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Artist Profile1
Catching a glimpse of artist Himmat Shah’s life and art
Himmat Shah’s sculptures, especially in terracotta and bronze tend to explore materiality as well as texture. They also consider the various ways of presenting the life and realities of it by internalizing the consumerist society’s built-in obsolescence. His gilded objects made in clay carry on them the traces of paintings and are akin to unreadable hieroglyphs deftly gouged into his series of metal heads. Alluding to age and decay, these self-mocking elements add a touch of drama to the work.

This renowned sculptor and draughtsman was a member of Group 1890. This artists’ collective initiated by J. Swaminathan looked to promote a unique form of art closer to Indian ethos distinct from the western traditions and schools, but it was short-lived. Jawaharlal Nehru, the then prime minister of India, opened its first and only show in the early sixties. Soon after, the group was disbanded and all its members continued with their respective art practices and their own agendas. Himmat Shah was no exception, as he evolved his own style and thematic idiom.

The veteran artist’s predilection for the medium of drawing was quite natural. Being an inexpensive, economic and transformative, yet free-flowing form, it appealed to him in his artistic negotiations with form and space. Looking at his early drawing works closely, one is able to notice the inherent skill evident behind those chaotic black lines. Almost unpredictable and curious in the manner in which they employ a rather simple medium to interpret deeply complex contemporary visual fields, these works seize your attention.

Born in 1933 in Lothal, Gujarat, he first learnt the intricacies of art under N.S Bendre. After studying art at Faculty of Fine Arts, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda (1956-61), he joined Atelier 17, Paris (1966-67) on a scholarship from the French government. The stay there allowed him to discover the captivating canon of western art. In the subsequent years, he designed several monumental murals primarily in brick, cement and concrete at Ahmedabad’s St. Xavier's School. During this period, he also dabbled in relief & sculpture works in plaster, ceramics and terracotta.

A series of solo exhibitions of his drawings and sculptures have been held at Jehangir Nicholson Art Gallery, NCPA, Mumbai (2007); Berkley Square Gallery, UK (2007); Anant Art Gallery, Delhi (2005); Art Heritage, Delhi (2002, 2000, 1983); Shridharani Gallery, Delhi (2000); Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai (1994); LKA, Delhi (1982); Dhoomimal Art Gallery, Delhi (1979); Gallery Chemould, Delhi and Mumbai (1966); Kunika Chemould Art Centre, Delhi (1965,64), thus stretching his illustrious art career to nearly five decades. His work has been a part of many groups shows like 'Vahana', Bombay Art Gallery (2010); 'Essential, Eclectic, Ephemeral', The Harrington Mansions, Kolkata (2010); India Fine Art, Mumbai (2007); ‘Tangibles', Priyasri Art Gallery, Mumbai (2006); ‘Manifestations I, II and III’, Nehru Centre, Mumbai; Delhi Art Gallery and LKA, Delhi (2004-05); 'Face to Face', LKA, Delhi (1998); the inaugural show of Roopankar Museum, Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal (1982). He also featured in 'Group 1890' show in Delhi (1963), the Progressive Painters Group exhibit, Ahmedabad (1962) and the Baroda Group Show, Mumbai (1957-58).

Among his select participations are ‘Manifestations IV and V', Delhi Art Gallery (2011, 10); ‘Time Unfolded', KNMA, Delhi (2011); 'The Intuitive: Logic Revisited', Davos, Switzerland (2011); 'Yellow Deity', Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest (1997); 'Rediscovering the Roots', Meseo de la Nacion, Lima, Peru (1997); Festival of India exhibit, London (1982); Biennale de Paris (1970, 1967), and National Exhibition at LKA, Delhi (1960). A recipient of Kalidasa Samman of the Madhya Pradesh Government (2003) and AIFACS Award, Delhi (1996), he also received Emeritus Fellowship from Government of India (1994-96), the Sahitya Kala Parishad Award, Delhi (1988); the Fellowship to Outstanding Artists (1983-85) from the Bombay Art Society Award (1962) and the LKA award for painting, Delhi (1962, 1959).

Himmat Shah is known more for his abstracted terracotta and bronze heads, considered his signature work. Among his most recognizable works is the series of sculpted heads in bronze and terracotta. As emblems of masculinity, they appear totemic and phallic wherein he uses printmaking techniques to score the surfaces. In fact, his reputation as a master sculptor has become so overwhelming that his ability as a printmaker has almost gone unnoticed. His color etchings are equally attention-grabbing.

For example, at first glance, one of them may bring to your mind an updated Monet haystack often protected from the gusty wind with a ubiquitous covering of sticks, cloth and other assorted debris. But are we actually seeing objects laid right on top of this piled up chara, or checking objects that are embedded deep within? His haystack displays a sculptor's sensitivity and meticulousness of form building and a draftsman's astute attention to the fine subtleties of line. Even the coloration of his much-used terracotta quietly seeps into his deceptively simple etching works.

The artist launches his sculptural discourse as part of a prolonged waiting. And the truth that finally manifests itself is preceded by an intense introspection. It’s a kind of sacred ritual in which he unveils his quest for truth experienced in totality. But when the artist known for his meticulousness would quip that it’s always not required to draw before sculpting, it simply amazes you. For him, often the medium itself presents with an evolving drawing. Image would arrive during the continual interaction with the matter, a rather intuitional unveiling in a random moment of action. Many of Himmat Shah’s sculptural works in terracotta as if come to us from his direct engagement with the medium that crystallizes his artistic thought and trajectory.