Elegy for an Unclaimed Beloved: Nasreen Mohamedi 1937–1990

Desert Birth

And then there are those who received the desert in the cradle … the terrible gift granted to some, a sort of curse that is a blessing, a natal desertion, and that condemns and brings them up to poetry. The desert is a lack of origin, a lack of engendering… . It is the primal scene in which the infant wakes to perfect absence; to the absence of milk, which is light… . Desert, desert birth.1

Nasreen was not born in the desert but she knew and loved the deserts of Arabia. … the strong aridity of the desert. It makes one detached in a tiny way, in a clear and vital way’, Nasreen writes in her diary.2 The desert is a lack of origin, a lack of engendering, a natal desertion, Helene Cixous says. The infant awakens to per-fect absence.3

I want to make the proposition that Nasreen’s work, founded on absence, is about the self (Illus. 1). That through a series of displacements she touches and transcends death, but that the insistently elided questions about the self are precisely such that offer up meaning in her work. That she is therefore within a great lineage of metaphysical abstraction in a way that no other Indian artist is. Also that she is without the tradition, being a woman artist working inIndia at a time when there were few others of her kind citing this benign and immense negation.

That the self should be hidden denied evacuated is part of a possible proposition about selfhood. This must be true of women saints in particular whose person is as if disembodied even when desire is embodied: the fourteenth-century saint-poet Janabai transposes the self through poetry of praise and labour:

Jani sweeps the floor,
The Lord collects the dirt,
Carries it upon His head,
And casts it away.4

Making a daily ritual of the mundane tasks of washing and cleaning, Nasreen writes in her diary:

The empty mind
Drain it
Squeeze the dirt
So that it receives the sun
With a flash.5

Remember Nasreen’s frail limbs, ascetic face, ungendered artist persona. Remember her calling as an unrequited beloved, her narcissistic engagement with her body and the stigmata she barely cared to hide. And always her departing gesture, her return, her masochism and its reward of absurdity and grace. Her continual tracking of a mirage.

Says the great twelfth-century saint-poet Akkamahadevi in one of her vacanas:

It was like a stream
    running into the dry bed
    of a lake,
                    like rain
    pouring on plants
    parched to sticks.
It was like this world’s pleasure
    and the way to the other,
walking towards me. 6

The Self as Body

I am not speaking contrarily if I say that Nasreen’s work is about the self and that it is simultaneously about self-naughting as well, for every passionate negation is a mystical triumph in the way of becoming. Self-naughting, akimcanna, is a refusal of soul in favour of a more abstract principle of mind; it is standing still from the thinking of self, and the willing of self, as Ananda Coomaraswamy (quoting Jacob Boehme) would say.7

The mind is sometimes manifest precisely in aspects of mindlessness, which was typical of Nasreen. She seemed sometimes to be living in blithe madness, laughing and sobbing, crossing over but without the help of objects, without veri-similitude, without figural devices, following a line of force that led to the horizon.

Nasreen’s self offered itself up as a cipher rising from the sea; drawn from the metaphor of plenitude, it signalled anguish made visible in the very process of sublimation. Sublimity can be read as repression, a denial of the self as well as of the other. That too is a form of subjectivity, the underside of mental triumph where the body exceeds the self, where the other persists as desire despite absence.

In his Lover’s Discourse Roland Barthes says:

(But isn’t desire always the same, whether the object is present or absent? Isn’t the object always absent?)8

The being I am waiting for is not real. Like the mother’s breast for the infant, ‘I create and re-create it over and over, starting from my capacity to love, starting from my need for it’: the other comes here where I am waiting, here where I have already created him/her. And if the other does not come, I hallucinate the other: waiting is a delirium.9

Nasreen’s work, speaking contrarily this time, conceives of the full cycle of self-naughting to begin all over again with desire: it identifies with the mystical body, the female body, the body in pain, the broken body, the body in art. Finally it identifies with the body of the beloved which carries the gravity of the mortal dream. There is nothing further than separation; nothing there is to hold on to but the last grip of bondage to the other; and the measure of bondage is a measure of strength.

