Himmat Shah at Jawahar Kala Kendra -- a refined, smaller version of what was seen in the KNMA retrospective -- is an exhibition significant beyond the event. As one of a triad of exhibitions curated by Roobina Karode, it adds substantially to newer directions in the received history of Indian modernism. The artists in question, Nasreen Mohamedi, Jeram Patel and Himmat Shah who had been largely written out of the Baroda school’s narrative of avante-gardism have been retroactively vivified in expansive retrospectives at the KNMA and beyond. Through the piecing together of their life’s work and archives, we see them clearly as leading flag bearers of an indigenous - and highly individualised - abstraction. In a broad sense their practices can be seen as individual quests rather than a group manifestation - which has this far been the broader Baroda exhibitionary character, where artists have annotated each other’s practices through familiarity and friendship.Although Himmat was a founder member of the Group 1890, like Jeram Patel, one may see him as a singular even lonely figure, something like an Amir Khan of Indian modernism.
An insider and a student at MSU in the 1980s, Karode’s curation has been predicated on formal rigour-even as her reading is passionate and personal -- allowing each body of work of the three artists to speak through a large retrospective. In the wake of this formation one may speculate that received histories of other regions and periods in 20th century Indian art may go through a similar critical overhaul.
Charles Correa’s modernist design for the Jawahar Kala Kendra was particularly apt for the staging of the show, both in its painted reference to ancient Indian signs and symbols and in its severe modernist structure. In a central gallery of the Jawahar Kala Kendra a spiral pedestal rose above the ground, with several sculptures drawn from decades of Himmat Shah’s practice. The marks of originality and whimsy, the odd conjunctions of natural materials with found junk play into the making of these miniaturised forms. As markers of our material past they point to extreme economy and issues of survival.
“The human being is an enigma and what he creates should also be an enigma” Himmat Shah is quoted as saying. Karode locates his artistic roots in his wayward childhood in Lothal in Gujarat and nights spent wandering in the Dang forest.Born into a Jain mercantile family, his grandfather was an ayurved, whose practice exposed the young boy to the magic of alchemy. Shah’s frequent acts of running away from home and his engagement with the huge enigmatic mounds of Lothal, the village narratives of hidden cities stimulated his own nomadic imagination.
Lothal was excavated in 1953 when Himmat was a student and was to rapidly become part of the nation’s historic reconstruction of its past. Having lost Mohenjodaro and Harappa to Pakistan after Partition, sites like Lothal, literally ‘the mound of death’, became critical materially to the reimagining of a national past. In Lothal different phases of excavation represent a civilizational cycle, the first being the making of the township, the second phase revealing the absence of leadership and failure to restore the fortifications after inundations, and finally the flooding of the embankments of the port city, leading to its erosion. In this quest for a lost past, Lothal becomes a symbol of presence and absence, an archetype of human genius and man’s failure. As archetype of the city or dwelling it can produce an archetypal man, a universal prototype as a bearer of memory, a witness to time. Bound by the desert of Kutch and evidence of a thriving port that dated from 3700 BC, as well as a history of metallurgy and jewellery, this once thriving town became central to the artist’s imaginings.
A vitrine in the exhibition with Himmat’s self styled tools on display, seen proximate to large photographs of the artist as a young man amidst the sandy expanses of Lothal gives us a sense of his future trajectory. Like the ancient forebears, he created his tools as he developed his own approach to sculpture.Nothing about Himmat’s practice suggests the use of received forms. Committing himself to the topography of Lothal, he rejects time as an instrument of artistic subjectivity. Lothal’s earth tones provided Himmat with a material identification. The colours of burnt earth, the fashioning of the hand and the mould of bricks or beads make a positive assertion. There is also a negative assertion - of abstracting in the sense of removing negating all means of the expression of ego, or identity.
Those who visited Himmat’s studio in Garhi in the 1980s saw an acute fragility - and an overarching confidence in his own practice. Himmat had refined the slow process of acquiring mud from the banks of the Yamuna, cleansing it over a period of months and then finally shaping and firing it. Accretions to the clay objects came through found objects, the detritus of nature and industry, beads, seeds, bolts, handle bars, gathered from the city as much as his travels in India. The final beauty and economy of his works, speaking to a timeless universalism, could be seen in the objects on the aspiring, looped pedestal.
Karode’s exhibition invests in his most recognizable form, the head, which bears marks and signs like ancient tracks or maps, topographies of past journeys, pitted scarred and split surfaces, each of them borne of a personal narrative. These were seen in an abundant display in the different media that he essayed: plaster, bronze, marble, terracotta, fashioned to suggest immeasurable space, and a contrary hollowness. In a particularly apt touch, stone pedestals were created for the works, drawing them into an intimate relationship with Rajasthan as a site. Himmat’s exceptional drawings - witty, inventive and whimsical, their linearity standing at some distance from the volume of his cast forms - ran through the show, like spontaneous annotations made of the moment, but looking beyond it. Burnt paper collages, photos of his murals at the St. Xaviers Primary School at Ahmedabad and bronze cast sculptures all gave the show its depth and fullness. A moving inclusion was young Neha Karode’s film on Himmat Shah, where the artist speaks uninhibitedly about his life’s work. Shot in near natural light, with remarkable attention to pause and music, the film captures Himmat in his fastidiously designed studio in Jaipur, or amid the city’s red stone medieval monuments, where time seems to stop still, in recall and silence.