Himmat Shah hasn’t decided if he will become a sculptor when he grows up.

It’s not as though he hasn’t had time to consider his vocation: with 60 years of art practice behind him, 40 of them as a sculptor, Shah is among India’s foremost modernists in the realm of the visual and plastic arts. Still, he insists, “I am still deciding whether to sculpt, tomorrow I could well decide to dance.”

His best known works, from the latter part of his career, are the large cephalic terracotta and bronze sculptures frequently called “totemic” and likened to those by the Romanian artist Constantin Brâncuși. But his oeuvre is catholic, spanning not only sculpture but drawing, found art, printmaking, architectural relief work, photography and painting (including in silver, which he made in roughly the same period as Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds, though in a totally different style). This eclecticism is borne out by the three major retrospectives of his works in the past six years: Hammer on the Square (2016) at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi, The Euphoria of Being (2017) at Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur, and Under the Vastness of the Sky (2019) at Bihar Museum, Patna.

At 89, Shah’s stature in the canon is towering. In April, he was conferred the Lalit Kala Akademi Ratna. His most recent series consists of drawings he made during the pandemic, a throwback to his pen-and-ink works of the 1960s, published as a book titled Under the Mask.

Courtesy: Himmat Shah.

Born in Lothal, Gujarat, in 1933, Shah studied at the Faculty of Fine Arts at the Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda. In 1963, he was part of a historically significant exhibition of the collective Group 1890 – its only one – comprising 12 important artists of the era. In 1967, he received a French government scholarship to study at the renowned printmaking studio Atelier 17 in Paris. From 1976 till 2004, he worked at the Garhi Studios established by the Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi.

He has since resided in Jaipur, where I met him at his three-storey house. On the ground floor, it has the feel of a retired relative’s comfortable home, surveyed by a framed photograph of Tagore atop a shelf. On top, it opens out into a sleek, high-ceilinged loft serving as studio and study. Shah is spry, revealing glimpses of the vigorous young man I have encountered in black-and-white photos at retrospectives. He punctuates his answers with “tu samjhi ki ne?” (“You understand or not?”) and shows me books dedicated to each of his different series, which he is working to publish one by one. Sitting in his studio, the artist talks about his free-spirited life, artistic approach and plans.

You belong to a landed family from Gujarat. Yet, you ran away from home as a child to become an artist. What made you take such a drastic step?
I must have been about 10 or 11 years old. One evening, having finished my lessons, I told my father I was off to bed. Instead, he set me to running errands – “get me water, fetch my book, make me tea”. I thought to myself, “Bapuji, can you let me sleep? Despite being my father, you’re making me slave away.” That very night, I got on a train and left Lothal.

I got off at Junagadh, with my paper and colours in tow, and made the ascent to the Girnar temple. That night, a sadhu from one of the big ashrams noticed me and took me to his gaushala, clothing and feeding me. I stayed at Girnar for two or three months, painting landscapes. A few seths asked me to show them my work, and one of them paid me Rs 600 for a painting. With that money, I went to study at CN Kalaniketan, Ahmedabad under [artist and proponent of the Gujarat qalam] Rasiklal Parikh. Two years later, I went to MSU, Baroda where I stayed from 1955 to 1961.

Untitled, Bronze. Image courtesy and Collection: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

The Fine Arts Faculty at MSU was founded in 1950, making you one of its first students. What was the mood like on the campus in those days?
That milieu and that moment in the 1950s was a totally different time, full of promise. We were a newly independent nation, with young artists seeking and expressing our identity in art. Ab sab khatm ho gaya hai. [Now, it has all failed]. These days, I tell students to run away from art schools if they want to preserve their talent.

Many of your MSU batchmates have gone on to equally illustrious careers. You all studied under legendary artists and teachers like NS Bendre, KG Subramanyan and Sankho Chaudhuri. What was your experience of MSU?
My batch included Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, Raghav Kaneria and Nagji Patel. However, unlike them, I was not enrolled in a regular course so I would attend classes as the mood struck me. My guru Bendre sahab asked me to take the final exam but it wasn’t in my temperament. What, after all, is the meaning of a certificate in art?

