First published in An Unreasoned Act of Being: New Sculptures by Himmat Shah, Mapin Publishing Pvt Ltd, 2007
Art is neither conformity to reality nor a flight from it, it is reality itself…
the threshold for the passage into the state of freedom.
-Manifesto, Group 1890, 1963
No discourse on Indian modernist sculpture would be complete without according a central position to Himmat Shah. As draughtsman sculptor, Himmat’s practice of over four decades displays a rare intentionality, one in which anything but the true - and by extension, the pure - should be vigorously evacuated.
The larger-than-life bronze heads that we contemplate in the present exhibition bear an imprint that makes their locus a hermetic puzzle. Their sudden monumentality bespeaks a presence both cranial and phallic. On their bodies appear marks like those of journeys of the past, like a trail etched out across the Hindukush mountains or the salt flats of Gujarat, perhaps, tread by weary travellers as they traverse a death-defying trajectory. Or, perhaps, they are mammoth puzzles of the human condition and its existential states that defy simple definition. “The human being is an enigma and what he creates should also be an enigma.”
In conversation, Himmat appropriates for the artist the role of bohemian interlocutor committed to a poetic expressivity. He speaks of artistic influences and childhood memory as goalposts that illuminated the way. But at best, the details he provides only flag a selective journey, leaving much in the grey area of the unstated. By the time the ideologically drawn Group 1890 was formed in 1963, vigorously articulated by artist-ideologue Jagdish Swaminathan, Himmat Shah had assumed the position of a modernist engaged in the quest for a language. As a founder member of Group 1890, Himmat would have subscribed to its manifesto, and its self-avowed “search for significance between tradition and contemporaneity, between representation and abstraction, between communication and expression.” Octavio Paz, who wrote the foreword for the group’s only exhibition, described their energetic quest for the Encounter, the creative act which “demands a sort of asceticism, a rigour without complacency.” Paz also wrote that, in retrospect, appears to be prophetic of Himmat’s art. “The true subject of this exhibition is the confrontation of the vision of these painters with the inherited image. Contemporary Indian art, if this country is to have an art worthy of its past, cannot but be born from this violent clash.” This event would have intersected the life of the young artist, and the trajectory his practice. At 30, Himmat Shah had already gained attention in India's mononuclear art world with success at the only national award for painting, in 1960 and 1962 as well as the Bombay Art Society Award in 1960. These early awards recognized the maturation of a talent that is indivisible from his life and practice.
Born in Lothal in 1933 into a Jain mercantile family, Himmat appears to have spent his childhood in deep absorption of familial influence, even as he resisted familial ties. Prophetically, several years later J. Swaminathan was to describe him in the Link “as a bird who has forgotten how to stop migrating.” Traditionally, Himmat’s forefathers had traded in cotton and owned farmland, including some of the sites excavated at Lothal. His grandfather, a trader who also practised the ancient Indian medicine system of Ayurved, fascinated the child with his books and potions, with their alchemic possibility of transforming the nature of substances. Even as a Jain with stringent notions of purity, his grandfather worked with herbs and snake poison; tempered and transformed in earthenware pots in the kiln, these were the boy's first experience of alchemic transformation. A wayward child, Himmat would refuse to attend school and instead rode with his family servant Sula Bhagat, on horseback to attend itinerant bhajan mandala or bhavai performances, absorbed in the theatre of the recitation and the power of the performance. He would also run to play in the potters’ colony and bring home to his grandmother the everyday objects that his fingers had shaped.
At home, however, the family fortunes had faltered, fissures and cracks appeared in the large structure of extended uncles and cousins. As the excavations at Lothal, a Harappan site, became institutionalized, some of the family land was appropriated. Himmat's response was to frequently run away into the Girnar forest, with the journey becoming a metaphor of protest. In a Junagadh goshala, or cowshed, he painted images of Ram on the temple and sold the occasional drawings. In this period of strange discontinuities, Himmat appears to have acquired the life-long habit of paring down his needs of living and working with remarkable economy. Finally, his family sent him to the Gharshala or home school of Dakshinamurty, a centre that attracted boys from the Kathiawadi region with its Gandhian philosophy and open system of education.
