by Manu SharmaJun 20, 2023
Taking the line for a walk! These are the words from a quote by Nasreen Mohamedi’s mentor Paul Klee, but resonated with my sentiments when I first encountered Nasreen Mohamedi’s monochromatic, meticulous and minimal world. A deep immersion into the Indian artist’s seminal creations eventually pieced together into a survey, rather an opportunity to perceive art in a novel way, beyond archival categorisation. Mohamedi’s recent rise to prominence among studies of Western art and Indian art abstraction isn’t a surprise to the art community. However, every time her art is presented, enthusiasts flock together to experience her aura all over again! And, once again, her aura came alive in Mumbai with two major exhibitions—since her retrospective in 1991, a year after she passed away.
Of course, I do have a question: “What really led to this exuberant collection out in India after decades of the artist’s early demise?” One of Mohamedi’s prominent collector, Masanori Fukuoka from the Glenbarra Museum of Art, Japan, has my answer: “While it is exhilarating to see the international attention her work is receiving, it has bothered me that pieces in our collection have never been shown together in India.” With this very aim, Fukuoka presented a four-city travelling exhibition which started and culminated on the shores of Arabian Sea, in Goa and Mumbai respectively. Fortunately, the last lap of this travelling exhibit at Pundole’s in Mumbai happened to coincide with Puja Vaish’s retrospective curation, titled The Vastness: Again & Again, at Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation,CSMVS. After having spent hours, much contemplation, and multiple visits to these two prominent white cubes (in retrospective 'white' holds a major significance in Mohamedi’s life), I finally pen down a little something as I paused, reflected and conjured over Mohamedi’s artistic lifespan through the lens of rhythmic lines, abstract forms, warm archival photographs and a pandora box of memories. Being a millennial myself, it felt like this was my only opportunity to know Nasreen Mohamedi so closely!
I am by the sea.
Nature has its own secrets
The two exhibitions connect on this very tangent of Mohammedi's fascination for the sea and the 'vastness.' Vaish shares, “The exhibition (at JNAF) takes its title from Mohamedi’s own writings, specifically from a letter to artist Nilima Sheikh, which also features in the art exhibition. Also, the word ‘vast’ or ‘vastness’ appears a few times in Mohamedi’s diary entries in relation to the abundance of nature/the perceived world, to be continually amazed by it, or sometimes her own sense of futility in trying to capture its essence." Her contemplative practice stems from two extreme landscapes—the sea and the dessert. In retrospect, this also connects back to Mohamedi’s early childhood days in Bombay, summer breaks in Alibag, and the deserts of Bahrain and Kuwait (where her father ran a photography trading company called Ashraf’s). A recent catalogue (published by Glenbarra Art Museum) essay authored by Emilia Terracciano quotes: "Concentrated observation of these landscapes became an important guiding exercise for Nasreen in crafting her non-figurative vocabulary…”
Retrospectively, later in her life, she advanced towards karesansui or the Japanese dry garden. Mohamedi’s works revolved around the zen principle of ‘mutability’. Vaish adds, “There was a genuineness in the way Mohamedi merged life and art. The practice of the everyday,riyaaz, repetition and steadfastness are seen in her sequential line drawings as well as in the ascetic way that she organised her space.” Interestingly, Terracciano's essay mentions about the artist’s obsession with white: white washed studio interiors, filmmaker Nina Sabnani’s humorous take on Mohamedi’s 'chromophobic diet being all white’ and Indian artist Nalini Malani’s looking after the garden with the only condition being that she nurtured 'white flowers.' Mohammedi’s world represented her delineation from the representation form. In her very own words (from Mohamedi’s diary notes): “The maximum out of the minimum".
Mohamedi strived to delineate the defined forms and eventually narrowed down to powerful ruled line drawings. Dating back to 1970s, these marked her Baroda days and a radical shift in her visual vocabulary. Critics compared these linear compositions with calligraphic scripts of Quran. Terracciano described these compositions as “the sound of sand moving in the desert.” In the words of Sabnani, Mohamedi was “both absent and present” while creating her works. Her meticulous lines captured the transient nature of the world. They were in a constant state of flux—some parallel like railway tracks while some overlapping, some fragile in a state of pause while some forming robust planes. It almost felt like lines were all that she needed!
Mohamedi’s fascination for lines also reflected in the way she viewed the world. Her photographs, for example, the zebra crossings in her trip to Japan in 1981, effortlessly captured the silence and stillness, but movement in the geometry, symmetry and harmony around. Sabnani speculates (quoted in her recent catalogue essay): “If she had been asked to change her country and move abroad, she would have most certainly chosen Japan.”
Well! Nasreen’s life choices back then are certainly a matter of conjecture today. But what she created is certainly deeper and difficult to fathom. She may not have moved to the land of the rising sun, but her art did come full circle as several of Mohamedi’s works landed in Fukuoka’s collection in 2003. "As a collector my engagement with Nasreen's work started as an aesthetic one. I acquired works that I enjoyed looking at," concluded Fukuoka. Indeed, it was a delightful journey to take a walk along Nasreen Mohamedi’s lines!"