I enjoyed myself as a student and learnt a lot from Bendre, Mani [Subramanyan] and Sankho. They all had different perspectives and feedback, and I tried my best to understand each one. Mani was a great teacher, Bendre a great artist. Sankho would often ask me to come into sculpture but I went into painting because of Bendre. I used to assist him with his exhibitions and paintings, including murals, experiences which taught me everything to do with craft. Working alongside Bendre, I learned all about colours, their chemistry and various techniques of application, something that I think about even today for achieving various effects of hue and finish in my sculptures.

I engaged with my peers, but had no real friends. I was a loner for the most part. I don’t like most people. You won’t find a photo of me at any college function. [There are candid photographs of Shah at MSU taken by his batchmate Jyoti Bhatt, in the latter’s archive.] My nature was to keep to myself. After my studies, I didn’t stay much in touch with my classmates.

Untitled, POP with enamel paint with silver glazing. Image courtesy and Collection: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

Not long after leaving Baroda, you were part of the iconic Group 1890 exhibition at the Lalit Kala Akademi’s Rabindra Bhavan in 1963 featuring 12 major artists, including J Swaminathan, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, Jyoti Bhatt and Jeram Patel. How did you join the collective?
After Baroda, I had neither work nor money. In 1962, my classmate [artist] Balkrishna Patel, whom I actually knew from CN Kalaniketan, was coming to Delhi and I tagged along. I was introduced to both J Swaminathan and Ambadas, the latter of whom I roomed with in a Karol Bagh barsati. He would go off to work in the morning while I made art. Swami was a very gifted and eloquent man from whom I learned a lot. He had a scholar’s mind and wrote brilliantly about art. Woh zabardast tha. [He was extraordinary]. He also lived in Karol Bagh, so we would all meet everyday as a big group of young artists.

Swami liked my work. Although I was not acquainted with his practice previously, he knew mine before we even met. He had written about my National Award-winning painting in 1962. It was due to Swami’s efforts that Group 1890 was formed. Our manifesto was to find a new language in Indian art. In that spirit, I showed a series of burnt paper collages I had made in Ahmedabad, before coming to Delhi. I was at a friend’s office, smoking as I got bored waiting for him. I absent-mindedly picked up his secretary’s paper and burnt a hole in it. On setting down the burnt paper, I observed the singed, brown effect on the paper underneath. The overlap of multiple shapes and forms inspired me, and I ended up making 200 such works.

Untitled, Terracotta and found object. Image courtesy and Collection: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

The 1890 exhibition is an important one in the history of Indian modern art. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurated it. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz wrote an introduction to the manifesto and attended it as ambassador to India. What’s your memory of the show?
I didn’t speak much at this event. I was so intimidated. I just listened and learned. I didn’t know English and couldn’t read Paz’s poetry. I was an angadh aadmi [unsophisticated man]. Despite this, Paz bought my work and recommended me for a French government fellowship, advising me not to stay there for too long. On seeing my burnt paper collages, Nehru called me over and said, “Arre bhai, main toh anari aadmi hoon. Humko kuchh samjhao. [I am an ignorant man. Explain this to me.]”

The burnt paper collage works weren’t shown again until 53 years later at the Hammer on the Square show at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. What’s the story there?
After the Group 1890 show, the works were packed away in a trunk for years. Then one day in 1980, an Indian student from London came to my studio at Garhi asking about them. He offered Rs 40,000 for all of them. Then, when KNMA organised the retrospective, they bought the works from him. He sold them for Rs 3 lakh each.

That’s quite the margin!
I tell you!

Untitled, Burnt Paper Collage. Image courtesy and Collection: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

What was your time at Paris’ Atelier 17 in the late 1960s like? Who were the artists whose works you engaged with and became inspired by?
I went to study printmaking and learned the techniques of etching under SW Hayter and Krishna Reddy. Then I found out there were courses for costume and furniture design, which I ended up attending. Later, I designed all the furniture in my own home and studio.

I was utterly captivated by Paris and seeing their monuments, museums and modern art, I gained new insight into and appreciation for my own country. I was like a madman, seeing and studying all the artists I could, attending all the exhibitions I could – of Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Joan Miró, Ben Nicholson, Pierre Bonnard... in that one year, I acquired vast knowledge. I was fascinated by the Impressionist Henri Rousseau’s jungle paintings. I felt like I was back in the forests of Girnar, watching the fireflies in the evening.