At Dakshinamurty's school, Himmat trained in art under Jagubhai Shah, a teacher of Gandhian persuasion. In the period preceding Independence, the values of self-reliance and a rejection of western methods powerfully percolated through the Indian school system. In these early years, Himmat’s propensity for drawing was both natural and necessary. As an inexpensive, transformative and free form of expression, it would have appealed to him in his negotiations with form and space. At the age of 19, Himmat went to Ahmedabad to meet the by then iconic figure of Rasiklal Parekh, senior proponent of the so-called Gujarati qalam or style.
At about the same time, he heard of N.S. Bendre who, as a reputed artist, had taken over as head of the Department of Painting, M.S. University, Baroda. Bendre’s particular position as a polymath of mediums and styles had already earned him a wide reputation. Nilima Sheikh, eminent artist and alumna of the school writes. “He had deft control over whichever medium he chose - charcoal, crayon, watercolour or oils “ Himmat, who studied at Baroda between 1955 and 1962, was among the other outstanding Gharshala students - Jyoti Bhatt, Narendra Patel, Prafull Dave, Kishor Parekh - who had the benefit of instruction under Bendre.
Himmat’s interlude at Baroda was under the towering influence of N.S. Bendre and K.G. Subramanyan. The first, an uncompromising modernist who believed in the principles of cubism and abstraction, the second, an inventive folklorist who liberated the artist through the many byways of India’s own cultural hinterland - both were probably equally influential in moulding Himmat’s vision. Nevertheless, he seems to have developed rapidly out of the art school situation into an area of self-expression and interpretation of materials. In 1962. Himmat came to Delhi with the artistBalkrishnaPatel. In the early 1960s, artists in Delhi were content with a smattering ofartschoolsandonlyskeletalsupportfrom the National Art Academy. Here, Himmat met the influential artist-ideologue Jagdish Swaminathan, and with him and other artists he founded Group 1890; together, they dedicated their exhibition “to the memory of Georges Braque.” The Group, which encouraged Indian art to sharply manifest an identity distinct from the schools of Paris and New York, created a significant rupture in practice. Himmat himself created a memorable stir with his very first drawings, exhibited in Delhi in 1964. Boldly erotic in their animalistic energy, they drew a comment from Swaminathan: “The creatures frantically engaged in the compulsive act of sex are bereft of all humanity; wallowing in primeval slime, they have grown into grotesque monsters whose sole preoccupation is the procreation of a species condemned to extinction.” With Group 1890, Himmat showed burnt and charred paper collages, work which earned praise from Octavio Paz.
Himmat's own engagement with an international modernism was fostered by the two years that he spent in Paris (1965-67), studying and travelling around the museums of Europe. “At that time I was full of inhibitions and complexes. I couldn’t speak English or French. But I went everywhere. I must have studied ten thousand paintings I used to study Rousseau and then run away in fear. Rousseau changed my sense of scale.” In his journey, he would have had the opportunity to study modern masters like Klee, Picasso, Brancusi and Giacometti, as well as Tapies whose influence is evident in Himmat’s paintings. The 1960s was the decade of printmaking in India, facilitated by workshops organized by the Lalit Kala Akademi. In Paris, Atelier 17 had galvanized the printmaking world with its energetic experiments in colour viscosity and multiple images. Himmat studied etching under S.W. Hayter and Krishna Reddy. As a medium, Himmat would use the surface effects of printmaking on his sculpture, revealing an ability to dynamically interpret different materials.
Such biographical detail in the case of an artist like Himmat can only mark, like material goalposts, the visible imprint of the journey. But it is the gentle unseen interstices of emotion and spirit that the artist seems to reside. For over two decades now, Himmat has demonstrated his leading preoccupations, primarily in drawing and sculpture. If one stands back to take a telescopic view of his sculpture, it would probably fall in the areas of enigma, domesticity and sheer whim. Himmat turns conventional scale into a mockery and allows for sheer play to dominate his vision, wherein architectural structures are dwarfed and heads enlarged to an enigmatic monumentality. Where waste, the detritus of man’s passage on earth is reinscribed into new forms and gains a lasting vitality. And even though he works with tangible matter and surface, Himmat appears to draw from the element entrapping the movement of water and lire in terracotta, or the movement of the hand and the tempered breath on the gradually cooling surface of bronze. This suggestion of human and natural presences permeates his transactions with history petrifying within it the presence of shifting time and space.
