“Earth Drives Earth Along”: In Conversation with Nilima Sheikh

As one of the earliest modern artists in post-independent India to work with natural pigments, Nilima Sheikh discusses the histories and materiality of four colours from her studio space in Baroda

Nilima Sheikh (b. 1945) began researching traditional art forms in India with the help of a government fellowship she received in the mid-1980s. She travelled to the temple town Nathdwara, Rajasthan, known for Pichhwai paintings—large-scale artworks on textile used as backdrops for idols of deities. Sheikh met with several Pichhwai painters and studied their visual language, as well as their histories, tools, and materials, like the natural pigments they use to make colour. This text is edited from an interview 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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Özge Ersoy: Sneha and I asked you to pick and share four pigments with us, and you chose khari, vermilion, kalai, and terre verte.

Nilima Sheikh: In my work, I use a lot of ready-ground pigments. I buy these colours from shops in the West, as well as China and Japan. But I also take the trouble to make certain special colours myself or buy them from local hardware shops or colourmen in a semi-prepared form. [More on “colourmen” in the Kalai Pigments section below.] There is such a range of terre verte in the West, so I was able to use the prepared ones just as effectively. But for khari, vermilion, and kalai, I wasn’t able to find quite the same thing.

There are very few people who remember how to prepare and process these colours. When I researched Pichhwai painters of Nathdwara in the mid-1980s, there were some who were already using poster paint—this was much cheaper than making their own colours. Nathdwara was a town of two hundred Pichhwai painters, all living cheek by jowl. Since then, there has been some revival of interest in this traditional practice passed on from generation to generation. But this craft might become obsolete because of the shortage of initiative and financial resources in India to maintain its artisanal and aesthetic qualities. When artists like Dwarka Lal Jangid passed away, remarkable bits of knowledge went with them.

Image: Letter from Dwarka Lal Jangid to Sheikh, thanking her for sending her magazine article on Pichhwai painters of Nathdwara, 1990.
Image: Letter from Dwarka Lal Jangid to Sheikh, thanking her for sending her magazine article on Pichhwai painters of Nathdwara, 1990.

Sneha Ragavan: Do you take notes about how you process these pigments?

NS: I used to write everything down, especially for a series of workshops I did previously, but I haven’t been making notes for quite a long time. In the late 1980s, Gulam [Gulammohammed Sheikh, Nilima Sheikh’s husband] organised several workshops at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda, with artists from various parts of India—people who worked with traditional materials. They would spend a month and a half to work with us in Baroda. It was quite an unusual project. K. G. Subramanyan [Nilima Sheikh’s teacher], with all his interest in artistic techniques, never saw that traditional knowledge could be disseminated this way. Gulam made a massive effort, and the students went to these villages and places, where they were able to learn from traditional masters.


Khari Pigments

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SR: Which pigment would you like to start with?

NS: Let’s start with khari. Khari is the basic gesso [white paint primer] used in most of the north Indian traditional manuscript paintings. It is a sort of chalk that is quarried in Rajasthan, mainly. It dissolves fairly easily in water and is traditionally used with a binder made with animal skin glue. White is a very basic colour in miniature painting. The quality of the khari is significant in the formulation of the miniature, because it can be used for priming before painting. Then it can be used for drawing and correcting during the process of developing the painting. And it can be used as a transparent paint when you want to erase some parts slightly. It also yields to burnishing. It has a very special glow—different from the eggshell white or seashell white that are used frequently in mostly southern and eastern parts of India. Also, it is resilient; relief work in Basohli miniature paintings, for instance, is often done with a khari and animal skin glue base.

I think it’s used very differently in Mughal miniatures. In these paintings, portraits are often delineated by a continuous correction of the profile or the contour by the painter. This gives a sort of sharpness to the outline and luminosity, which glows through even when concealed by transparent layers of other colours.

SR: Is this use of khari specific to Rajasthan?

NS: I am not too sure. For instance, it’s used in Pahari paintings, but I don’t really know if it’s quarried there. Its use is fairly common all over the north, but I guess it’s mainly quarried in Rajasthan, where it’s often used for domestic purposes. It’s mixed with lime when you’re painting the walls of a house to make the white more luminous.

