by Georgina Maddox
Visiting artist Shekh Hifzul Kabeer at his studio in Garhi as he eases gently out from the lockdown into public view for his solo exhibition at Artspeaks India
Walking in to Garhi Studios, located in East of Kailash, is like taking a leap back in time. This is not because of the laid-back air, the Mughal-style arches and brass studded door, the old chaiwalhah hunched over his constantly bubbling pot of tea and the artists who seem wrapped up in their own world of paint and brushes, chisel and hammer or ink rollers. It is also because this 1976 artist studio initially named Kala Kuteer has its entire complex located on the premises of a heritage site, locally known as Village Gargi Zharia Maria, Delhi. Many great artists both living and those who've passed away have created their works under these arches and old, leaf-strewn roofs.
Shekh Hifzul Kabeer at work
I am here to meet artist Hifzul Kabeer who then takes me to his designated studio space where he normally works when at Garhi. Given the lockdown, Hifzul is coming here after many months and most of his work for his upcoming solo show at ArtSpeaks India have been made while working from home in a make-shift studio space among his wife and baby girl. Which is why the format for this show fits under his arm in a waterproof portfolio. Delicate, small format water colour works that contemporize his approach to the miniatures. Hifzul takes the traditional small-format work that is characteristic of the Indian style. Large canvases that rest stacked against the wall indicate that this format is not usual for Hifzul, who is known to work in large format with acrylic and oil, even though his iconography still quotes the miniatures. Hifzul artfully employs mythology to address the pain and anxiety of the current situation with the pandemic.
“Working through the lockdown was the only way I could get relief from the frustration and anxiety that we were all facing during the Pandemic. I worked in water colour in a serious manner for the first time since 2002 and in a smaller format because going to the studio was close to impossible in the middle of the Second Wave,” recalls Kabeer.
Water colour came as a welcome relief to Kabeer, since he has been working in acrylic and large format work ever since he came into the mainstream as a painter. Now water colour is delicate like ‘fragile glass’, or like a newly born child that has to be treated gently.
“In many ways working with water colour was like driving on the highway without any traffic. It is a clear way without any traffic knots that may cause mood swings, which can occur when one is working with either acrylic or oil,” says Kabeer, who is now able to detect the mood changes that more often than not lead to a block in work.
Which is why the mythological inspiration behind this body of work came thick and fast. Take for instance Kabeer’s water colour titled Novel Raktbeej. The painting embodies a demonic bat with a large sickle in its claw and a hirsute weapon of mace in the other as it floats over the map of the world in a menacing manner. According to the Hindu myth the Raktbeej was an asura or demon, (where rakta = blood, bīja = seed) who fought with Shumbha and Nishumbha against Goddess Parvati, Goddess Kali or Goddess Chamunda.
Novel Raktbeej, Water-colour on paper, 22 inches x 14 inches, 2020
Applying this mythical character to real life, it is rather ironic that the first manifestation of the novel corona virus was a bat that transferred it to a human being and that the medium spreading the virus in contact rather than blood. According to the myth it was only Ma Kali who collected the blood of the Raktbeej in a cup and was able to stem the outbreak of its evil power and in contemporary life it is perhaps the vaccine that can be identified as the Saviour so far.
Superstitious, Water-colour on paper, 11 inches x 14 inches, 2021
Another work that captures one’s attention is titled Superstitious. Here the protagonist is a zoomorphic being with multiple heads doing what is known as the ‘ostrich act’. “Very often reality comes before us and we can see it, but we tend to ignore it. Everyone is suffering but rather than going towards a solution, they’re all trapped and stuck in acts of denial,” says the artist. This is a current reality that he’s suggests with his tongue firmly in his cheek. On a subliminal level he also hints towards a fear psychosis and uncertainty that is all pervasive.
Mutant, Water colour on paper, 11 inches x 14 inches, 2021
Despite the darker theme that underwrites the humorous rage of work, there are paintings like Mutant, where we see the intricate design of nature and humankind superimposed upon the world map, indicating a sense of hope despite the odds that we as a society are currently faced with.
Avtaar, Water colour on paper, 11 inches x 14 inches, 2021
Anzame Gulista, Water colour on paper, 11 inches x 14 inches, 2021
Self Portrait, Water colour on paper, 10 inches x 13 inches, 2021
Catch the exhibition online; meeting with the artist would require a special prior appointment with a cup of tea!
(All images are courtesy of the gallery ArtSpeaks India and the artist, Shekh Hifzul Kabeer.)
Georgina Maddox is an independent critic-curator with almost two decades of experience in the field of Indian art and culture. She was assistant editor at India Today’s Mail Today and senior arts writer for the Indian Express and the Times of India. She is currently working in the media as an independent critic for various publications and has published articles in Open Magazine, India Today, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and also in Elle Magazine, The Hindu and Business Line, Sunday Magazine BLINK, TAKE on Art, Time Out, and online with US based E-magazine, Studio International, STIR world and MASH Mag.