Himmat Shah: In Soulful Solitude

Rosalyn D’Mello is an art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover
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Himmat Shah and the joy of being detached

IT SEEMS unbecoming for a man of 85 to exude such effortless agility. I am amazed by the dexterity with which Himmat Shah approaches the daily ritual of prancing up and down the flight of stairs leading to his recently renovated, heat- proofed studio on the third level of his home in Jaipur. Especially since, minutes after I was ushered into the living room, he apologises for his missing dentures, the reason for the semi-solid diet he is on, and the slight accented mumble detectable in his still elegant, baritone voice. He requests his caretaker-maid to serve us tea and biscuits, which we both relish like children, dipping each one in the hot, milky liquid, allowing the grains to melt on the surface of our tongues. Wary of the chill in his bones because of the sudden dip in temperature, he is fully garbed; a cream pashmina completing his dapper outfit of black jacket draped over black waistcoat and white trousers, with a matching black woollen cap upon his head that contrasts starkly against his thick grey beard.

It occurs to me that while Shah is wholly conscious of the not-so-mysterious ways in which time has stamped itself upon his body, slowing down his muscles, limiting the scope of his movements, his artistic vision has been richly enhanced by its passage. Where his younger counterparts, or even writers like me, still relatively unencumbered by the challenges posed by advancing age, crave the comfort of the ‘zone’— that mystical in-between notional region where ideas unravel at the speed of thought and where one’s practice is defined by the ability to irrigate the plane of creation with this chance fertility—Shah occupies this conceptual field as a permanent resident. He displays little sign of cynicism, senility, or ennui, three attributes usually associated with old age. Instead, his speech is marked by the simplicity of wisdom and grace. He is calm, collected, articulate, and ever eager to engage with anyone who shares his unadulterated passion for art, including his caretaker-maid’s daughter, whom he is quietly mentoring, whose still-life drawing lies in a corner of the studio upstairs. Shah has been discreetly analysing her inherent talent before he decides to intervene and suggestively alter her perspective.

What endears me to him is my history of having worked intimately on the archives of the late art critic, Richard Bartholomew, someone he knew personally during his many years in Delhi, when he used to work out of a studio in Garhi, alongside other artists such as Krishen Khanna and Sanko Chaudhuri. Bartholomew was notably critical of the ambiguity of Shah’s early work, primarily paintings, but did not mince his appreciation of the spirit of experimentation and exploration that marked his sculptural practice in the early 70s. ‘Along with that quality of neo-plastic discipline, his constructions offer us a sense of spatial dimension,’ wrote Bartholomew in his Times of India review published on March 8th, 1973. ‘They stir our imagination, making us rove in the immense spaces that envelope this earth of ours. They seem like fantastic landscapes of the space world with forms and patterns hanging like planets and stars in the awesome void.’

So, when I telephoned Shah out of the blue two days before I was slated to be in Jaipur for the literature festival, he graciously acquiesced to my request for an audience with him. “Come to Vrindavan Vihar,” he said, citing Bank of Baroda and Liberty Shoes as landmarks. I found my way almost too easily, and when I stopped at house No 127, spotted ‘Himmat’ written on the gatepost wall. He emerged from within to greet me. One hour into our conversation, it feels as though we’ve known each other from another lifetime. I am able to identify all his many references, and I share much of his irreverence towards the artworld in general. I cannot control my laughter when he speaks somewhat derisively about a certain senior artist. “He doesn’t know how to paint, he only knows how to uncork a bottle of wine,” he says. I’m in splits.

Shah, I come to understand, carries many resentments within him, knotting them up into a seed. He nurtures it like he does his garden, tending to it daily, rekindling regularly the odd feeling of having been wronged, and of having been vindicated. It is not a negative emotion in that it does not occupy his headspace, nor does it make him unforgiving. In fact, it is through his art that he redeems himself of these residual resentful trappings. “What made you move to Jaipur after so many years of being in Delhi?” I ask him, wanting to know what had urged such a dramatic move away from the so-called centre of artistic expression and such a deliberate, conscious inhabiting of the periphery. “Politics,” he replies. “I reached a stage where I couldn’t afford to buy food.” I am astonished, even though I know better, having worked on Richard’s life and work, I am fully conscious of the unfair, mildly horrific, manner in which the Indian state has treated its artists, compelling many to live their lives in penury, then acknowledging them belatedly with awards and taking credit for their accomplishments. There are more examples than I have fingers to count them with, the most embarrassing being MF Husain, who felt obliged to exile himself from India because he would rather make art than spend his last years in court, fighting inane cases alleging obscenity.

