Nasreen Mohamedi is best known to us for her spare, refined works on paper and a small body of photographs. Of the latter, we are told she may never have intended for them to be displayed, they were made instead as private and experimental studies in light, landscape and composition. She was simple in her manners, almost austere, polishing her floors to a shine and doing her own cleaning in a spartan apartment-cum-studio space in Baroda. The practice as we know it displays a breathtaking range of precision and control, a very deliberate progression of line, shape and perspective, allowing for almost infinite variation within minimalist geometric formations, arcs and lines of varying width. These monochromatic works are unlike anything, we might assume, that was current in modernism in India as practiced by her peers, who were more beholden to the charm of painting with oil paint on canvas, combining abstract expressionism and local aesthetics. And with her early death, to a rare condition which affected her muscle control, the absolute antithesis to a practice led by extreme precision, she becomes a tragic and enigmatic figure, the elegant braid and crisp, pale saris seen in photographs only adding to her mysterious allure.
Even though we were born in the same city, I first encountered Mohamedi’s work in an exhibition in Milton Keynes. Despite the care taken by the curators, she was, as is perhaps inevitable when shown in this context, presented as a discovery – an exception, a woman, reclaimed and given her rightful place. Non-representational and unapologetically modern, unencumbered by any kind of essential Indian idiom these undated works – each a revelation in terms of the limits of space and form it attempted to extend – were unique and unparalleled, her formal similarity to Agnes Martin something of a coincidence, though she had trained in London and Paris and was aware of constructivism and minimalism. Despite her lively participation in their social milieu and within the art department at Majaraja Sayajirao University, Baroda, one may conjecture that in contrast with the more commercially successful and rather male-dominated circulation of the Progressive painters – Souza, Husain et al – she may have stood too far apart. She often gave away work, often discarded drawings not quite perfect enough, and was far from prolific.
Accompanying the exhibition were video interviews; of Jeram Patel, her friend, who described her seriousness and discipline with great affection, and the critic Geeta Kapur who raised more metaphysical concerns but also with a deeply personal engagement with the artist. A picture of the clean lines and surfaces of Mohamedi’s apartment supports a hint of asceticism – it is true, the floor was a gleaming reflective surface.
13 May 1968
Lines, circles, dots, traces of texture, beatings on the beach, slow changes in rocks, weaving and polishing of pebbles, each wave a destiny which ends in one breath, a swaying of the palms and in one sway – all, everything. It all denotes change, change, change – nothing repetitive. Everything moving – grains of sands, all change is inevitable – only the grasping of it is as difficult as important. One has to grasp this entirely and wholly – then there is growth, progress. One walks with it whether it is slow or fast – it is then strong. All these lines, circles, dots on the beach are for a few hours – even then changing each moment with the wind and its own durability –to reach further designs and destinies.
Some images stayed with me – as if burned on my retina – gradated or varied sequences of lines on a square page, some with the graphic flourish of a curve at the bottom. It reminded me of long childhood Karachi afternoons, on the beach or on common flat-bottomed wooden boats, staring for hours at the changeable sea. There is no horizon in this sequence exploring movement and surface, but it does appear in other, probably later works. The curves provide a frame, a depth or border, but these are idiosyncratic. Later, larger works seem more preoccupied with depth within the picture plane itself, where the line of horizon or vanishing point become the field of infinite play and experimentation.
11 January 1968
Walking among vast spaces – space filled with intricate forms, lines arriving filled with various textures, footsteps inside feet – lines arriving and receding into lost space – the horizons keeping the limitless in limits – all forming a whole.
Mohamedi’s drawings are undated, but have subsequently been organised by curators such as Suman Gopinath and Grant Watson into periods based on their formal progression. She kept diaries, which Geeta Kapur and others have referenced in their writing. Even though Mohamedi was very much a part of the artistic milieu of the time, exhibiting regularly, most writing about her has been posthumous. The few volumes of her diary that have been accessible to researchers reveal a keenly methodological approach among more philosophical musings. Kapur mentions specific literature they shared, and indeed existential texts – Camus, Sartre, Kafka – were readily accessible and also fashionable in South Asia at the time. In the recently published collected writings of critic Richard Bartholomew, there are several mentions and two reviews that point to a steady progression from landscape to a more purist abstraction and minimalism.
Writing for the Times of India, April 8 1972, Bartholomew comments on a major shift in her practice. ‘The landscape images are almost totally gone now.’
In the same publication, in February 1976, he writes that rather than the sea or the desert of the Gulf and Bombay, where she has lived, there is something ‘scientific’ in her approach to drawing. He thinks the images ‘suggest a throb or a vibration, as a chord which has been struck’. It has been mentioned elsewhere that she made audio recordings but these seem to have been lost.
In a diary entry from 1959 Nasreen Mohamedi describes the patterns on the beach, the ‘endless patterns’ made by crabs and the ‘zigzag designs the waves leave on the sand’.
She wrote of mathematical calculations, her own often cryptic thoughts – on landscape, space, on her emotional responses to the war and chaos of Muslim South Asia in the 1960s and late 1970s when the Indian and Pakistani armies clashed, first near Lahore and then more bloodily in Dhaka. She mentions detachment, discipline, patience, rationalism and order. She is deeply concerned with how to translate her perceptions of the physical world into visual form. And always nature; and again and again, the sea. Perhaps, and this is pure conjecture, its movement and expanse provided some relief from the increasingly bounded and bordered land.
