Autobiography of a Migrant

Interview: Shilpa Nikam – My-Grant show / Autobiography of a Migrant / Sushma Sabnis

‘My- Grant’ on at the Jehangir Auditorium Gallery is an autobiographical narrative of artist Shilpa Nikam which becomes a sensitive critique about the trials and tribulations of migrant business communities in India and all over the world. Sushma Sabnis speaks to the artist about her journey..

Artist Shilpa Nikam

The auditorium of the Jehangir Art Gallery of Mumbai is cool, like the temperature of the air, the ambience and the demeanour of the artist having her solo show in it. Artist Shilpa Nikam’s countenance often belies her innate sensitivity and steely determination, both of these qualities have breathed energy into the creation of over 200 works over a span of two years. The show is curated by Delhi based veteran art curator, art critic and art historian Johny ML and if ever there was a show which struck the right balance of varied energies in visual art, ‘My -Grant’ would be it. One walks into this intense atmosphere to speak to the artist about the journey which inspired the show.

Display of Kundali series

The auditorium gallery is circular and the small, large and medium scaled paper works stand solemnly on the walls. The palette chosen by Shilpa in this series ranges from austere greys and beiges to sharp vermilion reds and deep blues. The centre of the auditorium has a large wooden pedestal which houses 16 paper and pigment works arranged in a large square formation like a yantra. These are the Kundali series works, abstractions of the horoscope as the artist chooses to suggest the beginning of things through it. The large and medium scaled paper works depict in non-figurative styles the impressions of coastal life, drying fish, boats, harbour scenes, the details of a boat structure, nails on a ship skeleton, documents, letters and lettering in account books, textual and textural immensity dominate the works by and large.

Taavdi – Terracotta Griddles

There are two other wood pedestals which are kept diagonal to this centre piece and on it one would find painted terracotta griddles, (taavdi), 72 in number (two sets of 36) arranged. We ask the artist about this crowd puller first. The artist elaborates, “Since childhood I have seen my family use this mud vessel and its significance has defined the very basis of survival. I belong to a family of traders, in Gujarati ‘Vaaniya/ Baniya’ clan. Entrepreneurship runs in the blood and my grandfather, father and brothers have all created various business ventures over time. But no matter where the trade took them, they always came back home for my mother’s rotis made on the taavdi. This vessel has been a constant feature in our family, to this day my mother cooks on the taavdi as if to reiterate that no matter how hard the work or how successful or unsuccessful the trade, there is a plate of food waiting at the end of the day. It is a lesson of humility and hope in an age of microwaves and nonstick cookware..” she smiles “I chose this vessel as my substrate and medium as it is closest to me and my family history. I have painted on its outer surface in my style, where normally traditional designs in white rice paste are made.”.

Close up of Taavdi display

When asked about the title coined by the curator Johny ML in the comprehensive catalogue, ‘My-Grant’ a stand in world for Migrant, she talks about how she and her family are original from Jafrabad, Gujarat and over generations have lived and flourished there until natural calamity struck the family businesses when their merchant boats sunk in the cyclone of 1944. “There are four things that drive human beings, Food, Shelter, Clothing and the fourth, most important is Work.”she says. Though the family tried to survive by trying out other small scale businesses like oil mills and flour mills, the income was barely enough to sustain the joint family. It was then that a unanimous decision was made to move to Mumbai. “We migrated here when I was very young, Mumbai took us in and with sheer grit and hard work, my family regained their strength through various cloth businesses in the Swadeshi market. The turbulent lives of a business family are often misjudged by people, if the business is doing well, it is attributed to corrupt practices and if it is not doing so well, it is attributed to laziness or lack of acumen. Rarely are the times of poverty and struggle seen by anybody, because they are carefully hidden behind hopeful smiles.”

Taavdi – Terracotta Griddle

“My works are about that very abstract sentiment of survival which runs through the veins of business communities all over the world, especially when in today’s capitalist ambitious world, where the smaller business owners suffer the brunt of the law/decision makers. I work mainly in an abstract lexicon, and the concept of using figuration was a bit daunting to me. However, I have visited Jafrabad several times in the past few years and it has inspired me enough to reach the right balance of abstraction and figuration just enough to so my narratives are articulated.”

Taavdi – Terracotta Griddle

When asked how she differentiates between a technique and a narrative, she explains that for an artist a surface presents itself as openly as possible. In her series on display she has explored the medium of paper, terracotta and wood, all three very organic elements which gel well with her art practice and thought. When asked about techniques, she talks about pigment layering, cuts, dabs and tears which are at times deliberate and at times unplanned, but almost always cathartic especially in a series with an autobiographical backdrop. She believes emotion is the most trigger for her works and all of it has been a very inward and personal journey.

Detail of large paper work.

“I believe that abstraction is not momentary, it is a constant, as in it is a way of looking at things, experiencing things or making a thing. My  mind has a tendency to break down a form or a figure into abstractions. It is naturally done and happens effortlessly not just with the visual stimuli, but in any scenario.”

When asked how she felt about working on a ‘theme’ she believes that a theme is necessary to give direction to the art processes. “Johny Sir, the curator, suggested the theme of migration as a direction to my autobiographical works.  The way the art work developed is an independent process, but the larger theme which encompasses the individual works is very important to keep track of the journey.” She also believes that the thought is always abstract from the beginning even if the trigger is apparently figurative as in a visual or a letter or something with a fixed form.

Detail large scale paper work

When asked about the philosophy of ‘My-Grant’, she tells us about the trials and tribulations experienced in the world of a business person. Business people technically have no religion per say, as a true businessman knows no discrimination. If they do it is detrimental to the trade itself. In this is a lesson of tolerance and acceptance. “My installation work in the show, talks about that very philosophy. The large religious texts on the pedestal and the works with the text from the Bhagavad Gita together illustrate that no matter which scripture you read through, the message is the same – of tolerance and acceptance and flourishing jointly as a society or nation.”

Large paper work

Also, it is not so much about putting food on the table or living an overindulgent life, as much as it is about the joy of watching something grow from nothing, the comparison she makes is of a farmer planting seeds and watching the crops grow only to harvest and restart the whole process. The harvest is not hoarded in his godowns, it is sold or given away to various sections of society. Business people also have an ability to start from anywhere and migrate to places more conducive to trade ensuring the burst of economic energy in any realm. This ability also fixes in the philosophy of transience in the mind and also the impermanence of things.

“In Mumbai today, one can go to the old Swadeshi market or Crawford market or other such wholes sale markets and see this unique spirit of staying afloat in fluctuating economical times. I salute this spirit through my works, it is a rarity to keep a positive attitude when you are certain of an unstable life, and that is what my parents and my community have taught me. Today the art world and art market is going through its turbulent phase but I still keep hope because of my faith in this philosophy which I have inherited from my community and family.”

Detail of Taavdi work

The works speak in a lexicon of abstraction, which doesn’t leave the viewer mystified. Artist Shilpa Nikam in her ‘My-Grant’ show articulates  a rarely explored facet of the business communities of our country, the small traders, the corner shop owners, the foot path vendors, the door to door sales people and the thelawalas, without whom the entire economy of the city and the country cannot sustain itself. While the bigger corporates and the multinational business brands tower over the small business traders, the fact remains in tact that the spirit of survival and flourishing percolates through all rungs of society and this is evident in Shilpa Nikam’s vivd energetic works. A must see show.

My Grant is on view till 19th March 2018 at the Jehangir Auditorium Gallery, Mumbai.

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