SR: Is this kind of pigment found elsewhere?

NS: You can get what is called “whiting” in shops in the West. But the quality of khari you get from Rajasthan is very different. It is not as commonly used as zinc or titanium white—the two colours that are mostly used for gesso—whereas whiting is used very often on paper and walls.

ÖE: This pinkish mineral is another version of the white one, right?

NS: It’s also khari. It may be from a different quarry. When you use it, the shade of pink doesn’t appear to be as dark as you see it now. It becomes transparent. Whereas this deeper pink khari maybe another variant of the same mineral, though I wouldn’t vouch for that. It has been ground, dried, and made into this cuboid shape by a craftsman in Jaipur. It is quite likely that there is a little bit of red earth pigment, like Indian red or burnt sienna, added to give it a tint. During the pigment-making process, when the clay is still wet, some tint might have been added.

ÖE: Where do you get these minerals from?

NS: I get the minerals from different places. This khari is from Jaipur. You can also get it from Udaipur. But I go to Jaipur more often because I source my paper there as well. There is also a bazaar in Delhi where a large amount of these pigments is available. I can get it there, but I find the khari from Jaipur is somehow better. You get it from a colourman rather than from a hardware store.


Vermilion Pigments

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SR: What is the difference between these two vermilion pigments?

NS: We use the word “vermilion” for a range of colours. One of them is of the range that is made from lead and the other from mercury. They are quite distinctive. The use of the one made from mercury is comparatively lesser known now. In Europe, it was used even in icon paintings, because it also works as an insecticide. Amongst the traditional artists in India it is known as “hingul” or “hingloo.” In Europe, this is known as cinnabar red.

But cinnabar is not used that often now in the West. I found what is called Chinese vermilion amongst the specialised colours in a pigment store (Kremer) in Germany, but was a mercury sulphide. Vermilion is what we traditionally call “sindoor” in India. It is made from lead; it’s a lead sulphide. Whereas cinnabar or hingul is a mercury sulphide. Both are toxic. There’s been an outrage about women having to use sindoor in the parting of their hair to denote their married status, so usually nowadays they don’t actually use the real sindoor.

These are both very resonant colours. They spread very well. Cinnabar is a little bit more transparent than sindoor, which has slightly more opacity and is more resilient. It is used for outdoor murals, especially in Rajasthan. We very often have the combination of these four or five colours—khari as the white; sindoor as the red; selu is the green, emerald green; neel or ultramarine blue; and usually kajal, lampblack, for black. These are the colours commonly found on murals. By “common,” I mean they are made by local people, and used to paint often temple or palace walls.

SR: Where do you get your vermilion or hingul pigments?

NS: The first time I bought it was from a hakim shop [Unani medicine shop]. It is available in Bengal, and was probably used in the Bengal School paintings. A few years ago, when I spoke to the artist Jayashree Chakravarti, she was also familiar with the use of it. Bengali painters would also buy it from the hakim [Unani physician] at that time. But now, in centres where there are a lot of traditional artists living and working, many as copyists, these colours would be available in hardware shops where the paints are sold. I probably got the pigment in the early 1980s for the first time.

SR: Vermilion is not specific to Rajasthan, right?

NS: It’s not, but it’s commonly used there. You used to be able to get it from the very ordinary pooja shops [worship items shop] and hardware stores. In the old days, for some reason, it was used to put plumbing joints together. But I don’t see this so much now. And this sindoor would be used on the Ganesh or Hanuman idol, even in roadside shrines. This vermillion sindoor will be plastered onto the idols. It’s considered auspicious.

ÖE: Is there a particular way you use hingul or cinnabar in your work?

NS: It’s a basic component for me, since it mixes very well with other colours. It’s a robust colour, but it also has transparency. You can mix it with and layer it onto other colours. It spreads very evenly, and you can get a very smooth ground when you use it. If you put a little bit of khari in it, your colour becomes very different. It’s quite exciting. It doesn’t become like a paler version of your colour, but acquires a slightly different tint. I mix it very often with raw sienna, and that gives me a rich but nuanced colour. It mixes well with earth colours.


Kalai Pigments

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SR: What is the English word for “kalai”?

