Meet the Shah of Terracotta

Age has not slowed down artist Himmat Shah who moves with consummate ease from drawing, painted reliefs, silver paintings, burnt collages and his recent tryst with pastels and papers.

 |  4-minute read |   23-06-2019
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Leo Tolstoy, the Russian writer, said: “Art is not a handicraft, it is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced.” He talks of art as an experiential practice laying equal importance on emotions and creativity. In the same vein, Himmat Shah reflects on his journey as an artist, admitting that “art is like a brahmand (cosmos) and it could not be ignored in our life.” A retrospective Shah, a formidable voice in the history of Indian contemporary art, crosses boundaries between painting, sculpture, design, art and craft. Born in 1933, the 86 year-old artist has witnessed the transformation of the language of art from modernism and postmodernism, to contemporary art in India. A retrospective exhibition, beautifully mounted at the Bihar Museum presented by the Kiran Nadar Museum and curated by Roobina Karode, celebrates Shah’s prolific body of work spanning six decades.

Shah is from Lothal, an archaeological site in Gujarat. He describes his life as “an exhilarating journey lived each moment and quite without the anxiety of struggle or new hardships.” As a boy, he moved to Bhavnagar and studied at the Gharshala, a school that steeped in the philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi, which pioneered the cultural understanding of the nationalist renaissance in Gujarat. It was here that the artist-educator Jagubhai Shah laid the foundation of Himat’s artistic sensibility.

hs_himmat_001_silver_062019025508.jpgHimmat Shah artistic pursuits have spanned over almost six decades. (Photo: Artist's website)

Himmat pursued the teachers’ course at the famous JJ School of Art in Bombay, with Jagubhai when he was just 20 years old. He moved to MS University, Baroda in 1956 where he learned from the modern artist NS Bendre and KG Subramanyan, who inspired him to revive folk and traditional knowledge of Indian art. Shah became a member of Group 1890, a short-lived artists’ collective founded by modern Indian painter Jagdish Swaminathan. In 1963, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurated the group’s first show. In 1967, Mexican poet-diplomat Octavio Paz recommended Shah for a French scholarship to study etching at the institute Atelier 17 in Paris.

On his return, Shah designed monumental murals in brick, cement and concrete at St Xavier’s School Ahmedabad. He started performing with relief in plaster. Shah then shifted to a studio at Garhi, New Delhi, where he would practice with clays and slips, and nurture a novel vocabulary in terracotta followed by an intense period of casting in bronze between 2004 and 2005.

Speaking to Himmat a few days ago, I perceived him to be much calmer, peaceful and more at ease with his inner world. Shah, the master of art, said: “What is present is modern.” There are no boundaries in the art for Shah who moves with consummate ease from drawing, painted reliefs, silver paintings, burnt collages. He confesses that at his age it is a bit difficult to cast bronze or work in terracotta. So, he took the opportunity to work with pastels and papers.

hs_himmat_005_yellow_062019025652.jpgFrom bronze and terracotta, Shah has now moved on to pastels and papers. (Photo: Artist's website)

In the bronze age, his signature sculptures are in two different mediums: The strong and heavy brass to the light and fragile terracotta. Shah uses the material to create an impression of the passage of time and the ravages of the sun and water in multi-textured art forms. His oeuvre also comprises high-relief murals, burnt paper collages, prints and silver paintings. Shah’s works are inspired by frailty and ephemerality of existence and his strong relationship and appreciation of the materials and the material world.

In the early 1960s, at a friend’s workplace, Shah playfully burnt some holes into the paper with a cigarette. Soon, he created the aesthetically motivated burnt paper collage with delicate burnt edges and dispersing ash-dust. He exhibited them at the Lalit Kala Akademi in 1963. These warm compositions contributed to his early modernist-bent: layering, superimposing burnt paper and contrasting it with coloured paper. The play of sensuousness around terracotta and bronze sculptures is an important part of his iconic vocabulary.

screenshot-4_062019030035.pngPlayful endeavour turned into a masterpiece, a burnt paper collage by Shah. (Photo: Artist's website)

A new vocabulary Shah appreciates the earthy aroma and sensibility of terracotta, its response to sensory heat and touch. He gave a contemporary touch to the ancient medium. The recurrent head-forms in the abstract shape hint at ritualistic symbolism and familial memory. Shah largely glazes them with silver and gold foil. He has discovered layers of textural potentialities within the frames of the accidental fractures, abstracted contours, transmuted cracks, holes and indents, deploying glossy and sandy surfaces. Interestingly, the focal dot that humanises the gaze exudes a kind of imperceptible presence.

On bronze, Shah’s contemporary Krishen Khanna writes, “The heads in so many shapes and colours, silently converse both among themselves and with us. If you stay with them long enough you might easily be switching roles. You the observer can become observed in their mute presence.” When watched closely, there are illegible hieroglyphs on his series of metal heads. These heads, a site of self-depreciation, are the manifestation of certainty of degeneration.

Karode, the curator of Shah’s exhibition at Bihar Museum, says that “Himmat is an artist who met the world only through his art.” Shah’s work highlights the rich, plural and diverse features of Indian culture.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

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Alka Pande Alka Pande @dralkapande

Art historian and the author of Body Sutra: Tracing the human form through art & imagination.

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