Remembering the custodian of our culture

Every work of Haku Shah (1934–2019), a Gandhian to the core, reflects the simplicity of his life

Remembering the custodian of our culture

Jhini Jhini Bini Chadariya, 2002

Amit Sengupta

Canvas talks

The late artist remained a stoic and dogged believer in humble living, shunning both fame and prosperity. His art was a reflection of his life. His famous portrait of Gandhi, his face alive within the charkha, is an embodiment of the simplicity of his craft, while giving out a powerful message. Has the country trapped him in this charkha, his body, mind, politics and philosophy, and is not allowing him to be liberated, the painting seems to ask. His painting of Kabir — in black & white and colour — is a classic too. It seems celebrating a moment of upliftment.

The Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi is holding a landmark retrospective show of an eminent Gandhian painter, photographer, crafts archivist and artist, perhaps the only one of his kind. Iss Ghat Antar Baag Bagiche is a homage to Haku Shah (1934–2019). His contribution to preservation of the artefacts gathered by this reticent and humble, almost invisible artist, through rigorous research across India is a virtual treasure trove of Indian art.

The many contributions

Haku Shah meticulously documented varied cultural expressions of the rural arts and crafts and the techniques and processes of creative work, keeping the focus on education and knowledge gathering and dissemination. He was an iconic and old-fashioned cultural anthropologist with an archivist’s zest. His contribution to the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad, Shilpa Gram in Udaipur and several important and cutting-edge exhibitions is legendary. Mentored by artists such as KG Subramanyan, Sankho Chaudhuri and NS Bendre at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda, Haku Shah’s artistic passage sought and created harmonious relationship between object, technique and concept.

Around 80 works from the Haku Shah archive, including paintings, terracotta sculptures, textile scrolls, books, journals and periodicals have been displayed in the exhibition which is on till January 10. There are works in multimedia, oil on canvas, mix media collages, sketches and ink drawings...

Haku Shah’s repertoire is miscellaneous and varied in its originality and energy. It is influenced by the philosophical and spiritual traditions and narratives of the secular 15th-century Bhakti and Sufi poetry, and in synthesis with modern and classical literature, music and creative and social expressions. Some of these classical and modern works are being exhibited for the first time in the exhibition. It also includes his collaboration with musician and vocalist Shubha Mudgal on the show Haman Hain Ishq (2002). There are works from Noor Gandhi Ka Meri Nazar Mein (1997), Nitya Gandhi: Living Re-living Gandhi (2004) and Maanush (2007).

The rise

Haku Shah

Haku Shah was born to Vajubhai and Vadanben in the village of Valod, Gujarat. He grew up in an era of the pulsating non-violent freedom struggle. He studied at the prestigious Faculty of Fine Arts, Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda, between 1955 and 1959. The open and free atmosphere at Baroda helped him grow into an interdisciplinary and versatile mind.

He started creative work when he was young; he would make copies of the portraits of Gandhi celebrating the freedom movement. He went on to teach at a Gandhian swaraj ashram at Vedchhi in Surat district of Gujarat. Thereafter, handspun yarn became an important expression of his artistic persona. He has been a faculty at the School of Architecture, Ahmedabad, and a Regent Professor at the University of California, Davis. In 1967, art historian Stella Kramrisch invited Shah to curate the seminal exhibition Unknown India while he was associated with the NID.

He was awarded the Padma Shri, Kala Ratna, Kala Shiromani, Gagan Abani Puraskar and fellowships like the Rockefeller Fellowship and Nehru Fellowship, for his work celebrating the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi and the values of the freedom struggle. Haku Shah passed away on March 21. He was 84.


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