Let us briefly consider Himmat's engagement with historical time. As a youth, he would have witnessed the freedom of India. At the same time, as a boy growing up in Lothal, Himmat would have been familiar with some of the enigma and historic challenges that excavations of the Indus Valley Civilization proposed. Such as the Mother Goddesses, like those found between Persia and the Aegean, full-breasted and neatly coiffed, in terracotta and faience, but which appear without the presence of a temple. Or the first known appearance of Rudra-Shiva on seals, both iconic and phallic, possessing and documenting the spheres of the conceptual and the material in a single form.
Himmat's leading experiments are not restricted to scale, they also permeate his understanding of historical time and space. If Himmat engages the remnants of the past with the palpable present, he also encourages and coaxes out other narratives from the detritus of the earth’s surface. On his return from Europe, Himmat’s earthy work indicated his chosen path. It comprised a group of free-standing sculptures in terracotta and stoneware-flags with a totemic feel, clusters of forms that mimicked life in an ancient settlement perhaps, creating an echo of what Prayag Shukla describes as “villages, our ancestral homes, and our racial memory.”
The artist reclaims the past to inscribe it in the present. Here, Himmat’s choice of objects from the streets of the city and the fields is one that marks survival, that initiates an inquiry into the container/womb, the seed/bulb, the pipe/flag/totem/tree. Like his heads, these forms do not reveal through narrative or association, rather, they engage us as subjects of contemplation and transformation. There is wonder and contemplation in these miniaturized forms, as if in their making Himmat participates in the earliest village settlements, in the urge to tame and domesticate the elements.
Himmat appears to have arrived at his chosen image field - one that is, both narrow and expansive - through a process of prolonged observation. For a long period of his life, he lived and worked in the Garhi artist studios, or rented barsaatis in Delhi, surrounded by what he made and what he chose to look at. The artist Krishen Khanna, who also worked out of the Garhi studios, described Himmat’s workplace in the 1980s: “His studio is a storehouse of objects he has picked up and which outgrew their use and found their way to junkyards and the rubbish heap. Old bottles, bits of metal, knives of all sorts, wires, ropes, pots and pans, all resuscitated and given a new status, coexisting happily with clay, plaster, pigments, chemicals. Heads at various stages in the making. All, including him, covered with a fine white dust. It is more like a magician’s cave than a conventional studio.” In his studio broken bottles, plant bulbs, kettles, pipes and taps, residual roots, cups - the detritus of man’s presence on earth - found a new locus for contemplation. Here, they coexisted with clay retrieved from the Yamuna, clay that lived and breathed until he was satisfied with its new-old texture. Years later, these found objects may be used in a sculpture emphasizing again Himmat’s transformative view of materials. This process also endorses his practice of using material not as an object, but as extensions of the self that accrue and dwell in his living space (for Himmat has always lived in his studio) before they mutate into other forms.
There is also Himmat’s engagement with materials which, in a sense, mimics or reflects his attitude towards the artists’ place in society. The vast dry fields and excavated innards of thesite ofLothal yielded what has come to be expected of every site oftheHarappancivilization-bricks,weights, neatlylaid out city streets, domestic and divine terracotta figures and seals with anthropomorphic figures of worship. Himmat’s favoured material is terracotta, a material that reflects India’s longstanding village economies, supported by the cycle of the birth and rebirth of the essential material, clay. Only some terracotta objects pass into history, many do not bear the imprint of the artist, and all speak of the early wonder of man mimicking nature. It is entirely possible that Himmat’s response to clay, which needs the other elements of water and fire to gain form, is at the level of the philosophical, as much as of the material.