One of the books Nasreen borrowed from me and kept was the translated love letters of Peter Abelard and Heloise, the French medieval scholar and his beloved committed to a nunnery, both living through carnal love and castration, living through pain beyond belief and what can only be read as unwilling surrender before god in the shape of Christ. In a contemporary poetic rendering of their tragic lives, Heloise writes to Abelard:

    Like a white magnolia flower
cupped in ivory prayer,
    my tranquillity rests on the evening
And floats, still in the quiet air.
    I can now remember our misfortunes
without regret;
    I can now be alone,
Without loneliness;
    And can sleep without dreams,
and even think of you
    without the pain of not being with you.

I used to call you beloved;
    I do so now,
But observe the word is an imperative;
    beloved, be loved; be free.
I have found another.
    I no longer need you.
It is true: You are free.10

‘I have found another’ is a mystical mode of speech, a luminous ‘lie’ where you become the godhead and, in an inverted sense, exhaust the other. Nasreen identified with the body of the beloved evacuating it of every symbolic truth except a deeply embedded narcissism. It was the last wager on the imaginary and the more lustrous for it. Nasreen was Echo to Narcissus; both were in her. The drawings reflect the visage in the sky and catch the echo on the ground below (Illus. 2). There is an othering in the echo, and the other is always, in the freedom of longing, negated/ recovered. Perhaps the other exists within the logic of phenomena and carries all in its wake. However you elide the encounter, as Nasreen did, her evacuated body blanched with the hope of recall.

The body hovering and possessed of a view from nowhere that is a view from everywhere: a kind of phenomenological wonder. The world is subsumed by the view but it produces a heartsickness, a giddiness from unrealized excess.

‘“I am engulfed, I succumb”’, thus Barthes emblazons his mortal trust:

Engulfment is a moment of hypnosis… . which commands me to swoon without killing myself. Whence, perhaps, the gentleness of the abyss: I have no responsibility here, the act (of dying) is not up to me.11

We know that Nasreen’s body was losing its motor functions from the 1980s, becoming gradually dysfunctional. There was at the end an oddly splayed movement of the limbs that could develop into the dance of a flying puppet. I am per-haps too tempted to take Nasreen’s physical affliction that made her limbs jerk disobediently as some kind of a destinal sign: a fatal sign. It was like mortality in cruel play to see this elegant woman in an inadvertent display of the body-soul, stubbing knocking tapping hitting lunging through space. Yet maintaining under the greatest stress a control of the hand.

Barthes says:

In order to suggest, delicately, that I am suffering, in order to hide without lying, I shall make use of a cunning preterition: I shall divide the economy of my signs.

… The power of language: with my language I can do everything: even and especially say nothing.

I can do everything with my language, but not with my body. What I hide by my language, my body utters… . By my voice, whatever it says, the other will recognize ‘that something is wrong with me.’ … My body is a stubborn child, my language is a very civilized adult… .12

That this body should be an invisible presence in a map of a few lines is a virtuoso feat. The drawn lines appear like a remote, idealized trajectory of this stricken body, as if they must evoke a compensatory grace and precision. Indeed almost to the end she could arch the bow before the target so that the arrowhead would go through the strait gates of heaven like a mystical alphabet or a musical note (Illus. 3).

A precise specularity, the flight of an angel shearing space. Then, in the dark night of the soul, where the ejected body persists, Nasreen was content to work with a poverty of means. To counter the spectacle of love and of spiritual ambition, she was willing to break apart. She would simply survive, and let the calligraph, the graphic sign, speak.

Against the Grain

Modern Indian art continues to be committed to augmenting its iconographic resources—through anthropomorphic intent, metaphoric allusions, ela-borate morphologies. Think of Nasreen’s illustrious contemporaries in her immediate milieu—Bhupen Khakhar, Gulammohammed Sheikh, Arpita Singh. All of them succumb exuberantly to the great temptation of the imagination: they privilege condensation where images are provocatively enshrined, where icons wear the nimbus of meaning intact, where symbols give over to a voluptuous afterlife of pain and pro-fanation. In sharp contrast Nasreen’s aesthetic cleanly circumvents their substantive oeuvre. ‘Maximum out of the minimum’,13 Nasreen wrote in her diary, and spent a life working it out (Illus. 4).

