By Tarini Patel
Nobody does ‘the leer’ the way Nilofer Suleman does. There is something campy and quintessentially Indian in her depiction of the amorous side glance the oily, thin-mustachioed Romeo gives the fish-eyed beauty in her tight floral blouse. And yes, he is there trying his luck in almost all her paintings.
Nilofer, 57, is a well-known artist whose works can be found in homes in Mumbai, Delhi, New York, London, Belgium, Geneva, and Shanghai. Her colour-saturated, detailed compositions transport the viewers to a fanciful version of India where drama abounds – at the local tailor, florist, photo studio, barbershop, theatre, bus stand, and sweet shop. She leaves it to the observer to engage with the frames within each frame and imagine the stories of the quirky characters.
Nilofer grew up in an upper-middle-class Muslim family of seven children in a then-small town of Indore in Madhya Pradesh. A large family size meant a constant busyness, interrupted conversations, funny nicknames, and the usual squabbling among siblings over shared spaces and things.
“Yet being together was like a warm hug,” she reminisces. She credits her parents for these cherished memories. “I don’t remember them ever talking down or raising their voice at my siblings or me. They carried themselves with an amazing ease and flow,” she says as she recalls her life in the ancestral home.
The old bungalow’s spaciousness offered the perfect space for the children to play hide-and-seek and pitthoo for hours, stage self-scripted plays, or sit on the terrace gazing at stars till late. Her home was the favoured hangout of the neighbourhood children. “Our front door was always open. There was a constant flow of friends and never a dull moment.”
After completing high school in 1979, she moved to Mumbai to study psychology. An average student in her teens, Nilofer surprised herself when she excelled at the university. Her professors, impressed with her scholarly grasp, encouraged her to pursue a doctorate.
The subject sparked her interest in observing human behavior in the micro-communities all around. The city’s crowded trains, the narrow lanes of Chor Bazaar, the street-side chai stalls – all became her observation deck.
During study breaks, she would doodle all that her mind surveyed. She wowed her friends with her effortless, colourful illustrations of Mumbai’s street scenes. Through word-of-mouth, her reputation spread. Soon she was accepting art projects under her brand Candid Cards.
It was 1986, and Nilofer was 23 years old. She met her future husband, Shiv, at an art gallery. He was suave, educated, and an art enthusiast. After a short courtship and much against her parents’ wishes, Nilofer became the first in her family to marry a Hindu.
Shiv’s expat position in a multinational firm brought all the material comforts – a long stint in Singapore, fancy cars and holidays, country club membership, admissions into the best school for the kids, and friends across the globe. While Shiv focused his efforts on climbing the corporate ladder, Nilofer willingly traded her academic pursuits for life at home as a mother.
Unfortunately, the relationship began to show deep cracks. “It was a hasty, crazy marriage from the get-go, and it kept getting worse,” Nilofer says plainly. Fuelled by Shiv’s alcoholism, minor arguments would degenerate into terrible fights. Nilofer struggled to keep things calm and give her children a happy, sunny childhood like the one she had lived. “It was a lonely effort, and life at home was not healthy,” she shares quietly.
Finally, things came to a head, and Nilofer packed her bags and returned to Indore with her kids. Amidst all the emotions of anger and grief, she says she is “grateful for the few aha-moments she experienced” during this dark, painful period.
“After all the years of marriage, I had nothing to show for it. I had two wonderful children who I loved and was now solely responsible for. There was a lot of confusion, fear, and shame buzzing in my head. But strangely, I had distinct clarity about a few things. Most importantly, that mutual respect and freedom to express myself was absolutely sacred.” It was how she was raised and she wanted the same for her children.
In Indore, art became her salvation. Nilofer began to train under Professor Chandu Nafde, a former teacher at the Baroda School of Art. Impressed by her talent and dedication, Nafde took her under his wings and taught her the tedious step-process of lithography. More than that, he instilled in her the virtues of being patient and meticulous.
While her brother and his wife took care of the kids, Nilofer immersed herself in his studio. She mastered using a single hairbrush and rotring ink to recreate old, detailed maps and miniatures. Once again, clients came calling. Art houses and private connoisseurs reached out to her and commissioned works that have become collectors’ pieces.
She did not miss her academic life at all. “Art connected me to my inner rhythm. It empowered and fulfilled me in a way that felt so complete,” she says.
