Lesson 1, Topic 1
In Progress

Towards Precision and Purity: Nasreen Mohamedi

George September 22, 2023

In a 1969 journal entry, the artist Nasreen Mohamedi jotted the following: 

Study the EYE
Observe some objects in different light! 
A cosmic rhythm with each stroke
South + Vibrations (Study)
Movement + Emptiness 

Her words can be read as instructions that she leaves for herself, and speak directly to the elements of vibrations, sounds and emptiness that she attempted to attune herself to through her artistic practice. Without directly representing the world in images, her art was inspired by man-made environments, especially architecture and geometry as well as the underlying structures in nature. Her resulting works overlap ideas of the optical, metaphysical and mystical, mainly through gestures of pencil and ink on paper, experiments with organic forms, delicate grids and dynamic, hard-edged lines.

Vertical lines overlapped by horizontal lines of varying thickness cut/separated by short slanting lines at different intervals.

1. Untitled, c. 1970s

Nasreen Mohamedi, Ink and graphite on paper, 19.05 x 19.05 cm

Talwar Gallery, New Delhi

Intersecting lines of various thickness form overlapping floating slopes concentrated on the right side of the composition.

2. Untitled, c. 1970s–80s

Nasreen Mohamedi, Ink on paper, 50.8 x 71.12 cm

Chatterjee and Lal, Mumbai

A band of slanting lines that form floating rectangles with a bold line cutting through it surrounded by a thick L shape and diagonal lines.

3. Untitled, c. 1980s

Nasreen Mohamedi, Ink and graphite on paper, 49.53 x 68.58 cm

Talwar Gallery, New Delhi

The centre of the work is composed of horizontal lines of varying thickness and length sandwiched between angled lines. This is inverted and replicated at the bottom on a white background.

4. Untitled, c. 1980s

Nasreen Mohamedi, Ink and graphite on paper

Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Delhi-NCR

Mohamedi was born in Karachi (present-day Pakistan) in 1937. Her family moved to Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1944 and lived between Bombay and Bahrain, where her father owned a photographic equipment business. She was made aware of difficult notions of mortality from a young age, losing her mother at the age of five and watching two of her brothers battle Huntington’s disease, which would claim her own life at the age of 53. Yet, she is known to have lived her life with unfailing courage and grace, her quiet but resolute demeanour reflecting the purity of form she sought to achieve through her works.

From 1954 to 1957, Mohamedi attended Saint Martin’s School of Art in London, which gave her early exposure to museum collections and the works of European abstract artists like Paul Klee (1879–1940) and Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944). She returned to Bombay in 1958 and worked out of the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute, an experimental artists’ space that was frequented by seminal artists such as MF Husain (1915–2011), Akbar Padamsee (1928–2020), Nalini Malani (b. 1946) and Tyeb Mehta (1925–2009). It was also here that she met and was mentored by Vasudeo S Gaitonde (1924–2001), whose work we saw in the previous topic. Both shared an interest in Zen Buddhism and mysticism, and an influence of his abstract sensibilities is evident in her works following this period.

Although her works are predominantly undated and untitled, it is possible to follow the trajectory of her practice in phases.

A woman sits in contemplation on a chair at her desk in her studio full of abstract paintings and a table with art supplies.

5. Nasreen at her studio in Bombay at the Bhulabhai Desai Institute, 1960

10.7 × 15.7 cm

Tate Liverpool

Beginnings: Turning to Abstraction

The 1960s were important in Mohamedi’s personal life and artistic practice. Upon receiving her diploma in fine arts, she travelled across the world, from Turkey, Iran, Karachi and London to Bahrain. This was also a period of greater interest in philosophical systems, poetry and ghazals as she grappled with questions of faith and spirituality. Her works from this period are imbued with a kind of lyrical but frenzied abstraction. Using ink wash and a dry brush technique, her mark-making could be read as withering forms of nature such as isolated branches and dried leaves. Her colours begin to fade and are substituted for monochromatic compositions that are typical of her practice from this point on. 

Black ink lines that resemble branches with smatterings of green are set above a band of brown watercolour on tan paper.

6. Untitled, 1960

Nasreen Mohamedi, Ink, graphite, and watercolour on paper, 34.5 x 49.2 cm

Talwar Gallery, New Delhi

Smudges of blue, black and brown ink form abstract shapes on tan paper.

7. Untitled, 1962

Nasreen Mohamedi, Ink, watercolour and acrylic on paper, 48.2 x 70.4 cm

Talwar Gallery, New Delhi

An abstract composition of black triangles and lines set above washed out browns, yellows, greens and whites with scuffs across the surface.