Further, no matter what value accrues socially to materials, in the transformative hands of the artist, they undergo a magical renewal. In the traditional Indian system, materials have been imbued with fixed meaning: gold with health, silver with fame, copper with progeny and so on. In the hands of a modernist like Rauschenberg, the relative and even conflicting value attached to material - gold foil over mud, for instance - is further explored. In working found objects into his sculptures, Himmat engages with form rather than value, association rather than object, leading the viewer into a laterally expansive view. Again, by combining gold foil with baked terracotta, he expands the way in which material is interpreted and received. Like other successful sculptors, Himmat’s drawing and sculpting have continued simultaneously, volume working a dialogic interchange with line. While the drawings appear to spill outward in gestures that are lyrical and free, setting up propositions and questions that appear to push beyond the frame, the sculptures are contained, inward and resistant.
“Just as copper melted by fire and poured into a mould takes that very
shape, so does the mind take the shape of the object comprehend.”
- Upadesahasri (XIV, 4), Sankaracharya
Himmat Shah's suite of large heads comes at the apex of his investigation of the human condition. There is nothing in the Indian sculptural tradition that leads to the making of the head as a discrete sculptural form. But there is a residue of broken busts; ancient contemplative Buddhas that line whole floors of Indian museums, studies in stillness, long after the Buddha’s presence had been eroded from the land of his birth. Or else, the Mukha-linga, which combines the ithyphallic lingam of Shiva with his face, creating a palimpsest of concepts and material icons. In this figuration, the head/face gains as a conceptual whole from a superimposition of body parts.
In his construction of the head, ancient presences are suggested, like atavistic shadows. More accurately, Himmat arrives at what Nilima Sheikh describes as “the projective voluptuousness of the image”. Here, as the artist perceives it, the head, the phallus and the pillar are all the same; the sculpture gains its vitality not in its definition, but in the process of arriving at a form. These works appear to re-echo the passage of civilizations, recalling early migrations between Afnica and India, to ancient seaports like Lothal, perhaps. Occasionally divested of features, they present models of classical introversion, of the gaze turned inward, still and contemplative. Like the Tirthankaras of the Jain tradition, each form presents a transformative emotional state, of becoming rather than being, one where udaasi or sorrow is transformed in joy. Nevertheless, it is also an intensely modern state, one that avoids any visible narrative or expressivity. Stubborn and unrelenting, these heads become expressive of a state of resistance, one that bears the marks of isolation perhaps, but also of a commitment to life and endurance. What the images do reveal are fissures that suggest the alchemic wearing away of the form, affected by heat and time, mimicking the clefts and cleavages of the body. The relationship with alchemy signifies as hermetic knowledge. In the welding together of the panch mahabhutas (the five elements - air, water, fire, earth and ether) we not only approximate Brahman, but also his highest creation, man.
The heads also bear the marks and grooves of an experiential mapping of tentative tracks and journeys. In the surface of his forms, Himmat recalls the craft techniques of his native Saurashtra, its strong linear pictorial/pictogramic style, and the exposed stitched embroidery of its womenfolk. These striated marks appear like a domestic activity as much as a cartographic plotting of vast journeys across the surface of the earth. In choosing to work with bronze casting, Himmat also draws on the associations of maleness and iconicity. But in choosing casting above constructed sculpture, Himmat allies with the suspension of time, and the continuity of an ancient tradition. In a sense, his works are portraits, but their locus draws from past and present, generic and individual man. The patina, furrows and the sharp cleavages of long years of human experience are visible, as Himmat invites us to share in a monumental quietude and the fraternity of being human. At the same time, the stillness of the image offers a sense of its perpetual entrapment and silence.
Kapur, Geeta. “The Artist as Bohemia,” Art India, V, II, February (2000).
Karode, Roobina. “Meandering in Free Zones” from Living on the Edge. New Delhi. Gallery Art Inc, 1998. I gratefully acknowledge the use of a quote from the artist as this essay’s title.
Paz. Octavio. Group 1890 Catalogue (1963).
Singh, Shanta Serbjet. Himmat Shah - A Profile. Art Heritage Catalogue (1982).
Sheikh, Nilima. A Post-Independence Initiative Contemporary Art in Baroda. New Delhi: Tulika, 1997, p. 59.
Shukla, Prayag. “The Sculptor as Poet”. Art Heritage Catalogue (1989-90).
Sivaramamurti, C. South Indian Bronzes. New Delhi: Lalit Kala Akademi, 1981, p. 14.
Untitled essay. Krishen Khanna Art Heritage Catalogue (1983).