In the idylls of small Gods

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Photo: Shailendra Pandey

HAKU SHAH makes some conversations impossible with his direct gaze. But other conversations become far too easy. Seventy-five-year-old figurative painter and art scholar, Shah is almost a time capsule without the self-promoting spiel of some young artists or the raging fears of some older ones.

Shah, who has lived in Gujarat for most of his life, is in Delhi this week releasing his new book Manush, part memoir, part art theory. Like him, his prose is straightforward, comprehensible even to the Hindi-challenged.

Shah was born in Valod, Gujarat and studied art at MS University, Baroda. He has received major national awards, including the Padma Shri, the Nehru Fellowship and the Kala Ratna for his contribution to art. While meeting him, one would do well to remember that his simplicity does not seem to have come from any egodessicating function of age. The formidably sharptongued KG Subramanian once remarked on this particular characteristic of Shah’s, “He is quite the antithesis of the usual artist or art-scholar who tend to carry their egos around them like enormous rigs and in their concern to keep them intact, lose touch with what is around.” Instead, this is the man who promoted the cause of folk and tribal art his entire life, writing about it, curating it and setting up institutions to keep it alive.

Shah’s landscapes are flat and innocent, his human figures idyllic, their long necks arching towards the sun, the blue cowherd almost a Krishna before Krishna. Does he think society can be preserved in wax? “No, change is necessary. But we must remember who we are. We are all affected by change when we simply mimic other societies, dalits and tribals particularly so.”

Shah established a tribal museum at Gujarat Vidyapeeth in Ahmedabad but he has grown uncomfortable with the word adivasi. With a child’s gesture of the tongue he indicates that the word is chewed up, bereft of meaning for him. But what has not been forgotten, what he wants people to remember, is the local and specific along with the grand global. “Why should we only talk about Ram or Babri Masjid? Why not talk about the mother Goddess Meldi?”

Ask Shah for an instance when contemporary life has startled him and he tells you about a gallery in London where pranksters let loose stink bombs. (You will need to read his book for the Gandhian’s grief-stricken response to the Gujarat riots or hear about his success in persuading a New York cab driver that trust is not a bad thing.) Sensory memory populates his anecdotes and his arguments. If Shah could have his way, children everywhere would be educated in a way that encourages them all to have full possession and understanding of sensory knowledge. They would then understand texture and smell just as one is (largely) encouraged to understand the visual and the auditory.

“You know, the UGC talks about yoga being included in education. Why not make a day in the school week one in which children can do art, craft, music and dance?” In his opinion this would remove what he sees as an artifical divide between an artist and the other (this would benefit the bumbling culture journalist also, he indicates kindly). Instead, he says, education is full of the ‘nos’ that adults utter to children having only heard ‘nos’ themselves. “And then you bring those ‘nos’ into public life.”

Shah’s son Parthiv, the well-known photographer, was witness to a 2008 Ram Sene attack in Delhi on an exhibition of MF Husain memorabilia. Parthiv’s own photographs of Husain were damaged by the vandals. Ask Shah about what artists ‘ought’ to paint and he responds that we trouble ourselves unneccessarily with questions of nakedness and privacy and never see the body we live in. In his new book, he writes, “As far as the body is concerned there are no questions of decency or indecency. The body is always moral.”

‘As far as the body is concerned there is no question of indecency. The body is always moral’ says Haku Shah

FOR ARTISTS LIKE weavers of cloth, he says, an understanding of the body is essential to their profession. It is difficult to try and complicate this response when he is telling you about a group of Gujarati weavers who insert cardamom pods into textiles so that they always smell wonderful.

Shah’s thinking can be traced directly to the Bhakti poets, a vast pantheon of whom he responded to in some of his recent work. It would be wrong to think of 12th century poet Akka Mahadevi’s nudity, as she wandered across the country and sang paeans in praise of Mallikarjuna, in the context of the sexual or the political.

Shah likes to think of the Bhakti poets as the trickster figures of their times, sharpening debates and blurring boundaries. Wide-eyed, he continues to think of artists and musicians and creative people as the tricksters of our society.

Shah’s art is one that follows his highly integrated world-view. In his new book that wanders thoughtfully (not to say unhappily) from Gujarat to Orissa from Amsterdam to San Francisco, a line will catch your eye: Then comes colour.

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