8. Untitled, 1965

Nasreen Mohamedi, Oil on canvas, 63.5 × 105.4 cm


Experiments with the Grid

Over time, Mohamedi began to look towards rectilinear forms and then, the geometric grid as a template for her work. For instance, her pared-down canvas (Image 9) from 1965 features vertical and horizontal axes to structure the forms in the composition. Through her adoption of the grid, Mohamedi was following a long tradition of twentieth-century international artists who had also used this to structure their works and ideas. Some artists used the grid as a mechanical or geometric form, one that could be easily replicated, and could structure the picture plane. Contrastingly, Mohamedi’s drawings (Images 10, 11) intentionally break away from the rigidity of that form, by incorporating lines that veer away from the strict horizontal and vertical axes, and show fine traces of her hand moving over the paper. 

A compelling example to consider is her Untitled work from around 1975 (Image 10), which is structured around the interval or spacing of the vertical line, with somewhat wider bands in the centre of the paper as compared to the edges. Within many of the squares or rectangles created by the intersection of horizontal and vertical, Mohamedi has also inserted a gently sloped diagonal line. The diagonals occasionally veer beyond an individual segment of the work, creating a cadence through the disruption of geometry. Throughout these works, Mohamedi’s forms are precise, but also retain the intimacy of the artist’s hand in a way that many artists working with the rigidity and precision of the grid tried to avoid. 

Squares of black, blue, green and gold are arranged horizontally and split by a curved vertical line over a deep blue-green background.

9. Untitled, 1965

Nasreen Mohamedi, Oil on canvas, 91.4 x 147.3 cm

Talwar Gallery, New Delhi

Regular diagonal lines intersect a band created by equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines on tan paper.

10. Untitled, 1975

Nasreen Mohamedi, Ink and graphite on paper, 19.05 x 19.05 cm

Talwar Gallery, New Delhi

Multiple lines overlap each other at various angles on tan paper.

11. Untitled, c. 1970s

Nasreen Mohamedi, Ink and graphite on paper, 19.05 x 19.05 cm

Talwar Gallery, New Delhi

Multiple parallel lines spaced out at irregular intervals on an ink-washed tan paper.

12. Untitled, 1975

Nasreen Mohamedi, Ink and graphite on paper, 19.05 x 19.05 cm

Talwar Gallery, New Delhi

Abandoning the Grid

Mohamedi’s grid-based works were characterised by the use of the entire pictorial space, with parallel lines of different thicknesses sprawling across her compositions. By the 1980s however, she began to abandon the grid as a compositional device, allowing more space to breathe into her compositions with geometric forms like arcs and diagonals that freely floated in the centre.

In an Untitled work from that decade (Image 13), a series of light to medium-weight diagonal lines running from left to right are concentrated in the middle of the page, while a smaller group of lightly drawn lines hover above. The lines at the centre are all bisected by three black corners of different sizes and weights. All of these lines and forms float on the page, never extending to the edge.

Slanting lines of varying weight/ thickness overlapped by three bold L-shapes on white paper.

13. Untitled, c. 1980s

Nasreen Mohamedi, Ink and graphite on paper, 56.6 x 72 cm

Talwar Gallery, New Delhi

Diagonal lines of varying weight/ thickness and lengths are at the centre of a yellow background.

14. Untitled

Nasreen Mohamedi, Ink on paper, 49 × 72 cm

Glenbarra Art Museum, Himeji

Alternating angled squares of horizontal lines and solid black stacked on top of each other as if floating away on a tan background.

15. Untitled

Nasreen Mohamedi, Graphite and ink on paper, 50 x 70 cm

Tate, Liverpool

Later Works

By the last phase in her artistic journey in the late 1980s, Mohamedi’s health had deteriorated with the progression of a neuro-muscular disease that prevented the use of the precision tools that allowed for her exacting geometric compositions. Her works were now imbued with a sense of calm and interiority, with large areas of empty space, the light pressure of the pencil and lines that are barely perceptible. It is almost as if Mohamedi was freeing herself from her compositional plane, leaving behind almost no authorial trace.

Slanted intersecting lines of varying thickness form a band at the bottom with multiple obtuse triangles pointing towards it at the top.

16. Untitled, 1980

Nasreen Mohamedi, Ink and pencil on paper, 49.9 x 66.3 cm

Glenbarra Museum, Himeji

Within the trajectory of Indian modernism, Mohamedi’s forms stand apart in their quiet elegance and simplicity. Between 1972 and her death in 1993, Mohamedi lived in Baroda (present-day Vadodara), where she taught drawing at the Faculty of Fine Arts at the Maharaja Sayajirao University, whose history we will explore in the next lesson. While her contemporaries in Baroda, such as Gulammohammed Sheikh (b. 1937) and Vivan Sundaram (1943–2023), were leading a movement around narrative figuration and constructing increasingly packed compositions on canvases, Mohamedi continued to pare down her visual elements. Shifting focus from complex imagery and social and political narratives, her practice urges us to pay attention to the formal qualities of a work of art.

Even as the art critic, Geeta Kapur (b. 1943) situates Mohamedi ‘within a great lineage of metaphysical abstraction’, she notes that ‘there will never be anyone like Nasreen again in the Indian art world. There will be geniuses and transgressive rebels, but none so noble’.