It is not that she has no antecedents in contemporary Indian art. Bombay, her city, has had an honourable record of both sumptuous and spare abstraction—among them V.S. Gaitonde, much older to Nasreen, acts as her Indian mentor in the early 1960s. The Bombay legacy also includes her longtime friend and colleague Jeram Patel, who after much wandering settles down to teach in Baroda, where Nasreen gravitates too in the early 1970s, becoming a rare presence for successive batches of students. If in the Indian situation we want to find a single complementary (also in a paradoxical sense, contradictory) artist vis-a-vis Nasreen, it should finally be Jeram Patel. Because of his passionate excavation of the negative image which signals a new direction in Indian abstraction beginning with the Group 1890 exhibition in 1963. Because he turns the materiality of the object inside out, literally, by the use of blow-torch on wood. Because also of the paradox of complementarity itself: for Jeram Patel works out this controlled transaction between the erotic and the macabre in his ink drawings, setting up an explosion in the prehistoric assembly of bone and tool conducted through a single devolving morphology—even as Nasreen, also working with ink on paper, is engaged in clearing the great debris.

Nasreen’s intention apropos Indian art, if she can be said to have one, is to core the palpitating heart of the matter. Her target is the overweening romanticism of Indian art. Notwithstanding her youthful inclination for the existentialist sentiment of Albert Camus—the texture of that voice saturated with anguish is found in her diaries—her art practice systematically denudes the seductive fruit of metaphysical paradoxes so abundant in romantic modernity, western and Indian alike.

Nasreen’s aim is even more severe: to disengage representational ethics derived from the artist’s gaze. Indeed she deliberately cancels or defies the regime of the gaze, sensing the appropriative and exploitative aspects of it. And she takes up the conventions of the glance as in eastern aesthetics—fleeting, evanescent, always at the point of vanishing and taking the view with it.14 Further, she works with a sense of shadow: recalling Christ’s imprint on his mantle, or indeed the shadow of the Hiroshima victim on the wall. She replaces the icon with the indexical sign that is always determinedly against the symbol as well.

Her aim is to coalesce phenomenal encounter and formal trace. To at least raise the question: what makes Malevich’s white on white a mystical diagram and also something of an objective fact?

Utopian Modernism

Nasreen should be seen to be aligned to two art-historical lineages. Her vocabulary comes from a lyrical, expressive, spiritual source in high modernism—about which more later. It comes also from the utopian dimension in twentieth-century art which provides the metaphysics and ideology to her strongly modernist inclinations (Illus. 5, 6, 7).

First, the lineage of utopian abstraction. Emerging from revolutionary socialism (especially from the Soviet Union in the 1920s), it is suprematism and among the suprematists Kazimir Malevich, whose influence on Nasreen must be acknowledged. And we know that Nasreen admired Malevich. Not nature but human destiny is at stake with him, and it is posited through geometrical propositions. The flat picture plane, a cubist injunction, develops into the diagonal as a preferred form. Then a chevron, a triangle, a cross come to dominate the visual vocabulary, making geometrical abstraction stand proxy for a symbolic language. Further, an interest in primary colour, in light and dark, privileges a clash of elements: thesis/antithesis. A synthetic order of reason is posited. Forms in nature are regarded as merely contin- gent and thus dispensable before such higher purposes as the human mind’s own transcendent aims. Correspondingly, the realm of representational images is dis- placed in favour of a self-conceptualizing formalism that leads the way as it were to an uncharted future. In 1921 Malevich writes:

In the future not a single grounded structure will remain on Earth. Nothing will be fastened or tied down. This is the true nature of the universe. But while each unit is a singular part of nature, it will soon merge with the whole.