NS: It’s an alloy: tin or nickel. Kalai is the action of tinplating cooking vessels, the colour made from it is called “ranga” by the Pichhwai painters. Traditionally in India, it’s used in homes for tin- or nickel-coating copper or brass kitchen pots that were damaged by acid. It used to be very common to have people come around to your neighbourhood to tinplate your vessels.

ÖE: Is it easily available?

NS: I learned about the use of kalai in Rajasthan and Baroda. In Sankheda [a town near Baroda], there’s a traditional decorative form of furniture made from wooden parts fashioned on the lathe. The designs often have silvery and golden colours, with a varnish on top. The silvery colour is kalai/ranga, and that is how I got to know about this material. But it’s only when I went to Nathdwara that I realised that the silver colour in traditional Pichhwai paintings comes from kalai, not silver.

The material is duller than silver. I find it to be a versatile colour. I use it very often as a sort of grey because if you use it thinly, it does not shine so much. You can use it as a transparent grey, unlike the clay-based greys we have, which have an opaque quality to them. But if you layer it, or if you apply it quite thickly, then you can get a shiny surface. And the thing about it is that you don’t need to keep burnishing it once it is good enough. It is not like silver or gold that requires you to keep burnishing. It doesn’t tarnish, if the binding agent is stable.

When I visited Sankheda in the 1980s, craftsmen prepared sheets of kalai for their own work and they bind it with animal skin glue. If you don’t want to use animal skin glue, and you want to use something else, then you have to dissolve it in water and keep decanting the water to extract the glue.

SR: It’s interesting that so many of the pigments you’re speaking about seem to have an everyday use. What about the “colourmen”—who are they?

NS: “Colourmen” is a Western word, actually. They specialise in making pigments. There is a network of colourmen, colour traders that go around selling these from place to place. They make watercolours and maybe other paints, too; but primarily they are pigment makers, like Kremer or Cornelissen. Cornelissen is an old English brand and Kremer is a German brand. But in India I’m using the word “colourmen” to refer to those who could be called “pansaris.” They sell specialised materials for specific crafts or rituals. Their expertise may be in preparing colours or else they would source them from suppliers.

A lot of the actual preparation of a colour happens in the artist’s studio. And that’s what I have been trying to say—that if a colour could be made in a more easily available, semi-prepared form, then the use of the colour would enter the mainstream. But if the artist has to make the colour from scratch, then it will obviously deter most from using these traditional resources.

A purist might not approve. We have a range of colours used in, say, Gangtok or Orissa or something in Rajasthan. But if it was a little bit more easily available, there might be more exchange regarding different colour-making techniques. Art students and artists would begin to use these colours.

I’m one of the artists who have been working with these resources, and I’m not the only one for sure. But when I started off, it was too complicated and too difficult to work with these materials. There was also this myth that each artist traditionally would very closely guard his or her secrets. It may be partly true due to competiveness among them, but I didn’t encounter much of this kind of secrecy. People I met were willing to share their knowledge. But let’s say, for instance, I brought from Nathdwara the first time I went there, little golis [balls] of a chrome yellow or vermilion. These could be stored, ready for use. You just dissolve them before using. If they are made or marketed in that form, it won’t be so formidable to the user, compared to the process of grinding and making a pigment.

My idea is that these materials should be made available in places like the Crafts Museum in Delhi, where all craftsmen come and display their work. The colourmen could make the paint there.

Now, of course, things have changed. Today, you are able to get “foreign colours” in India. For instance, you can easily get Sennelier pigments in India. The need for locally made materials naturally declines, and the related art, craft, and knowledge will eventually diminish.


Terre Verte Pigments


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NS: Let’s continue with terre verte. It means “green earth.” In Rajasthan, it’s called “hara bhata.” There is of course a range of earth pigments as we know, used all over the world, and are most easily and cheaply available. You don’t even have to buy them. You can go down to the local mountain and dig them up. There’s a story about how Benodebabu [Benode Behari Mukherjee] used to go for walks and picked up stones or sedimented colours and used them. I would probably say the same for raw sienna, or colours like red or yellow ochre. There is such a large variety of these shades available all over the world. If you look at a Florentine painting, or a Tuscan painting, or a Veronese painting, the greens used by artists of each region would be those that are found in their landscape, more or less. Whatever is locally available.

