Akkitham’s treasured memory of Sheikh: When I joined the department, one could enrol as a diploma student after Class X, something which is impossible to imagine now. Sheikh sir used to be a teacher in the art history department. He would take classes in English for degree students, Hindi for diploma students and, at times, in Gujarati for the local students. As a teacher, he was always willing to go beyond the rigid rules if he felt that someone deserved better consideration. Coming from the south, me and my batchmate Suresh BV, were not too familiar with Hindi, and when we requested Sheikh sir to allow us to attend the classes with degree students, he not only allowed us but also treated us as one of them. We did assignments and appeared for tests with them. He moved to the painting department as HOD after a few years, and it is rather amusing that both Suresh and I eventually became teachers in that very department and even taught under him.
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I saw this work in Sheikh sir’s university quarters, known as Residency Bungalow, just before it was completed. He had taken a long leave to complete this and two other works that were part of the exhibition “Place for People” in Bombay and Delhi. I consider this painting as one of the most important works done by him in his long artistic career. Not only was it a major departure from his earlier works in terms of the language, but in this work he also seemed to have found a voice for himself to conjure his long-lasting interest in literature, narration and the Indian miniature tradition. An autobiographical work across multiple layers, it is set in Sheikh sir’s residency bungalow home, which becomes a stage for unravelling intimate details.
In conversation with Sheikh
If I say that teaching came naturally to you without seeking it and that it fed into your own evolution as an artist, what would be your response?
I do not know how it came to me but I enjoyed it thoroughly from the very outset. An innate desire to share the delight felt in looking at a compelling work of art made the act of communicating with students a matter of joy. Teaching histories of Eastern and Western art revealed multiple modes of art-making. It led me to understand the diverse forms of creativity, which eventually fed into my own practice as an artist. I learned to prepare before a lecture but chose to speak extempore to improvise ideas in the process of speaking to test my perceptions with the students. Similarly, the challenges in reaching out to diverse groups of students prompted me to adopt a multi-lingual approach using Gujarati and Hindi beside English.
What would you consider as the most important contribution by the Baroda Faculty in post Independence Indian art?
Being the first institution in the country to offer university degrees in the disciplines of fine arts at par with humanities and sciences, the new art education at Baroda emphasised the idea of a citizen artist, articulate and aware of the history of past and present practices of art. So, the study of world art history, aesthetics and languages alongside studio practice was formalised into courses. It encouraged students to inculcate an inquiring mind and critical attitude and expanded the scope of themes, with an awareness of the immediate environment, especially of lived life. This resulted in the inclusion of issues of socio-political origin as a part of creative quests. Emphasising freedom of expression as an intrinsic human need and the embrace of ideas as central to creative pursuits, it saw the practice of art as an ongoing process subject to revision and change. So, in a sense, the Baroda experiment changed the prevailing notions of art as a secretive profession and the artist as a recluse or a vagabond.
Do you think within today’s art education there is a need to focus on the interactive aspects of various forms of artistic expressions?
Absolutely. Not only between different modes of fine arts practices but also between other arts and social sciences. I would also not rule out physical sciences either. To go a step further, I would venture to emphasise that the interaction should also flow into society at large, so that art is not viewed as a domain of experts alone but as a social need shared by people from all walks of life. Personally speaking, I think everybody should practice some form of art, whether it is drawing, singing, dancing, craft and writing to find creativity within our hidden instincts and give it some form of expression. Hopefully, this may make us somewhat better human beings.
‘My goal is to be a lifelong learner’: Nissar Ahmad Teli

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