This is what Suprematism means to me—the dawn of an era in which the nucleus will move as a single force of atomized energy and will expand within new, orbiting, spatial systems… . Today we have advanced into a new fourth dimension of motion. We have pulled up our consciousness by its roots from the Earth. It is free now to revolve in the infinity of space.15

The constructivists, again in the 1920s and in the Soviet Union, also use geometrical means. Their intent however is to celebrate a futurist plan of the world along with the victory of the autonomous mental realm. The aesthetic premise of constructivism is different from that of both lyrical and suprematist abstraction in that there are no refracted epiphanies. Accessible forms of the spiritual and the symbolic are proposed. Energies of the mind seen as geometrical forms stand for energies of human praxis. Concrete elements from a hypothetical architecture are floated and positioned to give the sense of a dynamic order in the world, but the planar disposition of forms is strictly nonillusionistic. The act of balancing is both a measure of cognitive adjust-ment and a matter of environmental equilibrium. In some cases the constructivists offer actual designs for living, whether in architecture proper or in the domain of the product. And in so far as this visual vocabulary works as a kind of valorized analogy to the object-world, it favours an active encounter with the viewer—the body is a volatile entity positioned among objects. Here then is a utopian demand for perfection that is material and dialectical. It extends to the entire range of industrial products, exhibi-tion design and architecture—one of the famous examples being the 1919–20 design and model by Vladimir Tatlin of the Monument to the Third International.

Nasreen does not come from a dialectically thought-out interest in the utopian, nor from some ordering system or futurist blueprint of the world. But there are certain odd connections. She is committed to abstraction from the start; she is attracted to modern technology; she makes nearly a fetish of good design. She is interested in industrial production: cars, modern buildings, water-storage tanks, tele-graph apparatus, the urban street, airplane runways. Her photographs, about which more later, capture these material forms. She feels comfortable with cameras, photo laboratories, precision instruments, architectural drawings. She traverses a variety of architectural spaces with a sense of exact measure—the paved courtyard at Fatehpur Sikri as also the concrete sidewalks of Bombay and the asphalt highways in Europe. She is a metropolitan person, she travels worldwide. She starts to travel abroad in the 1950s, as a very young student of art, by which time the futuristic projections of the Soviet avantgarde are a part of contemporary technological achievement. The expe-rience of speed and light, transmission and tension, and such technological extension of the senses are by then common experience. Therefore what Nasreen does with the utopian language of abstraction figuring subliminally in her imagination is to give it over to a lofty sense of design.

One day all will become functional and hence good design. There will be no waste. We will then understand basics. It will take time.
But then we get the opportunity for pure patience.16

Late Modernist Poetics

From the first decade of this century Vassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee can be said to have given abstraction a fully developed poetics whereby it becomes natu-ralized as the noblest of artistic intents. The two artists offer, each in his own way, morphologies that simulate the processes of metaphorical transform-ation in nature itself. The lyrical approach of Klee and Kandinsky is dear to many Indian artists. Nasreen is directly beholden to the actual language of Klee; Kandinsky’s naming of the spiritual in art has a signal effect on her (Illus. 8, 10). In 1970, at a transitional point in her work, Nasreen notes in her diary: ‘Again I am reassured by Kandinsky—the need to take from an outer environment and bring it an inner necessity.’17

Nasreen studies in European art schools from the early 1950s; at the age of sixteen she goes to St Martin’s in London and then, after a gap, to Paris. It is not surprising that in continuation with the loftier versions of modernist abstrac-tion, Nasreen picks up the virtuoso manner of postwar abstraction in the School of Paris (Illus. 9). This includes the flamboyant Georges Mathieu with his tactile expressivity of forms signatured by the artist’s hand. It also includes a more con-ceptual tachiste like Henri Michaux devising a distilled visual/linguistic mark.

