Indigenous wisdom of Himmat Shah

Artistic brilliance

Finding yourself in a room full of heads can be overwhelming, especially if heads speak to you and hijack your imagination once your surrender to them. These heads are of different shape, size and features but are of the same make –terracotta.

But they have the ability to intimidate with their mute presence. As artist Krishen Khanna aptly puts, “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 the observed in their mute presence.”

This medium and subject can be instantly associated with Himmat Shah’s oeuvre. But the abstract master’s preoccupation wasn’t limited to clay, he was an artist who brought modernist vocabulary to murals. Varied facets of his five-decade old artistic journey are displayed at an ongoing exhibition ‘Hammer on the Square’ which is curated by Roobina Karode.

The retrospective that has around 300 works on display not only celebrate Shah’s practice in general, but also understand his distinct vocabulary that set him apart from previous generation artist.

“I wanted to look at his versatile practice and his contribution in modern abstractism that hasn’t been seen before. There is no second name in my mind when I think of an artist who has lived with a material to understand it,” Karode tells Metrolife.

“He would grind clay himself and, at times, he used clay that lived with him for 10 years. Clay responded to him in a resilient way, even though it is fragile. And he used it so deftly to create monolithic heads that have become a signature of his oeuvre,” she adds.

The exhibition also highlights Shah’s drawings that have largely been overlooked. Interestingly, what he drew after sitting at months against the backdrop of Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi weren’t architectural marvels, but erotic drawings of copulating couples. In the description it is mentioned that the artist had once shared how he found the shapes and pointed arches and bulbous domes highly erotic.

“These drawings are neither preparatory tool nor final products, but they allow a flight of imagination to the viewers,” points out Karode.

Born in Lothal, Gujarat in 1933, Shah grew up surrounded by the remnants of a prominent port city of Indus Valley civilisation. He chose to live in solitude and hence developed an extra eye that was overtly curious in nature and observant. His continuous engagement with surroundings has become a dedicated idiom of his expression.

According to Karode, Shah was inspired by Western modern but he developed indigenous wisdom to create works that were rooted. “He never disconnected from his roots.”

Another important facet of Shah’s life that this exhibition highlights is his idea of creating art from used material. The core thought of nothing should be treated as waste was the single-minded pursuit of his life. “What his practice proves is that you can be an artist without having nothing. His burnt paper collages are the finest examples of how treatment can lead to creating a piece of art,” says Karode.

“The idea that you don’t need to have everything to be an artist and yet fulfil an immerse urge to create something is what Himmat practice shows,” she adds, saying the biggest challenge this exhibition posed to her was to put his works in such a way that didn’t end up eating each other and allowed viewer to navigate through them and initiate conversations.

Shah’s philosophical site also reflects through the words pasted on walls that act as a reference to artist’s mind and soul. One of the texts talks about the need to part ways with unnecessary to reach spiritual level. It reads as: “He believes the biggest learning in art as well as in life has to do with ‘the necessity to know what is unnecessary’. Only then, can one elevate the spiritual in material, and experience what the artist refers as a heightened sense of consciousness.”

The simplicity of the show lies in the serendipity of discovering spiritual metaphors and living with them in brightly-lit cubes of the gallery.

The exhibition is on at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art till June 30.

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