Artist, writer and lifelong champion of India’s rural and tribal cultures, Haku Shah passed away on 21 March at the age of 84. He was a mentor to many and his vision of a democratic and inclusive art community continues to resonate, writes Bhumika Popli.
Artist Haku Vajubhai Shah’s death has left a huge gap in the Indian art world. He passed away on 21 March, aged 84, at his home in Ahmedabad. The cause of death was cardiac arrest. Shah’s family and friends hosted a tribute event for him at Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art on 6 April.
Primarily a painter who was trained at the M.S.U. in Baroda, Shah was keenly interested in promoting rural and tribal cultures of India. This interest made him a key authority on the subject of Indian rural and tribal arts. He wrote extensively about art, mostly in Gujarati but sometimes in English. In 2009, a collection of his writings was brought out in a Hindi translation, entitled Manush.
Shah was a Gandhian and believed in simple living. In his paintings, he explored varied themes and made good creative use of numerous influences.
It is worth noting that along with raising his own art practice, Shah worked tirelessly towards the upliftment of India’s lesser-known crafts. As a cultural anthropologist, he researched and documented the crafts, traditions and folklores of rural India, always aiming to showcase these on the world stage.
For the same reason, he curated an exhibition, entitled Unknown India, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in 1968. It is still considered a landmark show.
At the remembrance meet in Delhi, Professor Parul Dave Mukherji talked about how Shah once helped a woman, named Saroj, in carving her own niche as an artist when her husband, Chatur Lal, lost his job as a textile mill worker.
“Haku Bhai asked him if his wife would be interested in making quilts, and he said yes. Someone in Haku’s family gave her a quilt to do appliqué work on it. Saroj asked him about the design she should be making and Haku Bhai said, ‘You can make a goddess you are deeply influenced by.’ After that, there was no stopping her. Her creativity almost burst like a tap. Her works travelled all over the world,” said Mukherji.
According to Mukherji, Haku Shah also taught at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, playing mentor to students from varied backgrounds. “Haku Bhai was able to convince the students that love for or desire for creativity, for beauty is as basic as the desire for survival,” Mukherji said.
Haku Shah travelled across India and set up various art centres in different parts of the country. He helped establish the Folk Art Museum in Ahmedabad, and designed the Shilpgram, an arts-and-crafts complex in Udaipur. Besides these, Shah was also the curator of the Tribal Museum at the Gujarat Vidyapeeth University.
Shah’s ideas and fine skills of observation impressed the cultural critic Jyotindra Jain, too. At the remembrance event in Delhi, Jain said that Haku Shah shared a fine rapport with fellow artists and had an eye for even the smallest details of an artwork.
Veteran artist Manu Parekh remembered the time when he used to work with Haku Shah at the Weavers’ Service Centre in Bombay, under the cultural activist Pupul Jayakar. On one occasion, Jayakar referred to Shah as her “guru”, which to Parekh sounded like a huge compliment. “There were no complications about Haku Bhai, he was a very simple person,” Parekh added.
Haku was a role model for children as well, and wrote many books aimed at younger readers. His grandson, Anant Shah, spoke about his impressions of his grandfather at the Delhi meet. “There was an intrinsic need to be kind in him…there was this childlike curiosity, too, in him and he was a true Gandhian,” Anant said.
When Haku Shah wrote about the arts, his chief aim was to make art available for all. His son, Parthiv Shah, an educator and artist himself, told Guardian 20, “His vision was that art needs to percolate down to the society. He wrote a lot in school magazines and in art criticism outlets on diverse subjects such as rangoli, habitat and topics as original as how a potter or a tribal would think of a house.”
Parthiv said that his father’s knowledge was founded on his research and interactions carried out in various strata of society. “He would bring all his key observations into his writings with the eye of an artist. He always made the case of how different forms of arts should merge together And he felt that one should not ignore what was around one, such as the song women sang while they make rangolis or while cooking. He just wanted to promote art as an integral part of life,” Parthiv added.