Nasreen follows the French trail in the bold swatches of her oil paintings until the mid-1960s. Later the touch itself becomes subliminal, no authorial ecriture is offered. The barely visible markings of nature texture the canvas washed with thinned turpentine, tinted with ochre pigment. The surface is a tracery of insect footprints, dry grass throwing invisible shadows in the desert breeze. ‘In the midst of these arid silences one picks up a few threads of texture and form’, she writes,18 and then adds a characteristic self-instruction: ‘A spider can only make a web but it makes it to perfection.’19

Acute in her use of language, Nasreen stretches the by-then-familiar Klee legacy to catch the American advance in abstraction. She comes to stand in direct relationship to an ascetic peer-figure in the late modernist period—Agnes Martin (though she actually sees Martin’s work late in her own career).

Modest though her work is, Martin carries the aura of self-sufficiency; she proclaims the oracular nature of art. She makes a philosophic trek across the Judaic scriptures to the Greeks and Plato; and across Asian thought to zen and tao. Then she returns every time to con-temporaries like Ad Reinhardt, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, John Cage. Coming from the milieu of an original version of abstract expressionism in north America, she speaks in her prose poems about Platonic notions of beauty and form but from a conspicuously ega-litarian point of view.20

Marking the space of the sublime, her work is a form of prayer, utterances spreading over the surface of a lake, field or desert. Martin quotes from a biblical passage: ‘… make level in the desert a highway for our God’,21 and complements it with a taoist thought: ‘If water is so clear, so level, / How much more the spirit of man?’22

A cross-reference to a contemporary artist like Agnes Martin illuminates Nasreen’s work, especially her humility before nature, her interest in the anonymous language of geometry. Martin’s work is not about nature, only the experience of being before nature. It may even be antinature counting on what is forever in the mind. Like Martin’s, Nasreen’s classicism evolves gradually and transforms the substratum of biomorphic forms into a system of graphic marks. What is important is that each of them works out a geometry that provides optical clarity, and a paradigm for attention.

Nasreen could well join Agnes Martin in saying that ‘Classicists are people that look out with their back to the world’.23

The Grid

The floor in the house of Agnes Martin, as in Nasreen’s house, was polished stone: no prints of the bare foot, no illusion, only the surface.

It is worth pursuing the comparison with Martin: she worked with simple found objects; she painted dots of atmospheric colour; she drew people, grass, as little rectangles; she worked out spaces between drops of rain. She made an airy matrix. She was interested in weaving, which led to the open form of the lattice. Her parallel lines and grids were undulating, following a pencil along a string or measuring tape; and they were nearly invisible - ‘luminous containers for the shimmer of line’, say Rosalind Krauss and Marcia Tucker.24 Even when she returned to painting after a period of renunciation, it was still subliminal expression in the shape of pale hard paintings. It is as if she accepted impotence, humility, empty rectangles, silence and blankness—and through John Cage she made a bridge to the minimal/conceptual aesthetic, privileging above all the grid. She tended then to be included in systemic painting shows and her work was placed with Frank Stella, Sol LeWitt, Robert Ryman, Donald Judd, Carl Andre.

I quote two passages from Rosalind Krauss:

the grid announces among other things, modern art’s will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse.

The physical qualities of the surface, we could say, are mapped on to the aesthetic dimension of the same surface. And these two planes—the physical and the aesthetic—are demonstrated to be the same plane: co-extensive, and … coordinate. Considered in this way, the bottom line of the grid is a naked and determined materialism.25

The grid proper, made so prominent by American minimalists through the 1960s and 70s, has of course precedents in signal moments of modernism—Piet Mondrian, first and foremost. Mondrian derives a logic from nature but takes it into a hypothetical structure of the universe as conceived of, or rather as conflated with, the structure of the mind. A nonrepresentational image, with nature as the ultimate referent, gains intelligible coherence only when we acknowledge that phenomenal experience is translated into a linguistic idea whether this is visually manifest as epiphany or material presence.

By the time we come to late modernism, Clement Greenberg’s theorizing favours the picture plane as the ultimate field of vision wherein experience (of nature) is finally translated into a purely optical sensation, an eminently visual form devoid of any kind of illusionistic reality, and even of linguistic meaning. Nasreen’s work may be read in terms of these late modernist manifestations—but not entirely in those terms either, as I shall indicate.

