Nasreen, my friend: Drawings by Nasreen Mohamedi had a mathematical precision, says Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry as she remembers the artist : The Tribune India

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Nasreen, my friend: Drawings by Nasreen Mohamedi had a mathematical precision, says Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry as she remembers the artist

Minimalistic, non-figurative and colourless… remembering the meditative embrace of the artist’s works

Nasreen, my friend: Drawings by Nasreen Mohamedi had a mathematical precision, says Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry as she remembers the artist

Nasreen Mohamedi Untitled, ca. 1980 Ink and graphite on paper - Image Courtesy Talwar Gallery, New York | New Delhi

Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry

Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990) had an aura of ephemerality around her. She loved the sea, the sand, the wind, the sun, the light, the shadows, the trees, the flora... Her drawings and canvases were not biomorphic; rather, her metaphorical images abstracted from nature lingered in each stroke of her inspired pencil and brush. Nasreen’s drawings had a mathematical precision, the lines swirled and darted across the page. Were they tiny arrows from outer space? Shafts of white light? Magical alphabet from a musical notation? Perhaps all, or none.

Nasreen Mohamedi Untitled, ca. 1975 Black and white photograph - Image Courtesy Talwar Gallery, New York | New Delhi

It was impossible to describe my response to her works when I saw them for the first time. I lacked the vocabulary or the references to be able to read the unfamiliar aesthetics. What I did recognise was that I was in the presence of great art and felt a meditative silence embrace me.

After finishing Masters in Art History from Panjab University, I decided to explore Delhi and make a career in art criticism. My first stop in this aspirational journey was Kunika Chemould Art Gallery, with the elegant Roshan Alkazi as the artistic director. An exhibition of Nasreen Mohamedi’s works was on display — a known artist, but her name was new to me, as were the names of many other contemporary artists. I walked inside the gallery bewildered at the drawings and paintings that were beyond my known zone of comprehension.

The drawings were filled with a curious light. Black and grey lines crisscrossed a flat surface — a complex grid over the petroleum dark surface of the paper. The drawings had a series of vertical and horizontal lines that reminded me of the latitude and longitude of unfathomable spaces hidden within the universe. It seemed like a new dimension in the world of abstract art. I was familiar with the works of abstract painters Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, but the luminous glow that emanated from the works of Nasreen unsettled me. This despite being minimalistic, non-figurative and colourless. I felt anxious and wanted someone to explain the work, but was too shy to ask as I did not want to reveal my immense ignorance and diminutive understanding.

Roshan Alkazi brought out a journal on art, called the Gray Book, and asked me to write about the show. Call it youthful impertinence or false bravado, I decided to accept the assignment and hurriedly scribbled Nasreen’s address on a piece of paper, my first call for an interview!

On a hot summer afternoon, I climbed the narrow cement steps of Nasreen’s one-room barsati in Nizamuddin. In a room filled with natural light and devoid of any furniture sat Nasreen on a hessian mat with a low wooden desk that served as her drawing board. This was her work space. A hushed silence descended, and I started introducing myself in whispers, which had Nasreen in giggles. It was the impact of the home, its austere uncluttered space devoid of furniture that made me feel as if a ‘please do not disturb placard’ was placed in my throat. Her home did suggest that her life was spartan and Nasreen was an ascetic, but that image was soon debunked once I got to know her. It was about removing clutter and needless possession, surrounding herself only with things that she required: a good music system, books, her endless brushes and pencils and her enviable collection of saris and silver jewellery.

That particular afternoon is implanted in my memory even after so many years: her warm welcome to a stranger from nowhere, her effortless conversations, her curiosity about my life was shared between endless cups of jasmine tea. Her ringing laughter and unusual witticism, interspersed with haikus and Kabir’s dohas. “Kabir says people worship idols made from stone. If it was possible to reach God this way, then he would worship the mountain. But no one worships the home flour mill (chakki) which gives us flour to eat.” Nasreen loved the daily ritual of cleaning and washing and the above quote was one of her favourites.

My meeting with Nasreen was fortuitous, as everything else in my life has been. She would be a definite marker in a series of chance encounters that changed the trajectory of my existence. On one of my visits, I decided to take my rolled-up canvases and get her opinion on my art work. She looked at them and said very definitely, “Join theatre.” Her one sentence made me shift from art history to theatre.

A new world opened before me and Nasreen taught me ways of seeing it. She made me sensitive to the changing light, the evening silhouette, the stark lines of thatched huts that dotted the Delhi landscape.

Conversely, Nasreen loved technology, industrial sites, storage water tanks, photo studios, tarmacs, architectural drawings, railway tracts, asphalt roads. The lines and shapes of industrial objects created a language of abstraction, of speed and light, of transmission and tension… That made her view the world optically, captured in her photographs, which were never displayed publicly.

When she came to stay with me in Bombay and later in Bhopal, she would spend a long time configuring the chair or cushion on which she would sit. Nothing was casual, it was about balance, order, exactitude.

Born in Karachi, her childhood, spent in the midst of a large family of sisters and brothers, was torn apart by the death of her mother. Nasreen was five years old then. Her elder sister became a surrogate mother, showering her with love and care. Her father lived in Bahrain. He was generous and kind and provided his eight children with warmth and love and the freedom to make their own choices. Later, he moved his family to Bombay and it was here that Nasreen studied and decided that her calling was in the arts. Physical affliction took over her body slowly and stealthily. Slight unnoticeable changes started occurring. Nasreen forgetting a lunch date and forgetting to latch her door. It was a cruel trick of fate that the elegant Nasreen was straddled genetically with a body that disrupted her motor functions. I vividly remember her stay with me in Bhopal where I had to help her button her shirt and wipe a small trickle that escaped her mouth. Despite the dysfunctionality, which increased with time, her hand was steady and firm, almost as if she willed her hand to remain within her control.

The last image of Nasreen is of wandering on an empty beach, beyond Bombay at Kihim, a beach on the Arabian Sea, where she passed away silently in May 1990. In the mirror of my mind, I see a wandering fakir, walking inside the deep sea, both claiming each other. The recurring visual is startling in its appropriateness and poignancy.

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