When one examines the history of exhibition making in India, one finds a big gap in the manner in which sculpture has been considered in the grand narrative of modernism’s history. One reason for this marginal presence is that even in the modernist era, sculptors aspired to monumentality and functioned, with occasional exception, largely in the service of aristocratic patronage. Moreover, such works were generally specific to site and unlike paintings, could not become peripatetic and inhabit the space of a “neutral” white cube. Sculpture thus had a long academic life, bypassing the idea of self-referential autonomy; the hallmark of a modernist sensibility.
The property of sculpture as a malleable, responsive medium, yielding directly to the touch of an artist’s hand and the will to form, is however, the connecting thematic thread that runs through the ongoing retrospective exhibition of Himmat Shah’s work on view at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in New Delhi. Curated by Roobina Karode, who has resolutely tracked his practice for decades, the exhibition “Himmat Shah, Hammer on the Square, A Retrospective (1957 - 2015)” is on display at the museum’s Saket branch until June 30, 2016. (Fig. 1) Bringing together over three hundred works of which nearly two thirds are from the KNMA collection, the exhibition examines Himmat’s contribution to sculptural practice over the long span of his career; from his early years as a novice in Baroda where he trained at first as a painter, to his current position as a tour de force in sculpture. The exhibition is a major contribution to our understanding of the interwoven history of modernism, for while focusing primarily on his sculptural work, it stresses on the dialogical relationship between his sculptural practice and his expression in other mediums such as drawing, collage and painting. The curatorial project also places special emphasis on his site specific work, brought into the gallery context through photographic representations.
Brought up in rural Kathiawar, Himmat initially trained in the famed 'Gharshala' or 'Home-school' of Bhavnagar, Gujarat an offshoot of the Gandhian Dakshinamurti educational experiment. Subsequently he became part of the creative circuit that emerged in Baroda in the 1950s, which then led to the formation of Group 1890- the collective with pan Indian affiliations. Not quite in agreement with the indigenist agenda of the group put forth by Jagdish Swaminathan, his intellectual sparring partner, Himmat aligned himself with the language of international modernism that he encountered in Paris whilst there in the 1960s on a French Government scholarship. Upon his return, the studio complex in Garhi, Delhi, set up by the Lalit Kala Akademi was to become his home/ studio for years thereafter. It is here, in the company of several other artists of the era that Himmat forged his language of sculpture.
The exhibition through its display and extensive wall texts provides a layered history of Himmat’s practice by moving back and forth in time as well as between his ideational sketches and fully realized sculptures. (Fig. 2) The last of a triad of exhibitions focusing on the three contemporaries: Nasreen Mohammedi, Jeram Patel and Himmat, the display is based on thematic clusters such as his obsession with heads, architectural form and erotica. Or else the oeuvre is categorized on the basis of technique: cast found objects, murals and burnt paper collages. The exhibition narrative draws attention to his early experiments utilizing scrap and plaster carried out in the 1960s along with his close compatriot Raghav Kaneria. Later we see how clay, overlaid often with metal foil or coloured slips and often fired to a rich red tone became his medium of choice. It is a time when artists of his generation and younger compatriots like Mrinalini Mukherjee and Latika Katt were harnessing “craft” techniques and poor materials such as hemp, papier-mache and even cow-dung to produce a “negative condition of the monument” to use a phrase coined by Rosalind Krauss. In this connection, it is important to point out that one major reason that modernist sculpture did not gain adequate visibility during this period is because canon forming collections such as the one built by the National Gallery of Modern Art, as a matter of policy, did not collect art works in fragile material for decades. Thus, many modernist works were never archived as they were invariable made with poor materials, as a way of escaping the expense involved in using stone and bronze, and therefore dependent on commissions.