Nasreen’s reason for adopting the grid is familiar enough. So that a natural phenomenon may be opened out to reveal its inner matrix; so that the subtle sensation that the dismantling of the great visible structures of nature creates would surface. So that the inflected face of water or invisible wind currents from the desert plains as these are computed on to a notationally marked graph can become pure thought (Illus. 11, 12).

The logic is precisely that nature as referent is inducted into the ideal structure of a grid that becalms the vision into disinterested/undifferentiated states of rest. Considered in this way the grid, a structured surface, acts like a support for appearance; it is at the same time a refutation of the simulacrum.

In the 1960s Nasreen writes: ‘The new image of pure rationalism. Pure intellect that has to be separated from emotion… . A state beyond pain and pleasure.’ And adds: ‘Again a difficult task begins.’26

In art-historical terms, it would be correct to place Nasreen at the juncture (in the 1960s) when artists become interested to resolve visual language in favour of structures with no contesting and no hierarchical balancing of parts. When they are intent on adducing a neutral format in which all compositional units are equal and inseparable from the whole and the surface is in perfect unity. Nasreen acknowledges this moment and takes a firm step into graphic formalism in the early 1970s. She works, alone among all Indian artists, with small-format, strictly ruled drawings in ink/watercolour/pencil on paper. But just as she moves away (in the 1970s) from the delicate tracery of her grey-and-ochre paintings to develop drawing-grids, she moves away (in the 1980s) from the ruled surface to diagonals, in what I call an aspiring mode (Illus. 13, 14).

Thus Nasreen is quite like Agnes Martin and not so too. In continuation of Martin’s position, she may have said that an artist simultaneously seeks compa-ssion and rational poise in the choice of structures, that is to say, in her formal aesthe-tic. That in the very sentience of such solitude­—she writes in her diary, ‘One creates dimensions out of solitude’27 —the artist excavates a mystical vision of the world so that she need never be found wanting in an egalitarian world view such as the mys- tics proffer. But while Agnes Martin says that ‘in the diagonal the ends hang loose’, or that ‘the circle expands too much’,28 Nasreen goes on to use both the diagonal and the circle. In the aspiring mode Nasreen prefers graphic movement—the lure of sound and lightning:

My lines speak of troubled destinies
Of death
Of insects

Talk that I am struck
By lightning or fire.29

Photographs: Indexing the Real

Nasreen took photographs throughout her working life but never exhi-bited them, worried that they would reveal some formalist secret. They provide, in actual fact, no formula but a material basis for her formal aesthetic (Illus. 15, 16). Derived from the physical experience of walking, encountering, stopping, positioning, turning 180 degrees on one’s heels to view a mere object at ground level, it is the photographs that mark, without any programmed intent on Nasreen’s part, the intersection of late modernist and minimalist aesthetic. There is in these photographs a sense of design, even a discreet theatre. There are plain views of the street beach curb sidewalk. The mobile body seeks to comprehend urban environment. There is in that process a placement of subjectivity or, rather, an allegory of (dis)placement between the subject and the object. Recall the cinematic protocol of the architect–filmmaker, Michelangelo Antonioni: a conspicuous use of modernist architecture frames the multiple perspectives for the somewhat suspenseful encounter; the freeze-frame structures the entries and exits of an existentially charged individual in such a way as to leave a memory-trace in place of her presence. With the gaze embedded in the tra-versed ground there is, via the presence of everyday objects, a critique of an immanent subjectivity. In art-historical terms, this coincides with the minimalist concern with real spaces and the phenomenological presence (absence) of the body within it. Her photograph says about the photographer/viewer/walker: you were here, you made an encounter, the image is concrete, you have disappeared.

That is to say, though the photographer is invisibly indexed by the photo there is no subjectivity at stake. When the viewer walks away the moment (that carries the existential burden) will be erased. This is a conspicuously neutral space—a parti-cular place, framing mere objects, or massive structures (as I said earlier, water tanks and highways). Further, the space can be reduced to a skeletal pattern of vertical/horizontal/diagonal lines: disembodied from the urbanscape, tilted down like a two-dimensional flat-bed picture, it is a map with(out) substance. Printed in a mediating grey, Nasreen’s photographic ‘language’ is fully articulated to denote a degree zero of space and time, a conjunctural moment of illumined negation. This is further specialized through her interest in ghost images of material objects—photograms.

