Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Notes on Fasal Sheikh’s Photographs of Vrindavan at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

by Virginia Billeaud Anderson

“Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor will there ever be a time in the future when we shall cease to be.”

Krishna’s words caused indescribable longing the first time I read them in the Bhagavad-Gita in the early 1970s. Not long after, I began a dedicated search for the ultimate truth of our existence.

Among other things, that search included a high blown investigation of history, philosophy and comparative religions, which my friend Ron tells me is useless horse manure. Only through disciplined meditation can one grasp the nature of reality. And language, Ron insists, is inadequate to describe the mystery. Words are piss-ant metaphors.

When I saw Fasal Sheikh’s photographs of elderly widows meditating at the Bhajan Ashram in Vrindavan, India, in the exhibition Homelands and Histories: Photographs by Fazal Sheikh at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, it moved me to imagine that through their devotional practices the women had attained the universal wisdom I’m seeking. Sheikh’s photographs made me want to give up booze and dedicate part of each day to meditation.

Fazal Sheikh, Bhajan Ashram at Dawn, Vrindavan, India, from the series Moksha, 2005, inkjet print, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by Jane P. Watkins. © Fazal Sheikh

Many years ago I read John J. Putnam’s account of visiting the widows in their “charity house” in Vrindavan, the “city of widows,” which as pilgrims know, is the childhood home of Krishna. After welcoming Putnam with mint and water, the women explained their practice of chanting and meditating, repetition of the names of Krishna and other revered deities, they believe, brings sanctification and ultimately freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth.

It is a fact that the widows seek eternal communion with a divinity so all-encompassing, it includes manifestations of all the Hindu gods. I liken this concept to a sort of primordial energy, and recall seeing in the Vedas words which described that energy as “Pure Consciousness.”

Fazal Sheikh, Pramila Satar (‘Lover’), Vrindavan, India, from the series Moksha, 2005, inkjet print, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by Jane P. Watkins. © Fazal Sheikh

Fasal Sheikh told us that many of the widows who go to Vrindavan are forced from their homes by their families after the death of their husbands, so they suffer loss of spouse and family, and some are superstitiously blamed for those deaths. Like much of the world’s idiocy, I wondered if mistreatment of widows had a scriptural basis. After digging around I found in the the Manu-Smrti, a set of laws, customs and ethical precepts, the commandment that “even if a husband is devoid of good qualities, after death he must always be worshipped as a god by a faithful wife.” If the wife violates this duty to her dead husband, after her death she will enter the womb of a jackal and also get awful diseases.

Devoid of good qualities yet the son of a bitch should be worshipped as a god? It becomes less absurd if you remember that the Vedas is immense, it’s the oldest living scripture on the planet, and probably contains within its many parables, legends and rules, the commandment to love and respect female family members.

A widow photographed by Sheikh, Neela Dey, told him she took no possessions to Vrindavan when her son asked her to leave. Those things did not matter, she concentrated only on Krishna, who comes in her dreams, and plays with her sari. Dey said it pleases her to go to the Yamuna River as often as she wants, and bathe with Krishna’s spirit. At seventy, she never dreams about her family, she is intent only on achieving “moksha,” release from death and rebirth.

The Yamuna River plays an important role in Krishna’s biography. To protect the river from poisonous venom, he conquered the serpent spirit Kaliya. Perhaps more memorable than his demon-destroying battles are the god’s pranks and promiscuous behavior. The thief stole butter, and he also stole the saris of 16,000 girls so he could watch them bathe naked. Because he’s a god, he can call milkmaids and cow herdresses with his flute, and supernaturally turn a night of sex into many years. It’s the opinion of his consort Radha that Krishna lacks discrimination when he cheats on her, he will seduce anyone. In Hindu narrative tradition, Krishna’s lust holds important symbolism for divine love, devotional offerings, and cosmic rhythms.

I had never heard of dowry killing when I met Sheikh. It’s an obscene practice which takes place in parts of India, Pakistan and Iran in which a woman’s inlaws threaten violence in order to extract additional money. Shahjahan Apa, whose portrait appears in Sheikh’s “Ladli” series, suffered from this barbarity when she lost her daughter to death by burning, and corrupt police were bribed into inaction. At the time Sheikh photographed Apa, she was working as a womens’ rights activist in Delhi. His camera captured implacable resolve in her wrinkled face.

We see in Apa’s portrait, Sheikh’s sensitive photographic style. Rather than documentary type images of death and violence, Sheikh focuses on his subject’s beauty and strength. The artist believes his subjects’ lives are greater than the tragic thing that happened to them, “their lives can’t be reduced to that thing,” he told us. Viewers find in Sheikh’s photographs, asserts exhibition curator Malcolm Daniel, a “deep sense of humanity.”

The big grin on Malcolm Daniel’s face was because he acquired 75 additional photographs by Sheikh for the museum’s permanent collection, by way of a sweet deal between the artist, Pace/MacGill Gallery, and a check writing patron named Jane Watkins. Through Watkin’s generosity, MFAH expanded its holdings of Fazal Sheikh’s photographs seven-fold, with groups of images from each of the photographer’s principal bodies of work. “It is more than we dreamed possible, and we are eager to share Sheikh’s vision of his fellow man with Houston’s diverse audiences,” said Director Gary Tinterow.

You can expect more slick moves from Daniel. Tinterow could not have stolen that guy from the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where during his nine-year leadership of the Photography Department he had acquired some 20,000 photographs which spanned the history of the medium, without dangling a seductive package. My guess is Daniel negotiated glamarous curatorial opportunities. This might be confirmed by the museum’s 2013 press release which announced Daniel would take over the Photography department and also be Curator of Special Projects.

If Fazal Sheikh’s photographic subjects seem to trust him, it’s because of the amount of time he spends knowing them and trying to understand their history and culture. Sheikh established this approach when he first began photographing in South Africa, and in refugee camps in Kenya and Malawi. It was undoubtedly trust which motivated Abshiro Aden Mohammed, whom Sheikh photographed in the Somali Refugee Camp in Dagahaley, Kenya, to recount the violent rapes that occurred there, and the newborn babies left on the ground to die.

Fazal Sheikh, Abshiro Aden Mohammed, Women’s Leader, Somali Refugee Camp, Dagahaley, Kenya, from the series A Camel for the Son, 2000, inkjet print, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by Jane P. Watkins. © Fazal Sheikh

Photographing in Kenya helped the American born Sheikh (b.1965) to better know his Kenyan’s father’s home, where he hoped to “reconcile the duality within me.” Similarly he began going to the northern part of India that is now Pakistan, to know where his grandfather lived, and try to discover “what of him was in me.” In Pakistan at the Afghanistan border, Sheikh befriended Afghan refugees who had fought the Soviets, and hoped one day to return to their Afghan villages. Some asked why the Americans abandoned them. Look into the watery dark eyes of Rohullah, an Afghan refugee photographed by Sheikh in Badabare, Pakistan, and you get a sense of the reason Sheikh considers his work “a conduit between people and history.” Homelands and Histories: Photographs by Fazal Sheikh can be seen at MFAH through October 1, 2017.

Fazal Sheikh, Rohullah, Afghan Refugee Village, Badabare, North West Frontier Province, Pakistan, from the series The Victor Weeps, 1997, inkjet print, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by Jane P. Watkins. © Fazal Sheikh


  1. As always a wonderful personal journey and thorough critic

  2. Beautiful, thoughtful commentary for a moving exhibition of timely material. Practicing meditation and drinking are not mutually exclusive, Virginia. Just don't do them at the same time!