How did you arrive at the medium of terracotta and bronze sculpture that has come to define your practice over the past decades?
When Garhi Studios was set up in 1976, an artists’ camp was organised. There, I made a clay head for the first time and [sculptor] PR Daroz fired it. Soon after, I got a studio space there and started working with earth, a material that I could afford. I would procure the earth from the potter’s colony opposite New Delhi railway station. For two years, I photographed every sculpture I made, just to understand the nature of this expression. For 25 years, I lived alone in that one room at Garhi and worked all day, just making these shapes. Sometimes, I would wake up in the night and see all my sculptures on my table, staring at me. After I came to Jaipur in 2004, I realised that nobody would buy terracotta. So, I started casting my sculptures in bronze, for which I go to London periodically.

Untitled (Head), 1999, Terracota. Image courtesy and Collection: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

As for the form – in my childhood, there was a taalaab in my village that would fill up during the monsoon. My friends would drag me to it, though I didn’t know how to swim and so would only sit and watch. They would dive in, bathe and emerge from the water head first. That image stayed with me. When the taalaab dried up, I would notice the birds scavenging the fish and insects crawling on the dry bed of the pend. I then incorporated these natural patterns onto the surface of my sculptures. So, all these memories have made their way into my work.

Well, a variety of things have made their way into your work. Your use of found objects in your sculptures is famous. Geeta Kapur says in her essay The Bohemian as Hermit that you work with “cycles of possession and dispossession of objects meant for use and pleasure”. You even assembled sculptures in the middle of the Thar desert using abandoned objects…
It’s true, I’ve used threads, toilet seats, anything I could find and cast them into sculpture. There are endless possibilities. I pick an object, use lost wax technique to mould it and then cast it in the desired metal. I try different things – mixing other substances like marble powder or manganese oxide, for example, or firing the mould at different temperatures – just to see what is possible. For the plating, I use gesso and a special glue I learned to apply from a man who used to refurbish my grandfather’s wooden temple. During my experiments with terracotta sculpture in the ’70s, I collected different objects from the Sunday market and elsewhere, moulding them, achieving different textures and effects. There’s a blue Suntory bottle I’ve kept for 40 years, one of the early objects I sculpted from this experimental period.

A bit later, in the mid-1980s, I went into the Thar, beyond Jaisalmer, with a Rajasthani friend, travelling by camel and staying in a village of nomadic people. Outside their houses, I saw wood, stone and other sundry, abandoned objects strewn on the ancient paths outside the houses. I made them into sculptures.

Image courtesy and Collection: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

In a 2003 article for Jansatta titled Kalakar Himmat, Prayag Shukla wrote, “Himmat is an artist who understands the soul of forms.” What do you think of this?
I never know what I am making when I start, else I start worrying about what I will manage to make. I focus on manipulating the material. However, I used to think a lot about form. I was intrigued by the mystery of the line and the concept of space – it was an automatic, spontaneous understanding. I can’t explain my method, and no artist really can apart from some talk of craft. It’s something apart from the mind. Art is the play of space, matter and energy. When your internal and external akasha [space in the sense of omnipresent substrate] coincide, that’s when art happens.

Pehle bhaav paida hota hai, phir vakya bante hain, bhaasha banta hai. [First comes the feeling, then the sentence, then language.] You have to discover your own grammar. Many artists never discover this, they are mere copycats, stealing the methods of the greats. Our art academy system is the same – older Indian art schools were all doing design, just vulgar and sentimental. I am in search of the shashwat, the classical. It is a phenomenon akin to the sky emerging from the clouds.

You’re bringing out all these books about your works dating back to the beginning. What else is on the horizon?
I am in the process of constructing my new studio, equipped with a new gas kiln, an electric kiln and state-of-the-art infrastructure. I’m also going to start a gallery in Jaipur. The first exhibition will be of the drawings I made during the lockdown. I keep telling people in Jaipur – let’s start something new.

Untitled, Burnt Paper Collage. Image courtesy and Collection: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

Finally, as someone who’s worked with their hands for 60 years, do you have a handcare regimen?
Well, look at what my hands have become. I keep being told to apply cream for dry skin but the body is a remarkable thing.

Kamayani Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and podcaster based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow in Visual Culture Writing for 2022.