If Nasreen’s photographs provide a material basis for her formal code, it explains how remote she is from her Indian compatriots who are all set to figure meaning. That remoteness is captured in an odd encounter between Nasreen and, of all people, Carl Andre. In 1971 Andre came to India (as a participant in the Second Triennale India) and found this much-loved, modest-seeming artist in an anomalous position within a voluble art scene in Delhi. Doing very spare work, she seemed to belong nowhere, and that was precisely perhaps the point. Nasreen, given her committed location in India, provides cues to several (still accessible) mystical tradi-tions whereby we may speak of a ‘democratic space’. This connects her to what was called in the case of Agnes Martin, an egalitarian viewpoint, and to Andre’s own pro-ject: to pave the way, quite literally, in order to achieve a nonhierarchy of space. Nasreen, in Andre’s conceptual context, proposed a neutral traversal of the perceptual field: she could be seen to be interested in a similar equanimity of nonreference, in the plane without any fixed vista, in the infinite point of view of the exemplary road.30

On that note we can conclude Nasreen’s art-historical detours. By the 1980s she had touched on several antecedents: from a sublimating nature-based abstraction where nature is treated as metaphor in the expanded field of the lyric image, to the conjunctural aesthetics of Russian abstraction in the 1920s, to the minimalists who take the object-world of the constructivists—their formal propo-sition that signals a utopian image—and return it to a grounded experience, develop-ing a phenomenology of space at once concrete and theatric. This is where Carl Andre comes in, and also Richard Long, who turn vast bodily navigation of earth, water, sky, into a meditative act through walking.

Only subliminally aware of the minimalist proposition, Nasreen’s own astute concern for the spatial dimension tells her how all spatial encounters are privi-leged: you walk in the shape of your body and measure the paces as a neutral act that is also, in an experiential sense, full-bodied. In the pragmatic manner of a peripatetic monk, there is nothing more to see than there is to do beyond the multiple positioning of your body-self in the infinite prospect of the universe—but that it translates mate-rially into the real and even the everyday with strange ease.

Asian elements—tao and zen—are suffused in Nasreen’s life. Like Barthes31 she is haunted by an inventory of the states of dearth with which zen has encoded the human sensibility: solitude, the sadness that overcomes one because of the ‘incredible naturalness’ of things, nostalgia, the sentiment of strangeness. The posi-tioning of the body within such an everyday void, that too is a zen instruction. As is the choosing of an ordinary object as target of absolute attention. Deeply attracted to zen, Nasreen’s ambient references are metaphysical and mystical, her sympathies are serenely secular.

Edge of the Void

Examine, and reexamine each counter, each dot where rhythm meets in space and continuous charges occur.32

In the late 1970s Nasreen’s drawings, etched with precision instruments, begin to ‘distort’ the actual and invisible grid she had worked with for a decade. They begin to form a black mass with diamond shapes cut into them; they are shot through with radiating lines. Tense like arrows, echoes, shafts of light, they are penetrative, flying into the constellation, revolving like a satellite, making a curious reference to extraterrestrial energies (Illus. 17). This complex graphic conjunction, a steeply positioned, delicately web-bed wing, is strung to yield a set of notes that splinter into echoes and traverse the elements in a series of repetitive sounds displaced in time.