She writes, in 1967 while at her family’s beach house in Kihim:
Lines, subtle, winding tremors
An illuminated dark expanse
Notes on water
Limitless greys into purples
Mohamedi was born in Karachi, but the family lived between Mumbai and the Gulf, trading goods including cameras in Bahrain and Kuwait. I have phoned to arrange a visit to the family home in Bandra today. Most of the family is away but her nephew offers to let me visit anyway.
On Bandstand where they live and I am also staying, in the morning, the sea is hazy, sea and sky blurring into each other. By noon the horizontal lines are clear as the vapour clears enough for the horizon to appear. I notice this every day and wait for that moment of clarity, of separation, when sea and sky become distinct. I am struck by the linear patterns of the waves – they are, as they come closer to shore, perfect moving parallel lines. It is a familiar sea, and Mumbai to me has always smelt like home. This is our sea in winter calm, from the months of November to February. I look at the diary entries again, and they range from January – ‘lines arriving and receding into lost space’ – to May – ‘beatings on the beach’.
The house is an art deco bungalow, one of the last few on this stretch of prime sea-facing property. From the windows, the same sea. I have family in Mumbai, which is how I tracked down the phone number, through aunts in Delhi and the reliable network of South Asian interconnections – inevitably, and in spite of the physical separation of families post-partition, we are distantly related. Maher, my host, tells me his wife is from Karachi too. Their daughter and I share the same name. It breaks the ice, he tells me he lived in Kuwait from 1974 to 1985 and saw little of his aunt Nasreen, I should really speak to other relatives with more direct interest in the estate. Then he tells me the little he remembers. He was there, in Kuwait, when she was visiting and got herself a camera, very possibly her first. He helped her figure out how to use it. And they drove around Kuwait city and its environs, stopping when she wanted to take a picture. She was interested in the desert landscapes and in the light. So the zoomed-in, close-cropped photo of the top of a striped water tower – iconic modern landmarks in Kuwait city – must be from one of these very early shoots.
He also shows me a small collage, made from bits of photographs and perhaps also shaded gray paper, the composition looser, more painterly but slightly three dimensional, a gift to him and quite unlike any of the drawings.
16 March 1970
What geometry one finds on the beach
31 May 1972
Waves, currents, formation of sand waves;
Overlapping of water –
Receding and arriving.
Standing, sitting and sleeping
May 2014, London
I am on Skype with the painter and printmaker Jyoti Bhatt in Baroda, whose photographs of decorative architectural forms in rural India are only recently being more widely exhibited. I ask him about his colleagues, Bhupen Khakhar and Nasreen Mohamedi. I get a sense from looking at photographs taken of her with friends and colleagues from the time that while private, she was a great friend, often turned away from the camera in conversation with the person next to her. I ask if they showed each other their photographs, especially because both at the time considered the camera a tool for producing material for reference rather than their core practice, which required a different type of labour. Photography was not taught, and indeed still is not taught, as an artistic discipline, so it was a private exchange between aficionados who also shared notes on equipment and techniques. He tells me they were lucky, there was a ‘peon’, an office boy who had worked in a photo studio and was able to help artists in Baroda set up a dark room and taught them how to develop pictures.
It is tempting to consider that as her facility with her technical and precise drawing tools became impaired, photography may have provided an alternate route for her visual practice. Prints with crop-marks on them suggest these were rough drafts, bearing in mind that it was not a popular medium for art-making in India. In fact it was treated by her contemporaries – Husain, Bhatt, Khakhar, even Bartholomew or Dashrath Patel who took countless photographs – as a supplementary practice, not quite labour intensive enough to bear the mark of the artist, and so while they took photographs, these were very rarely exhibited or sold.
In London, the same day, I go to see an exhibition of monochromatic works by Albers and almost by chance notice a small photo, hung behind the reception, which might be Mohamedi’s, of the patterns left by the waves on the sea shore. It is an Albers, probably from 1929. The rest of the exhibition focuses on black and white studies, fine geometric lines. Led by curiosity I find two other images of photographs by Albers online, in the collection of the Guggenheim, one of the play of light on water and another the curvilinear shape of a wave meeting the shore on a beach in Biarritz. They mirror Mohamedi’s.
The impact of black and white landscape photography on her drawing practice – the experience of controlling the light, the lens, the cropping and composition, the impact of the slightest variation in angle, focus and aperture – suddenly becomes startlingly clear.
I read at the end of Kapur’s essay that Mohamedi died and was buried in Kihim, near the beach house, spending her last days by the Arabian Sea. As she wrote in her diary:
14 May 1971
The waves of the sea and sand
From the waves in my mind
Nasreen Mohamedi: Notes
Reflections on Indian Modernism
5 September - 15 November 2009
curated by Suman Gopinath and Grant Watson
Geeta Kapur Elegy for an Unclaimed Beloved in When Was Modernism, Tulika Books 2000 pp.61-85
Richard Bartholomew The Art Critic Bart 2012 pp.573-5
All diary quotes are taken from the diary entries reprinted in Drawing Space Contemporary Indian Drawing Ed. Sarah Campbell and Grant Watson InIVA 2000 pp.38-51