thing that Kabir says is about the individual self.

Van van dhoond raha hai

Mrig apni kasthuri

Khushbu apne paas hai

Bus hai khudh ki khudh ki doori

( Musk lies in the musk deer’s own nave,

But roam in the forest he does – it to seek;

Alike, God pervades heart to heart,

But men of the world this don’t conceive.)

That which you are seeking is not outside. Like the mriga that has got the kasturi (musk) in its navel, but wanders around the world looking for where the smell comes from, Kabir says don’t wander around searching for a spiritual guide, your saayin ( the spiritual entity) is within you.”

Kabir with a tree of birds 2000

Image: Sumukha Gallery

This aquatint etching of Kabir with a tree of birds is one that has an ecological echo. Gulam brings to us the world he knows, sees, and seeks, Kabir and the tree of birds are his favourite subjects because they transcend time. The Speaking Tree has been Gulam’s subject for 6 decades. In its intricate details and elements, it also illuminates the complexities and contradictions of life even as it reinvents art history while printmaking. At once poetic with a rhythmic resonance it is a summation of associations and myths and expression born of inspiration.

According to Gulam Kabir was a harbinger of hope who kept the human voice alive and intact and it is imperative to quote Kabir because he brings alive the patterns of paradoxes. In an age where guns and missiles are objects of war the avian species are at great risk of being endangered. And this etching is a lesson in life’s leanings in this millennium.


Moonscape 1992

Image: Sumukha Gallery

Gulam’s love for landscapes punctuated with geographical elements is translated into Moonscape.

“The beauty of creating all art for me is that it progressed in the company of poetry, but in the overlapping both had independence. My images come from memory, experience, and the human gaze and this has its own flow and feeling. Emotive associations for me belong to literature as well as my own writing and my habit of drawing.

The moon is a pet subject that takes me back to my year in London when I had direct access to the Victoria and Albert Museum. On my way to the canteen, I would stop to look at the Kota miniatures. The dark trees entwined, some under a moon remained with me forever. It taught me that we can live in multiple spaces and times. I also learned that there is an imperative called thermal consciousness. This became central to my work.”



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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