Iss ghat antar baag bagiche (within this earthen vessel lie bowers and groves), are words evocative of the exceptional oeuvre of Haku Shah, a celebrated Gandhian artist, art historian, photographer, crafts archivist and polemicist, the subject of an ongoing exhibition at the celebrated Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi. His death at the age of 84, after a long illness on 21 March last year, has stirred renewed interest in his art practice. His approach predates most of the contemporary theoretical lenses and the razzmatazz of fleeting zeitgeist movements. Central to his vision are enduring Gandhian ideas and values that powered the Indian independence movement, the civil rights movement in the United States, the solidarity movement in Poland, the velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and several other political and human rights movements across the world.
The retrospective, with its display of terracotta figurines, is a celebratory homage to his passion for collecting and presenting traditional rural and tribal craftsmanship. His life was a crusade for placing India’s creative economy at the cornerstone of its development strategy. In the words of Kapila Vatsyayan, his eye was discerning, his taste impeccable, and his respect for the creators of art exemplary. “I watched him, both as artist and collector, and knew that, despite the challenges and temptations of professional curatorship, here was a man committed first and foremost to the ‘earth’ and soil of these creations, the human dignity of the creators and the eloquence of the forms they developed as objects, functional and symbolic.” Shah’s exhibition of clay objects, Form and Many Forms of Mother Clay, curated for the Crafts Museum in Delhi pioneered some of the best indigenous curatorial practices as did his collaborative 1968 exhibition with art historian Stella Kramrisch named Art of Unknown India at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Mentored in equal parts by artist-pedagogue KG Subramanyan, Sankho Chaudhuri and NS Bendre at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda, Haku Shah’s love for rural and tribal art forms received fillip during his association with Pupul Jayakar at the Weavers’ Service Centre, Bombay with which she was closely connected. Seeing his interest in indigenous traditions, she encouraged him to move as a research assistant to the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. At that point it was called the National Design Institute, located in the museum complex built by Le Corbusier in Paldi, driven by the ideas of luminaries like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ernst Scheidegger, Hans Gugelot, Armin Hoffmann, Frei Otto and others. Haku Shah thrived in this hothouse of creativity.
As a teacher, Shah mentored generations of students at the National Institute of Design, taught at the School of Architecture and joined the University of California in the spring of 1991 to teach a studio course in Textiles and Design as a distinguished Regents’ professor. He was a conscientious researcher and authored several books and monographs on folk and tribal art, deconstructing the semiotics of rites and rituals embedded in nature and earth with eminent scholars like Eberhard Fischer, Stella Kramrisch, Joan Erikson and Charles and Ray Eames. His book on Votive Terracottas of Gujarat is amongst his most compelling work together with his monograph on Temple Tents for the Mother Goddesses in Gujarat. One of his most seminal contributions was in establishing an ethnographic Tribal Museum at the Gujarat Vidyapith in Ahmedabad. He also set up a Crafts Village in Udaipur.
His own art practice was inseparable from his political beliefs. It was also powered by a refined Sufi poetic sensibility reflected in a small body of work emanating from his collaboration with Shubha Mudgal in an exhibition called Haman Hai Ishq (love is all there is). One also sees his effortless creativity at work in playful experiments with handmade paper called Kalamkhush (the paper that delights the pen). The most resonant work displayed in this unforgettable retrospective is from the Gandhi series, where he has used the semiotics of Gandhian objects to engage with important political and ethical questions, creating a space for Satyagraha: the wilful, peaceful, breaking of laws that are unjust, the most powerful weapon of dissent in a non-violent struggle.
Sujata Prasad, a former civil servant, is an author and columnist.
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Updated Date: Jan 08, 2020 10:30:02 IST