The crucial, critical examination of hierarchies and processes that this use of inexpensive material stimulated is precisely what this exhibition examines in some detail. Take for example Himmat’s experiments with burnt paper collage, imbued with ideas of accidental effects and chance. Or his paintings made with newly invented industrial metallic paints, using unorthodox means of paint application such as dripping and pouring, with textural embellishments obtained with threads, rags and punched surface. (Fig. 3) For months at a stretch, when in economic distress, Himmat would simply draw. The humble graphite and paper works nevertheless offer a rich array of subjects and are often permeated with a strong erotic charge. Even his sculptures cast from moulds reveal the seams and sutures of joinery, making evident the process of casting, which then becomes a means of formal expression - a three dimensional collage of a cast obtained from a piece mould. (Fig. 4) This method of obtaining new forms is also extended to the manner in which he uses found objects. Combined into fantastical shapes, the sculptures offer a playful interface between intent and chance discovery.
The high point of the exhibition is a room documenting Himmat’s site specific murals, through a series of exceptional black-and-white photographs taken by Surendra Patel and Raghav Kaneria when the murals were installed in the 1960s. (Fig. 5) Made at the behest of his architect friend Hasmukh Patel, the high-relief murals designed for St. Xavier’s Primary School in Ahmedabad are conceptually intriguing because they are an organic extension of the built form, by virtue of being made of the same material as the buildings: brick and cement. The documentary photographs of the murals, some taken recently by Karode, also narrate the biography of the murals as they were transformed over the years due to restoration and renovation. One end of the gallery, displaying the photographs, is occupied by the moulds from which the murals were cast. (Fig. 6) These appear as though in conversation with Himmat’s murals. However, as Himmat made the moulds with the intention of exhibiting them as standalone sculptures, these “negative” presences have been finished with the same amount of care as the mural. Robust, yet malleable tinsheets,hammeredseamlesslyoverahard wood base, provide a sunken relief image that is the very opposite of the protruding surface of the wall murals. While the murals respond to the movement of the sun, producing a play of shadows during the course of the day, the pedestalized moulds stand still and respond to the gaze and the movement of the body of the viewer, within a studio or gallery context.
Himmat is of course best known for his monumental sculptures of heads. And the exhibition does not disappoint us. For it brings together his fragile terracotta heads with crackled surfaces and sharp contours, alongside his monumental bronze casts, glowing with a rich patina. (Fig. 7) When the technical facilities in the Garhi studios became inadequate for his monumental aspirations to realize works in bronze, Himmat moved to England for a year. In 2004 - 2005 he worked in a foundry, with the technical team that cast Henry Moore’s sculptures, to bring to fruition his iconic sculptures. It is interesting to compare these two sets of works. In both mediums, the heads are not portraits; nor are they votive offerings, or even masks. They are simply experiments in form, where the wax used for the casting process or the clay for the terracotta, both being soft and pliable, yield to pressing and probing, like paint responds to the impress of the brush. Yet below the surface is the armature. It holds the form in place. Sculptors as is well known, have to work against the force of gravity. Their vocabulary of making depends on a conceptual understanding of mass, volume and tactile values that account for this invisible, yet determining force.
In Himmat’s case, to personalize his language further, he developed a range of tools which are also a part of the curatorial display. (Fig. 8) Scalpels, plumb lines, rollers and wooden wedges, sieves, hammers and squeegees are displayed in glass vitrines, offering a miniature reconstruction of the artist’s workbench. With the Centre Pompidou in Paris, recreating the Romanian sculptor Brancusi’s studio in the 1990s, to contextualize his work beyond the smooth external surface of his work, revealing the process of making has gained some ground within curatorial strategies of exhibiting an artist’s oeuvre. Likewise, Himmat’s retrospective, by including this important aspect of his work, helps us decipher how his serialization of heads is so different from the identical repetition of units of minimalism in sculpture, and its rejection of the plinth. Himmat’s works on the other hand, stand tall, placed high on pedestals, emphasizing verticality, and scoured over with various mark making devices. The works firmly occupy three dimensional spaces and seek a circumambulatory engagement, through which they assert their sculptural presence.