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Nilima Sheikh’s Biennale Artwork is a Tribute the ‘Omnipresent’ Malayali Nurse

In Kochi
January 22, 2019

American poet Theodore Deppe had once noticed that nursing is an art that judges many sciences. It’s a “way of practising the art of attention”, goes the quote, which finds timely invocation among a dozen such nuggets of wisdom in a work at the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

The artist at the festival’s main venue is veteran Nilima Sheikh. The Baroda-based painter’s five-panel image at the Aspinwall House is a tribute to the world’s nursing community, with centrality to the largely omnipresent Malayalis in it. Nilima, 73, “takes inspiration from the global presence” of the uniformed female healthcare professionals hailing from Kerala.

The nurse, who is a critical presence in hospitals, is often referred to as ‘sister’. That respectful moniker translates into ‘chechi’ in mainstream Malayalam. Aptly, Nilima has titled her biennale work ‘Salam Chechi’.

It’s the nurses’ multifaceted work in contemporary times that the artist brings to focus even as the characters are invariably Malayalis for the obvious reason. It depicts the different roles she plays as the patient’s caretaker till recovery or evident signs of it.

Done on plywood using the water-soluble medium of casein tempera that has a glue-like consistency and dries fast, Nilima’s ‘Salam Chechi’ is the result of a long and painstaking research driven by the idea of portraying a crucial facet of womanhood: compassion.

“It’s a salute to these women who are sisters to all, and their natural affinity towards one of the most laborious and indispensable roles in the world,” says the Delhi-born artist, who did her art studies from the MS University in Gujarat’s cultural capital on the banks of the Vishwamitri river. Nilima’s work has references also to the killing of a Malayali nurse in Libya in May 2016 following which the Kerala government made efforts to bring the sisters safe to their native place, from where they again flew back later. It celebrates the unsung in the medical field, according to the art fraternity.

‘Salam Chechi’, incidentally, was the first work to qualify for the 2018 biennale. The announcement had come from curator Anita Dube on December 12, 2017, exactly a year before the start of the 108-day festival. “The tender compassion in the paintings of Nilima Sheikh, in their quiet grandeur, aligns the feminine with the mystic and subversive strains in our tradition,” notes Dube, also an MS varsity alumna. “She is a voice we must listen to, especially in these violent troubled times.”

The Kochi Biennale Foundation, too, highlights the significance of the work. “For all its criticality, nursing continues to be a sector riddled with exploitation of all sorts,” notes artist Bose Krishnamachari, president of the 2010-formed foundation and himself a Malayali. “Nilima’s work is a note of respect to the nurses of the world.”

The artwork is enriched by quite a few quotes. While young Panchali Ray who teaches at Jadavpur University notes that Kerala nurses are largely a “strong association of women of low caste and working-class rights”, researcher Sreelekha Nair finds, “…to be a Malayali nurse is to constantly negotiate one’s life and future at the intersections of gender, status and migration.”

Writer Nisha Susan, who is co-founder of feminist online magazine The Ladies Finger, chips in with a streak of humour: “You can put the Malayali nurse in the old teashop-on-the-moon comic scenario and the joke would still work. She is everywhere.” And adds: “She is the one who made everyone laugh at the idea of a nurse not speaking Malayalam.”

Nilima, who began as an academic before choosing to be a “painter-painter”, says nurses across the world face discrimination of several kinds. As for her style of art, the septuagenarian says “I think for me, even today, the biggest challenge is really to be able to draw in as many ways possible, and to keep learning from the wonderful ways of drawing that have existed in the world.”