Nilima Sheikh completed a Bachelors degree in History at Delhi University and went on to study painting at MS University, Vadodara, in the late 1960s. At the time, the Faculty of Fine Arts identified with modernism, and students received training in the European style of easel painting. However, many of the influential teachers, most notably KG Subramanyan, recognised the value of history and traditional visual idioms to the development of new expression.
Sheikh turned to Indian miniature paintings, ancient murals, and manuscripts, drawing on their materials, formats, and surfaces while evolving her artistic lexicon. Interested in the connection between stories and images, she uses vernacular folk songs, folklore, contemporary historical annotations, and her own experiences in her work. Narrative and figurative, her works - whether intimate miniatures on paper, serial folios, large canvas scrolls, theatre backdrops or illustrations for children's books - explore varied feminine experiences such as her immediate realm as a young mother or the true story of Champa, a girl who was tortured and burnt by her in-laws over the issue of her dowry.
Sheikh spent much of her early years in Kashmir, a land blessed with pristine beauty and cursed with endless violence, and which continues to hold a place in her heart. Much of her recent work delves into the state's complex historical trajectories and turbulent landscapes, fulfilling her role as an artist, 'to bear witness - to both the past and the present.' Sheikh assiduously excavates textual references such as Mughal memoirs and the accounts of Chinese travellers as well as medieval verses, juxtaposing them with contemporary writing and folktales. These varied sources and inspirations are deftly blended with the many visual cultures that are Kashmir's legacy - Himalayan, Turkish, Persian, and South Asian art and architecture. Deeply introspective and often lyrical, her works draw viewers into Kashmir outside of the stereotypes that fuel the existing socio-political conflicts.