Politics made me move to Jaipur after so many years in Delhi. I reached a stage where I couldn’t afford to buy food

But Shah doesn’t feed my anger, only my humour. He drops a series of chiding hints about the clusters of artists and critics he is convinced have held him back, by either influencing others of their kind not to regard his work seriously, or not to write or engage with it. Somewhere within these smarting remarks that are disguised as jokes is the insinuation that his claim to being an artist was not because the art world embraced him, but almost in spite of it.

How did he come to live in this house, I ask. He tells me a story about how, back in 2005, a client based in Gurgaon had commissioned him to create a series of bronze works. At the time, Shah didn’t even have a studio from which to operate, which he communicated to said client, who offered to have Shah move into his residence in Gurgaon, converting the kitchen and bedroom into a temporary workstation. Shah received about Rs 50 lakh, which he used to buy his house in Jaipur. There was no active art scene in Jaipur to boast of, which is perhaps what made the place attractive to Shah, apart from the green tree toppings that marked the view. He was more lured by the presence of traditional craftsmen such as marble carvers, and foundries, both of which facilitated the production of his work. The city’s proximity to Delhi also made it the perfect base, allowing him to negotiate his level of engagement with the Capital’s art cognoscenti. For example, while ‘Hammer on the Square’, his most monumental retrospective to date, held at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Saket, curated by Roobina Karode, was on view last year he was able to visit numerous times. This exhibition of over 300 of Shah’s sculptures and drawings introduced younger generations to his legacy, and emphasised the art-historical significance of his unique, continuing practice that encompasses a range of material such as ceramic, terracotta, bronzes, and even the burnt collages. Made in the early 60s, no one wanted to exhibit the burnt collages at the time and so they were first shown in 1963 at the inaugural and sole show of the short-lived Group 1890 of which Shah was a co- founder, along with J Swaminathan, someone he describes as a once dear friend who’d introduced him to Octavio Paz, then the Mexican Ambassador to India. Swami and Shah eventually had a falling out, though Shah continues to extoll the larger-than- life magnificence of Swami’s legendary personality. Politics, he suggests, was the possible reason behind their separation, perhaps connected with Swami’s administrative role as founder of Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh.

ONCE WE HAVE returned downstairs, instead of retreating to the living room, Shah asks if I’d like to visit his “other” studio. My enthusiasm is non-verbal but apparent. He asks his driver to bring the car around, then opens the door for me like a gentleman. It was then that I noticed the old- worldiness about his manners, the respect with which he spoke to me, the absence of attitude or ego. Later, we would have a long conversation about his issues with FN Souza’s portrayal of women, how vastly it differed from that of Picasso, the artist upon whose practice Souza’s very own was inherently hinged. “You must not paint through the gaze of lust,” he would say. What ensued were more conversations about how women artists should have been allowed to prosper, how the world is poorer in hindsight because of the patriarchal institution.

What I remember most vividly about my visit to Shah’s sculpture studio is him seated on his bed which is littered with a dozen or more books and empty A4-sized brown envelops whose surfaces had been cluttered with his drawings. “Isn’t it good?” he asked as he waved it in the air to show me, so content with the impulsiveness that sparked its creation. Beside him, to his left, was a rack full of more books with a glass cover upon which he’d tacked on a fabulous black-and-white print of a bust of a woman named Annette by Giacometti. The gaze in this work, the outward-looking magnetic posture translates superbly in Shah’s own sculptures, particularly some of the newly cast ones that have recently returned from a foundry in London. Shah unwraps them from their plastic encasing and places each one on a circular stand, which he, with a flick of a finger, sends into rotational overdrive as he speaks eloquently about the patinas he has achieved. Some have a bronze glaze in certain parts, or a trail, while other parts seem hollowed out, giving it the impression of something organic and moulded; some are heads with wholly striated surfaces that are inviting to touch, one is a twin sculpture of two kissing heads rooted to the ground with a middle leg that forms an ‘m’ between the two units, emphasising the union of lips. This workstation is one that is so obviously lived in but is yet to be fully utilised. Shah speaks of his plans for the long wall upon which he intends to splatter mud to build something layered and active, suggesting movements that involve every muscle of his body. I beseech him to promise to call me before he embarks on such a kinetic gesture. He happily agrees.

Leaving felt like a crude interruption, but I left nonetheless, knowing it was time to go, knowing that I was sure to return, because meeting Shah validated the need for artistic solitude despite the loneliness of it that could sometimes seem contaminating. Creating art must not necessarily entail isolation, but every now and then it is important, I learned, to isolate the self from everything that is extraneous to one’s process, including the compulsive acts of hobnobbing, sucking up to the forces that be in order to advance one’s aspirations, or playing ‘politics’. Sometimes it is essential to extract oneself from all that is callous and non-essential in order to properly hone one’s vision. For Shah, the joy of artistic being is not derived from anything external, but from everything that has emanated from the space between his own fingers.