It is the same in India as well. People use the greens that are locally available. This is not only because they’re affordable or easily accessible, but also because they’re evergreen—they don’t fade. Earth green is very, very stable. So I have been attracted to it. I’ve looked at the paintings of the Santiniketan painters for years and have enjoyed the slightly bluish-green terre verte that they use. But I don’t think it was locally quarried; I think they got it from Rajasthan.

The terre verte in Jaipur is the best-known shade of earth green in India. But in the West, each town would have its own terre verte. It can range from this radiant bluish green to something that is just about or barely green. Verona terre verte looks deceptively pale when you see it but becomes greener as you work with it.

ÖE: I remember a story you told us previously, where you went to a shop in Paris and asked for pigments such as terre verte—you were looking for places to source your paints. What was the year?

NS: It was in the late 1980s. I visited places like Paris and London, so I could buy pigments there, which would be easier to use than having to grind them myself and make them suitable for painting. I was told that Sennelier is a good pigment maker. So I went to the shop in Paris and started asking for colours. They looked at me, a little doubtful, and said, “Oh, are you from India?” I said, “Yes.” And they said, “So are all these colours that you’re choosing.”

I was shocked. I also found it ironic. Here we have all the resources for pigment making and all the technologies to turn them into colours. But in order to process them, we send them abroad. They’re prepared there and we go looking for Sennelier shops, and buy them at very high prices. Also, in those days, we had very little access to foreign currency exchange in India, so we didn’t have that much money in our pockets. We had to be careful how we spent it.

SR: In your student years, you would find these pigments in buckets in the hallways of the art school.

NS: Yes. In those days, with Gyarsilal Varma [a traditional mason and craftsman who taught mural techniques at the Faculty of Fine Arts, M. S. University of Baroda], I saw almost a bucket full of terre verte, and that was before I got really interested in pigments myself. This was in the 1960s. There was a sack full of this pigment that used to be lying there, this green, which I now go searching for, lusting for. This would have been the pigment that I would grind and prepare. And it has a wonderful luminosity. So I keep looking.

But still, it’s lovely to see how in different places, you get these different colours. In Kota, you get a lovely pink earth colour. In the Kota manuscript paintings, artists used a lot of pink, so obviously pink is quarried there. It’s not red ochre. It’s a more pinkish colour, like the European potter’s pink.

SR: And terre verte is one of those colours that you have found in places like the Ajanta caves?

NS: It’s one of those colours found in Ajanta and Dunhuang [towns where major Buddhist sites are located, in India and China, respectively]. It was used a lot in Dunhuang. There are two greens that I use frequently. One of them is a stone colour, which is a range of terre verte. The other one is malachite, which is much more expensive and precious.


Living Traditions and Papermaking

Image: Sheikh dissolving a yellow pigment in water.
Image: Sheikh dissolving a yellow pigment in water.

ÖE: There is an open letter that you wrote after your research in India—it’s also reprinted in the book Trace Retrace (2013)—where you say that these traditions have to be passed on from generation to generation, and the government should support this type of knowledge. Can you say more about governmental support these days?

NS: In fact, it has worsened. Paper is another area that I’ve been concerned about, even more so than the growing absence of locally produced pigments. Papermaking in India is abysmal in mainstream culture.

The Khadi handmade paper is not really adequate to work on. They are alright for decorative purposes, but they are not any good for painting. And we have the technology in the northeastern part of the Himalayas. We have wonderful husk paper made from bamboo, from rice, or from all kinds of leaves. Wonderful papers are made, but they are mostly marketed and sold in the West. I have been in touch with one paper supplier who has a small godown [storage] in a remote part of Old Delhi. He comes along and sells these things, so I buy the materials from him. But why should it be so difficult to come across these materials?

There is a papermaker that I go to in Sanganer. When I first visited him in the early 1980s, he had a pit in his tiny house to make paper. There were two of these papermakers who would make paper for miniaturists. By the time I went there, their skills had diminished because the miniature painters and the copyists would prefer to use old paper, so that the painting on it would be given an older date during authentication. So these new papers were only used by art students. It’s pathetic the way that they were being used. Because of the strong absorbent quality of the paper, it was once used for microphone cones or in the halwai [sweet] shops where they would absorb the ghee [clarified butter]. But now it has changed. There has been a little growth of interest amongst art students and artists in the remarkable quality of this paper prepared for making the miniature wasli.

