Accumulated Grace: Nilima Sheikh on the Dunhuang Caves

Nilima Sheikh, whose practice explores shared histories across Asia, discusses her experiences with the Dunhuang Caves and their influence on her work


Located on the edge of the Gobi Desert and at the crossroads of the ancient Silk Road, the Dunhuang Caves facilitated the flow of trade goods and knowledge across religious, ethnic, and linguistic cultures from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, the Dunhuang Caves, also known as the Mogao (“peerless”) Grottoes, feature thousands of years of Buddhist paintings and sculptures, as well as a vast archive that documents this period. The following conversation with Nilima Sheikh was conducted by AAA Researcher Sneha Ragavan and AAA Public Programmes Lead Özge Ersoy, in conjunction with the exhibition Lines of Flight: Nilima Sheikh Archive, on view at Asia Art Archive from 22 March to 30 June 2018.

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Sneha Ragavan: You often mention that the ancient Chinese paintings and especially the Dunhuang Caves have a particular influence on your artworks. Can you tell us how you became interested in this site?

Nilima Sheikh: I was first invited to go to China in 1990. It was one of the few occasions I was invited by any kind of government organisation—in this case by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, which used to send artists and other cultural practitioners to various countries through cultural exchange programmes. This was a rare opportunity because there were very few exchanges with China at that time, and travelling to China as a private citizen was not common. I wanted very much to go. I knew I wanted to go to Xi’an and to visit some sites on the historic Silk Road. This was during the beginning of changes in society soon after the Tiananmen Square protests.

Gulam [Gulammohammed Sheikh, Nilima Sheikh’s husband] and I had seen small black-and-white images of some of the grotto paintings in Dunhuang in an art history book. That was all we knew about the Dunhuang Caves, but it was enough to excite Gulam’s curiosity, so he urged me to try and visit the caves. Without knowing anything about the cave paintings, I had a familiarity with one aspect of the art of Dunhuang for years. There is a vast collection of banners from Dunhuang at the National Museum in Delhi. These were brought to India by Marc Aurel Stein, who was the head of an archaeological expedition around the area of Dunhuang in 1907. He took away with him a significant number of books and manuscripts from the Dunhuang Caves, which he brought to India.

So, in my application for the visit to China, I wrote that I wanted to see some collections of scroll paintings, mentioning the few I knew about in the collections in Beijing and also the Dunhuang Caves. I received their offer of cooperation and support; our interpreter-to-be later told me that when my list of requests was received, they thought I was an art historian of sorts. But our own government delayed it so much that by the time we actually went to China, it was winter; the gates to the caves were closed, and access was impossible because in those days there was only one flight to the airport from where Dunhuang could be accessed, and it did not fly in winter.

However, during my visit, I was lucky to see an exhibition in Beijing with many painted reproductions of the Dunhuang murals, which gave me a sort of experience of what the caves would be like. I hadn't experienced anything like this—not even in the Ajanta Caves, which were so different, despite the shared telling of Buddhist tales. There was a whole world of art, a whole language, a whole culture, a whole history that I really knew nothing about. It had been so fragmentary in my mind. It was a large corpus of historical art, a form which was set alight by Buddhist missionary passion, which the Western world and we Indians had known nothing about, outside the small circle of scholars of Chinese art historical studies. We knew about scroll paintings but hardly anything about mural paintings in China.


Image: Scan of Nilima Sheikh's “China Diary” text for <i>Indian Express</i>, 17 January 1991. Courtesy of the artist.
Image: Scan of Nilima Sheikh's “China Diary” text for Indian Express, 17 January 1991. Courtesy of the artist.


SR: Were you able to find any related publications during your first visit?

NS: We had a wonderful interpreter from the China Artists Association. She saw my enthusiasm, and partnered with me to look for books I could bring back to India. We wandered all over the markets in Beijing, and we did find something eventually. There were two substantial volumes written in Chinese, but quite copiously illustrated. There was nothing published in English, we were told at the charming art book store. I carried the volumes back with me and it sustained Gulam and me for a long time until we actually got the chance to go and see the murals in 2006 with a group of Indian artists, while on a tour to parts of China. By that time, the access to the caves had become more regularised and more publications had come out, because there was a more developed study of “Dunhuangology” as an art historical topic.

In 1991, the exhibition I saw in Beijing of cave paintings of the Mogao grottoes in Dunhuang came to Delhi, to the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts at the behest of a cultural advisor to the Government of India. So in this way I encountered the copies of the murals once again, and they stayed in my mind a long time before I actually saw the actual caves.

Özge Ersoy: I believe that the Getty Conservation Institute began a collaboration with the Dunhuang Academy in the late 1980s, and started working on the conservation of the wall paintings at the site after the mid-1990s. What was the stage of the conservation when you visited the caves?

NS: The conservation work was still going on when we visited the cave. In some ways our second visit was even more special than the first. It was only Gulam and me this time. We had received an invitation from Johnson Chang Tsong Zung to participate in an exhibition he was planning in Shanghai as part of the West Heavens project in 2011. We decided to go to Dunhuang before going to Shanghai for the preliminary site visit. It was through Johnson that we got an introduction to a person who showed us the special caves that were at that moment closed for restoration. There were scaffoldings installed for the restoration and we could climb up to see the paintings from very close distance. Unfortunately we couldn’t take any photographs at that time.

SR: I remember you saying the site faced some threats during the Cultural Revolution.

