With the passing away of the doyen of Indian Art, Haku Shah (1934-21 March 2019) in Ahmedabad at the age of 85, we have lost an eminent Gandhian painter belonging to the Baroda School of Art. He was also a cultural anthropologist and an author of international repute on folk and tribal art and culture. His works are considered in the line of artists who brought themes of folk or tribal art to the mainstream Indian art.
He received several awards including the Padma Shri (1989), the Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship and the Kala Ratna for his contribution to art. Haku Shah, an alumnus of MS University in Baroda where he completed his Masters in Fine Art under seminal artists like KG Subrahmanyam and Sankho Chaudhury and others. By 1965 he had already held several one-man shows in Kolkata and Mumbai.
In 1968, he curated the ‘Unknown India’ exhibition, organized by Art Critic Stella Kramrisch at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He received the Rockefeller Grant in the same year and in 1971, the Nehru Fellowship Award. Over the years, he had carried out extensive field research and documentation on rural and tribal crafts, traditions and folklore.
He established a tribal museum at Gujarat Vidyapith in Ahmedabad and was a curator here for several years which was to become his last legacy. Haku bhai as he was fondly known, set up the first of its Kind Crafts Village Shilpgram in Udaipur, Rajasthan in the eighties. His works were deeply influenced by tribal art and culture, a theme on which he had written several of his works, and also the Bhakti movement, especially its Nirguna poetry. In 2009, he published his memoirs titled, Manush.
Shah’s son, photographer Parthiv Shah said, “He is one of those rare artists who tried to amalgamate two to three art practices. This was unlike a reputed trained architect, who will simply be an architect and won’t do anything else. There are very few people like Satyajit Ray, who was not only a filmmaker and made films like Pather Panchali, but also a writer, illustrator, and novelist.”
Veteran artist Manu Parekh in 1963, said, “Haku knew very well about crafts and craftsmen and was in direct touch with the village craftsmen. I don’t know many people who have such deep connections with village craftsmen. In our country especially, we need these kinds of artists.”
An exhibition – Votive Terracotta of India:
The scholarly work of Haku Shah – was conceived as part of Madhyam, an event to celebrate 50 years of ceramics and glass at the National Institute of Design (NID) with the intention of providing a glimpse into the scholarly work of the late Haku Shah.
The exhibition draws from visual material and artefacts from Haku Shah’s personal archive, as well as the NID archive. He practiced not only as an artist, but was also well known for his scholarship and his curatorial practice. He is known for path-breaking exhibitions like “Mati Ye Tere Roop” at the National Crafts Museum in Delhi.
Early on at the NID, a research cell was founded. Shah was appointed as a researcher in July 1962. He was part of the research team for the first exhibition – Jawaharlal Nehru: His life and His India – produced by the NID. Most importantly, he was part of the research for, and writing of, the first books published by the institute on ethnography and craft – “Mata Ni Pachedi” (with Joan Erikson) Rural Craftsmen and Their Work (with Dr Eberhard Fischer) in 1970.
He continued his research and published many more books after leaving his position at the NID in 1968. His body of work and scholarship clearly foregrounds the idea that the knowledge of traditional craftsmen is as valuable as the training of the modern designer and both should be given equal standing.
The soft spoken artist, Haku Shah wore Khadi all his life and he saw craft not as a process of making dry prototypes but as the weave that holds society together. In his view, the diversity of cultures and the plurality of religious traditions of India was the most valuable living heritage that the country could boast of. The river, the tree and the positive energies of human creativity are what inspired the artist throughout his multifaceted life.
In an interview to Tehelka more than a decade ago he expressed his concern about the dying fabrics of the tribals of Vasava in the Gujarat-Maharashtra border. He told, “when we talk of the world we talk of fabric. Take a cloth, tie a knot and dip it. That is what makes design of art. The knot has a local significance. These days I see many girls riding scooters in Ahmedabad who wear dresses made of jawariyu cloth (a particular tie and dye method). “
On being asked what we have lost in Gujarat, he told, “We have Patola.” Then he also spoke with a lot of hope that It is possible to regain the loss. “Ask anyone what Gujarat’s Patola fabric is and you will not get any reply. There are Patola saris but there was also Patola cloth, which was traditionally used by the Nagar Brahmins as well as Bohra Muslims for ritualistic purposes. In my wife’s Village in Burhanpur, I saw Patola curtains in the house of a Bohra Muslim. My mother got Patola at her marriage. I am still optimist that all of this heritage will not be destroyed. Though we have lost a lot,” said Shah.
Speaking on the mainstream perception of art he emphasized on preserving the tribal or adivasi art of India.” I feel artist have to be connected to ground reality – rivers, trees, women’s activities. If I walk in a park, why can’t I make a painting there or involve children in the activity ?” quipped Haku Shah.