Let me explain. Sanganer is a papermaking suburb of Jaipur. There is a lot of handmade paper produced there, but like the Khadi paper that I was talking about, which is not very good for painting—it’s used because no other kind is available. But there are two or three fellows who made paper for artists. By the time I went there, there were only two left. I think there’s now only one. He has prospered because a lot more people have been demanding that type of paper. They would make the effort of going there and buying it. It’s still not available in Delhi so you have to go to Sanganer. But because there’s no competition, he’s also more careless about the quality of his paper.

SR: Is this wasli?

NS: Yes. Wasli actually means the layering of papers to make a card. That’s what the miniaturists paint on. This is a wasli made of two or three thin layers. It is really disheartening that this is not available widely. You even have all kinds of imported paper here. When I was in China, there was a variety of locally made paper in the shops.

SR: Do you use any Nepalese paper?

NS: The Nepalese paper was used by the Bengal School of Art. I use it quite a lot, too. The more politically correct word to use nowadays is “lokta.”

SR: There is something about the way in China, for example, the academy seems to have taken both modern and traditional painting very seriously. And you have modern institutions that focus on traditional artistic practices, if not more, than contemporary ones. Was bringing someone to Baroda like Gyarsilal Varma one such attempt?

NS: In a way. I think the parallel would be Santiniketan rather than Baroda. Actually, even in Santiniketan, traditional artistic practices were invented, though traditional materials are still used. In that sense, it is comparable. But when we came to Baroda, we had these two completely different alignments—one with Santiniketan and one with Bombay or Chennai, which would be closer to the “academy.” Santiniketan is about looking at Asian modern art very seriously. Baroda is perhaps a mix of the two, because Subramanyan and Sankho Chaudhuri came from Santiniketan, and they brought in a lot of that culture.

There was an emphasis on modernist art but there was not a very clear division, as in China. When I first went to China, I found this division quite bizarre. We came out of a practice, which was totally invented, and we had none of our traditional patronage resources left. I don’t know how it worked in China. There is a big difference between the ways that our modernism has developed in painting, and the ways that it has developed in music and dance. As a second or third generation of artists coming out of independent India, we felt very privileged to have this modernist position, which we didn’t extend to dance and other arts. When I looked at China, I sort of felt as if they are doing both Bharatnatyam and modern dance, but the two streams did not converge.

ÖE: The dancers and musicians didn’t claim this modernist position?

NS: Not until recently. In India there are hardly any schools where you can learn even a synthesis of different forms of dance. There was one experiment, which was in the Uday Shankar School. There was an attempt to create modern dance by integrating a lot of traditional practices, but it petered out. I was a product of that methodology because my teacher, Narendra Sharma, was Uday Shankar’s student. It was later popularised by dance films and went into other trajectories. Long story.

SR: When one is asking for a combination of these two, a common critique is that it ends up benefiting the modern artist.

NS: Of course. That is what we still have to work on. There is this whole issue of a strong caste system that does not allow our artists to continue to practice.

ÖE: One last question, coming back to pigments. Can you say a few words on how they travel across different regions?

NS: For example, look at how people source lapis. Lapis is a pigment commonly used in western India, as well as in the West. It comes from Afghanistan and India, mainly. This has to be part of a trade route. In India, they appear in several types of tempera paintings. Apart from the geographical distance between artistic centres, the glue which is used as a binder also marks the differences between these paintings. So there has been a lot of movement within India alone. As for how colours from India travel to other parts of the world, European colourmen have been sourcing these colours from everywhere. And we are going to Europe to buy them. I’m still doubtful about what European knowledge is adding to the knowledge of our traditional painters.


This conversation was transcribed by Crystal Yip. The title, “Earth Drives Earth Along,” comes from a poem by Bullhe Shah, referenced in one of Nilima Sheikh's casein tempera works on Sanganer paper, titled Terrain: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind (2016–17).







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