In one of the rooms of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art you will see the images of some pyre-like structures, which are actually sculptures made by Himmat Shah. These pyres were created on site, amid the vast expanse of a desert in Gujarat, among other places. The materials used were blanched wood of dry trees, stones, a few bone fragments and whatever was available in the uninhabited landscape.

Himmat Shah is quite an observant artist. Imbibing the feelings of space and material forms, Shah has walked under different skies. He visited the ruins of prehistoric site Lothal in Gujarat which is his native place, moved on to farmlands, resided in the jungles of Dang and stayed in arid deserts. Even after working under extreme conditions, his creative spirit remained intact. It was his creative spirit that took him to various other places, new to him.

A hammer is gracefully fixed onto a cube. The gravitational connect between the distinct geometries of the two forms (the hammer and the cube) catapults one into an arbitration of potentialities created by the artist. There are cones, spheres, mounds of various kinds and sizes; anthills, beehives, eye of the mountain, temples and flags, cylinders, birds, real and imaginary animal forms, hollow of the moulds, fossil-like fragments, and so on: the “intimate immensity” of Himmat Shah’s sensual world of forms and mysteries, his marveling at the beauty of the changing form. All of this constitutes the exhibition Hammer on the Square.

For his art, Shah took inspiration from everything and anything around him. Once while sitting in a friend’s office he playfully burnt few holes on a paper borrowed from a typist with his cigarette. Simply, just like that. Who knew that those patterns will become works of art? Here the materiality of paper is appearing as a monolith sensual form in contrast to the irregular charred contrasts.

Himmat Shah is such a person who likes to create a world of his own around him and peacefully stay there. That’s why he says, “My work is the only world I know and it is the only world I can live in.”

Shah once ran away from school in his bid to “discover the unknown”, and this heightened sense of curiosity may shed more light on the artist’s larger vision. 

The best word I could come up with to describe Himmat Shah is “free-spirited”. He didn’t like academic constraints and his art took him places, quite literally. He truly imbibed the bohemian spirit. Despite living like  a nomad, he truly gathered and took from all places whatever he could absorb in his art.

Born and brought up in Lothal, Gujarat in 1933, Himmat Shah studied painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts of M.S. University, Baroda, from 1956 to 1960 after taking the initial training as a drawing teacher. Being so bright a student, he went on to become a National Cultural Scholar in 1956, and received a French Government scholarship to study etching at Atelier 17, Paris in 1967.

As he was born in Lothal, which is an important site of the Indus Valley civilization, many excavations sites overlapped with the land owned by Himmat’s family. Thanks to this, he has quite vivid memories of archaeologists and historians from across the world visiting his house and village. The direct experience of witnessing archaeological excavations in Lothal between 1955 and 1960, its ancient clay pottery, visits to the nearby potters’ colony as a child, and making clay toys with his mother all had a deep impact on him.

In Narayan Shridhar Bendre, who was India’s prominent and celebrated painter of the 20th century, Shah saw an image of a modern artist and learnt a lot under him.  He also learnt under K.G. Subramanyan (the pioneer of Indian modern art), whose search for language and judgment of folk art moved him. Though he took his apprenticeship under celebrated artists, inventing his own language was never a problem for Shah. According to art historian Geeta Kapoor, “Devising his own methods of work, he also positioned himself in the contemporary sculpture field on the cusp of late modernist formalism. Himmat thus came to stand apart in Indian art not only vis-à-vis his sculptor colleagues but also the older painter turned muralists like K.G. Subramanyan, Husain and Gujral, who continued to rely on the pictorial on their mid-60s terracotta and mosaic tile murals.”

Shah secretly wished that teachers could be radical in their training. He dropped out of every kind of formal training that seemed too rigid and fixed. Himmat Shah believed in freedom in the absolute sense concerning his art practice. He says, “We live too carefully. Students should be daring, bold and free.”

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