From being ‘paradise on earth’, to being stereotyped with images of violence and political unrest, Kashmir’s story has been the subject of contentious debate. But the valley has also been a popular subject for artists. Poets, playwrights, and even Indian cinema have continued to romance this paradise. In contemporary art too, Kashmir is not a new theme. If Sheba Chachhi’s work “When the Gun is raised, dialogue stops” gave voice to the women of the valley; Nilima Sheikh, with her series of 9 artworks titled “Each Night Put Kashmir in your Dreams” highlights the layered and syncretic history of Kashmir.
The inspiration behind the art-series:
The exhibition catalogue for Each Night Put Kashmir in your Dreams credits Sheikh’s reading of Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry as the seed for this work. The title of the exhibition itself, is derived from the celebrated poet’s work ‘I see Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight’. The poem speaks of the loss of identity, loneliness and exilic condition of Kashmiris; highlighting the poet’s love for his homeland. The series also includes textual references from Salman Rushdie’s “Shalimar, the Clown”, the poet saint Lal-Ded’s verses, and folklore. In her interviews following the exhibition, Sheikh admits to her personal experiences of Kashmir, and being inspired by Ali’s The Country without a Post Office (1997).
Nilima Sheikh’s Kashmir:
Through 9 painted scrolls, Nilima Sheikh retells the many histories of Kashmir. Each painting in this series has a different title and is telling of Kashmir’s true identity : that of a cultural paradise. The sense of loss and pain, juxtaposed with Kashmir’s exquisite beauty & traditions is communicated expressively through these scrolls. The scrolls would remind one of Thangkas – perhaps a reference to the region’s Buddhist (and often obliterated) past. One almost takes them to be like illustrated Kashmiri shawls which evoke the complexity of patterns (identities), the hallmark of industry, which once again is a forgotten legacy.
In this post, we explore some of our favourite paintings in the series “Each Night Put Kashmir in your Dreams” :
The Valley, the first in the series represents an idyllic Kashmir – the lush green, with meandering rivers and crystal lakes, the chinar, cypress and poplar trees, the mountains in the background – it’s almost like a beautiful textile (satellite) map. This sets the tone, for the rest of the artworks. Back to our favourites now:
Like most of the artworks in this series, this one too, is a mashup of poetry, history, mythology and art. To most people, all of this would look disconnected, but Nilima Sheikh skilfully blends the story of the region to build a case for a compassionate understanding of Kashmir.
This could be a reference to the Buddhist past of Kashmir as most art historians suggest. Yab-Yum is quite similar to the belief of Shiva-Shakti in Hinduism and stands for the union of wisdom and compassion. The Yab-Yum practice allows for an integration with the self, and thus with others. It could also well be a reference to the integrated nature of the region’s past, which had lent Kashmir a paradise-like environment.
The imagery also has undercurrents of violence and hostility. The use of motifs like weapons, a lion tearing into a bull and the phrase, “dark fossils of paisley” command deeper introspection.
The phrase dark fossils of paisley are from Agha Shahid Ali’s poem ‘A history of paisley’. On the reverse side of the scrolls, Sheikh has quoted the same:
Paisleys, weaved into highly sought-after Kashmiri shawls, were an integral part of the poet’s imagined homeland and a symbol of cultural pride. A cartographic impression of Kashmir alongside the “future trader” from the poem, allows for a sense of distance and longing in the painting.
The poem bears reference to the mythical story of Jhelum’s paisley-like-shape. It is believed that once, angry with Shiva, Parvati ran away. Eventually, Shiva caught up with her, and to commemorate their union (think Yab-Yum again), carved a river retracing their chase-sequence, which turned out to be like a bootah/paisley. Of course, this shape was termed ‘paisley’ after a European town. The town was known to produce printed imitations of the Kashmiri shawls with the famous motif. Going by the message of the poem, the future trader will have no recollection of the region’s past history or memories (lost narratives).
Jahangir and Kashmir
The scroll also uses the famous phrase “if there is paradise on earth, it is this it is this, it is this” credited to the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. In fact, on the reverse side, Nilima Sheikh also shares an excerpt from Jahangir’s diary about the Verinag spring, the source of the Jhelum. An octagonal stone basin and arcade around the spring was built by Jahangir, and recorded. Alongside lost narratives, Jahangir’s act becomes eternal – as he infuses the landscape with his own personal writings.
The gripping thing about this scroll is the line : “If only somehow you would have been mine, what would have not been possible in this world?”. Coupled with other lines borrowed from Agha Shahid Ali’s poem titled Farewell, this artwork makes you introspect upon the idea of nationalism and identity. It makes you wonder, just as the poet, about the possibility of reconciliation between migrant and indigenous identity.
“We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are” is a literal translation of the lines “your history comes in the way of my memory”.
The poem itself, is penned in the style of a love letter addressed to a Kashmiri Pandit from a Kashmiri Muslim. Nilima Sheikh has literally illustrated this poem in a way that will remind a Hindu viewer of the popular image of Hanuman tearing his heart open to reveal an image of Ram and Sita : a proof of his devotion and love. Similarly, the central figure (perhaps the poet) seems to be opening his firan (the Kashmiri woollen dress), to reveal a map of his homeland; the two figures joined at the heart seem to suggest that the poet / Kashmiri Muslim pines as much for his homeland as his Hindu counterpart.
