Kerala Canvas - Express India

Lions, tigers, bulls and elephants; dancers, drummers, farmers and village belles; gods, goddesses and the rest of the pantheon — they all leap out at the viewer from the 12 feet canvases rendered with strong slashing lines and maddening colours. The maker of these works is the dapper and thoroughly charming Aslam Shaikh who has come down from London for his first solo in India, titled ‘Sacred Made Real’. The exhibition, hosted by the Delhi-based curator Nina Pillai’s Arts and Auction House, Triveda Fine Arts, opens at the Oberoi in Delhi on August 19. The show is only for a day.

“My muse may be Kerala but the soul behind this body of work is Nina. A Keralite unlike me, she explained to me the nuances of Kerala, its people and its culture. Had I taken up this theme on my own, the richness would have been missing,” says the 42-year-old Shaikh who was born in Kolkata and has travelled to Egypt, London, Paris and Madrid to show his works.

“It all started in 2007 when Aslam made a portrait of me while I was visiting Dubai,” says Pillai, who hosted a special preview of the artist’s works at her well-appointed home in Anand Niketan on a balmy Sunday evening. Her duplex is chock-a-block with art— from Dali’s limited edition sculptures to Bose Krishnamachari’s paintings. In the centre of her living room is a 10ft monochrome by Shaikh and next to it stands the portrait of Pillai — admittedly looking a few years younger. “After this portrait, I felt I must share Aslam’s work with the rest of India, beginning with Delhi,” says Pillai, who also plans to take an exhibition of Shaikh’s work to Mumbai in 2011. “The opening at the Taj will be a grand affair celebrating Kerala’s arts, with assistants and guests expected to turn up dressed in gold-bordered saris and mundus, there will be Chenda players and Mohiniattam dancers,” says Pillai, grandly swishing her diamond-studded hands at the studio below, filled with Shaikh’s works.

Shaikh has an interesting trajectory because he is not just a painter but also an art restorer. Having studied restoration at Florence Conservation and Restoration FCR, Nottingham, he has a meticulous approach to his canvases. Their lustre and finish appear as if the artist has just daubed the paint on with his palette-knife — a difficult effect to achieve when the medium is acrylic.

Each work in the suite of 20 paintings has a unique frame —from simple, flat frames to double frames to those with ornate edges — to complement the symphony of colour and the twisting, gyrating forms that people the canvases.

Drawing upon the vitality of Pulikali (a theatrical performance where men dress as tigers) and the magic of the dance drama form Kudiyattam, Sheikh has dwelt upon the performing arts for the bulk of his inspiration. There are also works featuring Lord Vishnu meditating on Sheshnag, Lord Krishna dressed as a playful dancer, and Hidimba Ganesha wrestling with a tiger (Hidimba Ganesha is the fearsome form of the Elephant God that is popular in the South). “I wanted to infuse my paintings with a sense of dynamism so that nothing remains static,” says Shaikh.

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