While Indore helped her heal and envision a future again, Nilofer knew it was not home. She wanted to give her children a better education than what the small town could offer. After much resistance from her parents and siblings, she returned to Bangalore. This time with no financial support.
She accepted the first job offer she landed – the position of an art teacher at an elite international school. The job ensured a regular, modest income, but more importantly, a tuition waiver for her son. Unexpectedly, Nilofer discovered that spending time with young students contributed to her growth as an artist.
“I knew techniques, but I learned different art forms through teaching. I read, researched, and experimented with different mediums – pottery, mural, sculpture, papier-mache in the classroom. While enriching the imagination of my students, I inadvertently began to feed mine.”
A single-parent home was a difficult transition for her children – daughter Shilo, then 13, and son Shaan, nine. “All of a sudden, their lives had shrunk in terms of space, time, and money.” The one-bedroom rental her salary could afford was “a matchbox.”
The dining table became Nilofer’s studio with art supplies, paper scraps, and unfinished canvases occupying every inch of its paint-splattered surface. Mealtimes were insular. “Shilo would have friends over for dinner while Shaan ate on the kitchen counter. And I, wherever and whenever I remembered.”
Nilofer was busy trying to keep the family afloat with a full-time day job followed by art classes at home and commissioned projects on weekends. She had little energy or time to spend with her children.
“They missed out on family outings, vacations, and emotional bonding. And somewhere along, they absorbed my insecurities and fears,” she says with sadness.
As the only adult in their life, she worries she was less than an ideal role model. “I had to be a tough ‘man’ while dealing with taxes, bills, car repairs, and landlord, and a loving, patient, fun mother at home. Living this duality was absolutely exhausting and numbing.”
But along the way, she made choices that the family still lives by. She gave away the television set to the dhobi to get rid of its noise bouncing off the walls of their cramped quarter. With pride in her voice, she declares, “I did not want any distractions for myself or the children. And now, even though we live in a big house, we do not have a TV. It’s an addictive nuisance that we can do without.”
Then came 2003. Everything changed for Nilofer. Her paintings caught the attention of a Mumbai-based gallerist, Sangeeta Chopra Raghavan. Sangeeta invited her to do a solo show of 13 paintings at her exclusive gallery.
Nilofer was beyond overjoyed but also understood the enormity of the task. The single mother-of-two quit her school job to focus on the upcoming show. It became her life. Working nearly 20 hours a day, all week for 16 months, Nilofer finished the last five by four feet canvas, two days before the event.
Totally spent – physically and financially – and a “complete nervous wreck,” she flew to Mumbai to attend the show. “The joy of seeing my paintings span the entire white walls of the spacious gallery was overwhelming. It was surreal to watch art buyers have conversations about my display.”
It was indeed, magical. The show sold out on the preview night itself. Thinking back, Nilofer laughs nervously at her gumption. “I must have been crazy to give up a steady income and risk it all. But it couldn’t have been done any other way.”
There was no looking back. The brilliant success of the first show helped Nilofer enter India’s thriving art scene. She went onto do many solo and group shows alongside established artists like Anjolie Ela Menon, Jayasri Burman, Rameshwar Broota, and SH Raza. Her journey is reflected in the value of her works. From a few thousand rupees in her early days, her paintings now fetch over ten lakhs.
But Nilofer does not mark her success with any of this. “Yes, money is important. It quietened my fears, helped me build my dream home. But I was never ambitious. For me, it does not matter where I am showing or who is buying my painting.”
Instead, her source of joy, pride, and peace are her children. “It could have gone terribly wrong. They grew up in a broken family with an absent father and a mother who was there, but barely present.”
Her eyes light up as she talks about her daughter Shilo Shiv Suleman, an accomplished artist, and son, Shaan Shivanandan, a professional graphic designer.
“I am so proud of the persons they have become. Creative, free-spirited, sensitive, and yet so strong. I am grateful that they did not allow the difficult times to harden them. Rather they channelled our collective angst into developing an amazing work ethic and an attitude of not taking anything for granted.”
Nilofer’s journey as a single parent is not uncommon. What is rare is her courage to take chances and follow her passion without seeking guarantees.
Tarini Patel is a pre-university student at Mallya Aditi International School, Bengaluru. She taught herself sewing and makes dog beds, upcycled clothes, and embroiders anything she can lay her hands on. Her prized possession is a collection of vintage sewing magazines and tools.