In the last week of February, while at the Tapi Utsav at Surat city in south Gujarat, I was intrigued and pleasantly surprised by an exhibition that brought together the works of Devi Prasad, Haku Shah and Vasudeo Smart. While the artworks of Devi Prasad and Haku Shah are well-known across India, Vasudeo Smart has unfortunately not got much recognition outside Gujarat, though he spent much of his working life in Banaras. Even that appreciation has largely come for the books he wrote covering Indian murals (Bharat na Bhint Chitro), traditional Indian design imagery and symbols (Roop Samhita) and Jain miniatures and paintings on cloth (Jain Kashtapatchitra). All three artists were born in the early decades of the 20th century, whose life-work philosophy was deeply influenced by Gandhian thought, and who spent a large part of their lives documenting indigenous art and craft traditions, often in their immediate neighbourhoods. This influence was so strong that its impact can be seen in the forms and themes represented in their own creative work, a sampling of which was up on the gallery walls. It is also interesting to note that they come from the three different art schools across India - Devi Prasad from Santiniketan, Vasudeo Smart from J. J. School of Art, Mumbai and Haku Shah from Baroda. And even when their expressionistic styles are very different from each other, there is a certain meditative calm about their works that is a common thread.
This research-oriented exhibition, titled “Indigenous Art Educators”, was put together by curator Krushnapriya Smart (incidentally Vasudeo Smart’s grand-daughter), who studied Art History at Baroda and currently teaches at the Department of Fine Arts, Veer Narmad South Gujarat University, in Surat. The Tapi Utsav is a bi-annual, 4-day festival initiated in 2014 by Tapi Art Promotion Initiatives, a citizens’ movement taken up by committed architects, artists, writers and performers of Surat city. The Utsav hosts art exhibitions, a craft fair, dance, theatre, and oral literature performances, film screenings, talks and discussions, workshops, and art installations. Considering the fact that there are a number of universities teaching architecture, fine arts and the liberal arts in Surat city, its proximity to Mumbai, and its growing cosmopolitan population due to its famed textile and diamond industry, the Tapi Utsav has been attracting larger numbers of local people, from one Utsav to the next.
The curatorial premise briefly touched upon the pervading influence of European art styles and techniques which steadily spread across India after the arrival of the East India Company. In that context, it then extensively deliberated upon the efforts of these three artists, turning to their cultural roots and art history, and drawing from the local flavor and inspiration that was expressed in their artworks. In the process, the curator also examined (and displayed!) their experimental work with local unlettered artisans and craftspersons, their teaching processes, their sketchbooks and books published by them or about them. It must have taken the curator quite an effort to access these since none of the artists are alive.
Vasudeo Smart was brought up in Surat and studied art at the J J School, Mumbai in the 1940s. His familial interest in Sanskrit literature, especially Kalidas, had already instilled a sense of passion for regional epic literature, the miniature tradition, and the stylistic diversity he saw in the crafts generationally produced by folk and tribal communities. In 1958, working closely with J M Ahiwasi in Benaras, he was exposed to more than 10,000 miniature paintings at the Bharat Kala Bhavan there and he was able to closely study the colours, forms, expressions, gestures, ornamentation, postures and so on. He stayed on in Banaras where he got a teaching post at the BHU, and he continued his research which he translated into books, and created a body of his own work as well. His works were narrative, inspired by the indigenous art, and he tried to create a style of his own. This was not very different from what several painters across Gujarat (many of whom had studied at Santiniketan or Mumbai) were doing as well (Khodidas Parmar, Ravishankar Raval, Kumar Mangalsinh, Vinay Trivedi, early Jyoti Bhatt and Shanti Dave, to name a few), trying to forge a strong Gujarati visual style. His book Roop Samhita continues to be widely referred to even today. First published in 1971, it was reprinted in 1983, 1997 and most recently, in 2018. I have a copy too.
Devi Prasad studied at Santiniketan and was deeply influenced both by Tagore and Gandhi. He went off to Sewagram as an art teacher of Nayee Talim in 1944. As an artist he created both paintings (expressionistic works largely inspired by nature) and ceramics (utilitarian and experimental), both reflecting his fascination with rural life. While this part of his life and work is well-documented in Naman Ahuja’s book on the artist, Krushnapriya managed to get 6 ‘artists’ books from Binduben, the late artist’s wife. These books were an outcome of the month-long experimental workshop conducted by the artist with the village students at Sewagram where they were instructed to talk to their parents, grandparents and other elders in the family to tell them stories from the epics as well as popular community stories. Each child came back and wrote the story as he or she understood it in the most concise manner. Paper was handmade at Sewagram with the children helping; dried and cut to the required sizes. The children then wrote down the stories and illustrated them. Made under the guidance of Devi Prasad, these books are an example of Devi Prasad’s interest in vernacular communication, the importance of hand skills and craft traditions, the encouraging of children to explore materials, make blunders, understand how to sort them out, and finally, feel a sense of freedom and joy in creative expression. If these books could be digitally reproduced today, they would become an important resource for art teachers in schools, especially those in rural and tribal areas.
Haku Shah studied at Baroda, and was amongst its earliest students. Inspired by teachers such as Prof. K G Subramanyan and Prof. Sankho Chaudhuri who held traditional craft practices in high regard, Haku Shah went on to create a comprehensive empathetic documentation of tribal, folk and rural arts and crafts, songs, oral epics not just across Gujarat, but several other states as well. He lived a simple Gandhian life, wearing khadi, and painting as and when he got the time. His paintings were vibrantly coloured, featuring villagers and cows, with very expressive, stylized forms simply presented with linear strokes. They emphasized his own deep engagement with rural communities. In addition to his artworks, the exhibition displayed applique works by Saroj, a domestic help athishome,whose interest in this craft Shah encouraged, gently guiding her to go beyond the commonplace and predictable imagery, to express her own individualistic understanding of an idea. Apparently there are enough works Saroj has made to warrant a separate exhibition!
The contribution of these three artists who bridged the pre- and post-Independence era as Indian art struggled to find an identity of its own, and the reach and outcomes of their efforts certainly requires a serious evaluation. This exhibition is at least a start.