In this scroll, one spots a busy construction-site-scene, possibly alluding to the industrious nature of Kashmiris and the indigenous architectural heritage of Kashmir. Kashmiris were once-upon-a-time known for their skill, often tagged as “master craftsmen”; their works cementing their place in Indian art history. Instead of destruction (an aftermath of conflict), Nilima Sheikh presents a different viewing of the Valley. You’re probably wondering who the central figure is. Referring to a popular folk art of Kashmir, this scroll presents the story of Bhands. These traditional performers of Kashmir have been known for their social and political satire. An article in the FreePress Kashmir, states:
“Bhands give vent to people’s feelings of hostility, isolation, oppression and tyranny at the hands of rulers. The tribe was always seen as the vocal voice against the different oppressive regimes in Kashmir”.
To quote from an article in Greater Kashmir: “Nothing defines the limits and promises of Kashmiriyat (harmonious co-existence between Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims) better than the Bhand Pather”.
Perhaps, the irony of the situation today is what Nilima Sheikh tried to portray. Kashmiris are now no longer “known for their skill and industry”; the bhand-pather is a dying art, and the bhands have been silenced.
Son et Lumiere
Stencilled across the scroll are lines from Agha Shahid Ali’s poem “Son et Lumiere at Shalimar Garden”. A Sound and Light Show at Shalimar Garden is still a practice, but the poem is said to be a reference to the Nilamat Purana.
In this scroll, like others, Nilima Sheikh traces Kashmir’s mythical and historical past through stories (which Agha Shahid Ali has hinted at, in his poem).
The falling elephant : This incident dates back to the time after the Gupta rule ended, and the Huns had taken over in Gandhara and Kashmir. In the year 530 AD, Kashmir had been attacked by Mihirakula, a Hun emperor who was against Buddhism. All Indian traditions are united in their representation of Mihirakula as a tyrant. He and his tribe, destroyed many Buddhist shrines, and in essence, changed the social landscape of Kashmir. As the story goes, when Mihirakula was on his way to Kashmir with his army, he heard an elephant cry for help after having fallen off the cliff. Thrilled by the sound, he ordered for a hundred elephants to be pushed off the mountain just so he could be entertained with the sound again.
Why Mihirakula is important to this narrative is because it is believed that being a patron of Shaivism (Shiva worship), he undertook many endeavours to alter the religious fabric of Kashmir. Brahmins in the region, emboldened by Mihirakula, crafted a different narrative that would change Kashmir’s future. This is when the ‘Nilamat Purana’, an ancient folktale became a literary text, and it would go on to become “an evidence of the Hindu origins of Kashmir”. This very religious fabric would change again with Islam’s entry into the region.
The legend of the Konsarnag lake from the Nilamat Purana dominates the scroll; The Goddess Parvati hurling down a pebble (that would become bigger) onto the demon Jalodbhava – depicted at the bottom of the painting, alludes to the lake and Hari Parbat’s holy status for Hindus. The text narrates the genesis of Kashmir from the waters of the primordial Satisar lake.
The picnicking men and women could also be a reference to the Nilamat Purana’s portrayal of the social and cultural life of early Kashmiris. In the text, they are described as joyful people, at harmony with their natural environment; aesthete, liberal and religious.
In the middle, you see a seated figure which could be a representation of Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin who visited the Konsarnag lake in 1463. The 8th Sultan of Kashmir, he was known for his tolerance, and for ‘creating an intellectually suitable environment for the revival of the history-writing tradition’. It is said, he took 3 days to reach the lake, and on the first day, watched a dramatic performance.
In representing him (and the men and women from the Nilamat Purana), perhaps Nilima Sheikh refers to Kashmir’s “age of enlightenment”.
Nearby, you see a construction scene : this could well be a reference to the Wular Lake Palace commissioned by the Sultan; it could also be the Mughal Kings’ construction of gardens in Kashmir, which they considered to be ‘paradise’.
The art and style of Nilima Sheikh
Nilima Sheikh learnt under the tutelage of K.G Subramanyan and is one of India’s most renowned artists today. Interspersing her artworks with text is one of her signature styles; she is also known for having collaborated with a family of Sanjhi-craftspeople to create stencils that you see all over her art.
A lot of her figures are inspired by miniature paintings – persian, mughal, pahari, deccani styles.
“Each Night put Kashmir in your Dreams” is an appeal that Nilima Sheikh makes – to reflect upon & re-envision Kashmir.
In crafting a narrative around Kashmir, it’s identity, past (history, mythology, etc.) and it’s composite, and layered culture must be considered. Through this series, Nilima Sheikh weaves a powerful commentary on Kashmir and simultaneously compels audiences to revisit the agony / trauma that Kashmiris have been through; enabling audiences to empathize. She also enables her audiences to see beyond the violence that Kashmir has become associated with. One tends to know more about Kashmir by looking at her artworks, for they encourage you to dig deeper into Kashmiri history, folk stories and poetry.
“I’m not saying I can make significant changes in society with my paintings; but, if they open up certain visualities, certain understandings, certain reactions, certain responses, then it’s not so bad.”– Nilima Sheikh
How can we not agree?