Nature is so true.
Such truth in her silence.
If only we would listen to her intricacies.
Then there is no difference in sound and vision.33

Here is oriental aesthetics, especially the great melodies of Indian music—the singing voice34 which gives you, in the very means of sublimation, the vibrations of the shuddering soul and a vastly spiralling melancholy. Nasreen invokes the superb ascent from the ground of evanescent desire and its plunging dissolution:

Circular depths,
Texture of edges
To study circular depths and depression.35

Nasreen insisted on transmuting formal rigour into ordered immanence, into romance, further articulating the successive formal moves in her staccato notes. And extending the transfigurement of nature’s graceful changeling, the moon, she delivers it to an expanding order of phenomena:

Economy and structure and intuition. Overlapping forms… . The intense sensitivity of the moon—at each phase retaining its perfection, size.36

We find scattered across her diaries these instructions to herself which I draw out and align in a fresh poetic order:

Work in horizontals and work in
varying proportions.
Dots circles arrows leading up
and across.
Verticals in gradations
by studying edges intensely.
Curve slowly to O
At the edge of the void/
Extension from + and –
Balance/Touching/Loss of balance
Touch air
21/2 3 31/2 4 4 5 5 6 6 7 7
41/2 51/2 6 6 7 7 8 8 9 9.37

Nasreen’s drawings raise the question of perspective in several different ways. Perspective as a ubiquitous premise of thought; perspective throwing up a vani-shing point and providing the flip-face of imagist art that is mostly representational, anthropomorphic, blocking the horizon by foregrounded bodies. Here, in Nasreen’s drawings, all is distance. The drawings lift the body into space and give it a sense of its mathematical positioning. There is nothing waiting at the end of the perspectival tra-jectory, no encounter at the vanishing point. Displaced through percussive shifts of the receding target, the vanishing point stretches both terrain and memory and establishes a pure perceptual field (Illus. 18, 19).

Thus the works remain optical—she is seeing as if through the telescope into stellar space and then retracting the vision, seeing it reflected back in the small orb of the eye (Illus. 20). The drawing itself seems to float in the optical field and then settles quite firmly: a microcosmic structure on the paper. With a mere glance she maps out the terrain she sees across these great distances, from the ground above to the sky below, finding a transparent interface of land water air.

A mini-matrix of the cosmos is reflected in the lucid eye. It gains a magi-cal reversal through perspectival focus. With that, cognition arrives. Nasreen says in her diary:


Break the cycle of seeing
Magic and awareness arrives.38

The perceptual basis of consciousness and its unaccountable perspicacity is crucial to the sufi tradition. The great Jalal ad-Din Rumi says in an aphorism titled ‘Those Who Know, Cannot Tell’:

Whenever the Secrets of Perception are taught to anyone His lips are sewn against speaking of the Consciousness.39

It is appropriate to refer here to Nasreen’s love of Turkish and Mughal architecture, and of Arabic calligraphy—of Islamic architectonics and the sublime sense of design that notates the invisible paradise. The pristine geometry on the ground and the stellar light paths in space are as if the trajectories of those farishtas of Islamic lore that crisscross the skies in eternal flight.40

Passing On

If Nasreen’s graphic trajectories are like angels lifting time off the texturally rich body of the planet with its surging oceans, they also decontextualize what is through secret condensation already too textually replete. She replaces it with spiritual graffiti, like the footprints of the selfsame angel speeding to its last post in the skies—then she wipes away these footsteps, and even space itself.

Brushing off the matrices of the self like so much scum on the face of light which is her white sheet of paper, Nasreen draws with her steel instruments, with pencil, ink and brush. I said that the angel lifts off time but she then reinscribes it in reverse. This is like a script for the future: ‘A curved line across the page’.41

When the moon wanes the landscape disappears. The morphological process, the process that produces form, is liquidated like an obsolete ontology. A displaced self, an objectivizing act, a nonobjective art: Nasreen shuts the sadistic eye/I, renounces subjectivity, folds up the memory of love, accepts the poverty of means, embraces humility. She exposes her need and takes on the mantle of a self-mocking female fool.

There is a persistent image of Nasreen as the unclaimed beloved, wander-ing and empty on the beach as the tide goes out. Nasreen’s self-image was of one always waiting—gathering attention.

One morning of May she was sitting not far from her sisters in her shack beyond Bombay, at Kihim, a still vacant shore of the Arabian Sea. Sitting as if in preparation when she passed on suddenly, without a sound.

Notes and references