NS: I believe there had been a person—I can’t remember his name now—from the vicinity of the grottoes, who, when he traveled to Europe to study, became aware of the value of Chinese art and the need to conserve it. He also came to understand how local people treasured the caves. When there was a warning of an imminent attack on the caves during the Cultural Revolution, he mobilised resources and habitants of nearby villagers to protect the safety of the grottoes. And saved them for posterity.

ÖE: Can you tell us what you experienced when you walked into the site for the first time? And how have these repeated visits influenced the way you think about the organisation of space in your work?

NS: At first sight there was this dramatic rising mountain in the great Gobi desert, yet, on spotting the caves, natural-yet-architecturally moulded and aligned by feats of human engineering, the Dunhuang Caves began to feel familiar to me because it made me think of the Ajanta Caves, where I remembered seeing caves upon caves upon caves carved into the rock face of the cliff-like mountain. But Dunhuang had many more caves, even if the painting was scant in some of them. After the initial dramatic impact, the Mogao Grottoes gradually reveal themselves for the searchers.

What really amazed me was the incorporation of the heavens: into the air, into the world, into perception—and the animation of that. In the caves, everything has a sense of having alighted, or flown in, rather than having grown out of the soil as we often think—in the materialisation of figures in Ajanta or generally in most, particularly western and southern, Indian historical art. At Dunhuang, there is a sense of not only the inhabitation of the air, of the heavens, but also the mobilisation of them. This can be seen in many visual traditions, including Indian and European painting; but this kind of fulsome sensation of the swirling, soaring presence of all kinds of life in the skies was astounding.

Likewise, the laying out of the ground—spaces seen from shifting vantage points and very often aerial perspectives fascinated me. We were told by an art historian, with whom we had the privilege of seeing some of the caves, that Japanese art historians acknowledge the lineage of this viewing as a source for some of the aerial perspectives used in later Japanese painting.

I’m thinking about my time walking in the mountains in my formative years, and how this influenced my looking at space, and imagining or inventing pictorial spaces. I believe that Dunhuang, in some ways, pushed my belief that you see things very differently if you live in the mountains. The space can be structured quite differently. The land levitates and lowers under your feet, opening changing vistas below. Walking in the mountainside miraculously reveals the distance, notated by trees, foliage, habitation, contours, and markings of the lands in the panning-out landscape. The aspect of the adjunct helps map what is revelatory.

ÖE: Can you say more about this sense of having alighted, which is different from the Ajanta Caves? How do you interpret the differences between these two pilgrimage sites on the ancient Silk Road in relation to how artists and artistic languages take different shapes as they move across geographies?

NS: I’m not really equipped to talk about this in a scholarly way, but I can offer subjective readings. In the Ajanta Caves, there is a sense of saturation in earthy terms. The figures have a sort of measured sensuousness about them. There is a grace and rootedness in them—and weight, not in the Western sense, but in another kind of way—a lithe, reciprocal gravitas from the vegetal locale it grows out of.

What happens when a painter from a developed art centre moves to other places? Art historians often use the term “provincial” when there is a change from an imperial patronage system to a comparatively minor patronage system. There will be changes in their oeuvre and language according to the requirement of a new space and new patrons. Buddhist monks and artists had travelled to faraway lands with a missionary passion creating a kind of shorthand of the formulation of body and ornaments that were used before. Undoubtedly they encountered other models of presenting the body in the new geographies they traversed.

I would say that it is the missionary zeal combined with the need for shorthand. As an artist, you sometimes have to put things down quickly. In Dunhuang, with the artists having moved from one place to another to retell, for instance, the stories of Buddha, the stories in the caves seem to get inscribed all over, from top to bottom. For me, it feels like they inscribed the stories into the air. This is why there is an accumulated grace—a type of grace that is not embodied in individual bodies. What is incredibly beautiful is the whole experience of the site itself.


Image: Nilima Sheikh, <i>Sarhad 2</i> (detail), 2014. Tempera on Sanganer paper. Private Collection. Courtesy of the artist.
Image: Nilima Sheikh, Sarhad 2 (detail), 2014. Tempera on Sanganer paper. Private Collection. Courtesy of the artist.


ÖE: Going back to your work, how do you think these visits to Dunhuang changed the way you depict figures in your paintings?

NS: For me, it’s more related to the idea of the movement of bodies than simply bodies or figures themselves. In that sense, these experiences hark back to the experience of walking the landscape—that, added to the way I think about scale and organisation of space in my works. But learning from Dunhuang is an ongoing project, fairly unfulfilled as yet. The strategies of its vast mobilisation of space and abbreviations of means eludes me. My modernist training helps in making some bridges; in a recent painting titled Across Lands, from my series Terrain: Carrying Across Leaving Behind, for instance. But equally, it prevents me from absorbing the devices used by the painters of Dunhuang in landscaping worlds within worlds. I’m not suggesting I should give up one for the other, but alternative pictorial modes extend meanings.


This conversation was transcribed by Crystal Yip, and has been translated into Marathi by Noopur Desai for
Hakara Journal.

Slider image credits: (1) A mural depicting Tang Dynasty monastic architecture from cave sixty-one of the Mogao Caves, Wikipedia Commons, public domain, scanned from Patricia Ebrey’s The Cambridge Illustrated History of China (1999). (2) Fresco depicting Tang Dynasty architecture from Mogao Caves, Wikipedia Commons, public domain. (3) Asura in cave 249 of the Mogao Caves, Wikipedia Commons, public domain.







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