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Artist Profile1
A 'global' artist laced with fascinating folk and rustic rural touch
A painter of immense individuality, Haku Shah is rightfully termed a 'global' artist laced with a simple rural touch, which is very much Indian, more specifically tribal art. His outwardly simple images incorporate complex thought processes behind them. He constantly tries to blur the fine lines between art and craft, indefatigably infusing the magnificent mix with new dimensions to our comprehension of the present and the past. Forming an intriguing interface between urban practices and folk traditions, the village and the city, wisdom and knowledge, philosophy and storytelling, he strikes a deft balance among these bewildering binary opposites even while accommodating, resolving and refining them.

Akin to a fairytale, his painted works transport us into a mythical, mystical landscape. His canvases though won’t easily pass off for sheer illustrations. His complex oeuvre on a closer inspection prompts a sort of simplified topogenesis, stirring their minds with mixed emotions. While he prefers to paint in oils, the artist has opted to quarantine its most dominant practices deliberately. He carefully recovers traces of alternate history of painting formed by artists like Gaugin and Amrita Sher Gill, dexterously playing upon the painted surface- in one instance a smoothly fluid shape, a smooth silhouette in another. However, the defined line hardly moves and clearly establishes a vivacious visual symbol of an endless quest for another realm.

A renowned figurative painter and a widely respected authority on India’s fascinating folk and tribal art traditions, Haku Shah was drawn towards painting, poetry drama and music since early childhood. He would make wall paintings to generate awareness on social issues. Born in 1934 in Gujarat, he did his B.F.A. and M.F.A. from Faculty of Fine Arts, M.S. University, Baroda. As an artist, the spontaneity and natural simplicity of rustic rural life always fascinated him. While at Gujarat’s Gandhi Ashram, he got an opportunity to grasp the mesmerizing quality of tribal art and compiled many Rani Paraj images on his own. A stint at NID (National Institute of Design) in Ahmeadabad provided further impetus to his desire of documenting tribal way of life. Coincidentally, Stella Kramrisch invited him to assist her in a show 'Ritual Art in Tribe and Village - Art of Unknown India' in America.

During his illustrious career, many solo exhibits of his works have been held including ‘Maanush’, Art Indus Gallery, Time and Space Gallery, Bangalore (2007); a photography exhibition at Alliance Francaise, Bangalore (2006); shows at CIMA, Kolkata, Shridharani Gallery, New Delhi; and Marvel Art Gallery, Ahmedabad (2005); apart from earlier exhibits at Asia Foundation Gallery, San Francisco and International House, Philadelphia (1968); Private Garden, Delhi (1967); Gallery Chemould, Mumbai (1967,68,69,and ’75); Academy of Fine Arts, Kolkata (1964); Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai (1963,64), and Ashok Gallery, Kolkata (1961,62). His significant group exhibitions and participations are 'National Printmaking Portfolio', Marvel Gallery (2010) and 'Baroda: A Tale of Two Cities', (Part I), Sarjan Art Gallery, Vadodara (2008), among others. In appreciation of his contribution to the field of art, he has received several honors and awards like Padma Shri in 1989; special recognition from Davis School of Environment Design, University of California in 1991, Nehru Fellowship for Research Work on Tribal Art, Gujarat (1971-73) and JD Rockfellar 3rd Fund Fellowship.

We need to peep in the past to understand his processes and philosophy. A new breed of sensitive and innovative Indian artists in the 1950s and early 1960s sought to integrate the traditional rich craft traditions of India with the then prevalent colonized art historical discourses and practices. To put it in the words of Lewis Hyde, they were tricksters or ‘boundary crossers’! And some of them even created a boundary, or brought to the fore a totally new distinction or dimension. More than anything else, they were all skilled practitioners of deception. In this context, K.G. Subramanyan described the trickster in Haku Shah as one possessing disarming simplicity which was deceptive, lauding multiple talented and roles of the artist, historian and art scholar.

His artistic response to Nirgun poets, themselves considered ‘tricksters’ suggests this stimulating streak in his creative sojourn like their passionate poetry that was an outcome of the prevailing socio-political turmoil when rural culture gradually made way for urban culture. The period of transition was similar to the present one as reflected in the verses of Ramananda, Kabir, Krishna Chaitanya, Meera Bai, Sripadaraja, Vyasaraya, Namdeo, Amardas, Tulsidas, Surdas, and King Akbar himself. Haku Shah has responded to their verses and the everyday wisdom contained in them to paint captivating canvases.

Apart from publishing research-based books on Indian pottery, he has served as curator at the Museum for Tribal Cultures, Gujarat University, and as a consultant of NID. He has been associated with many prestigious institutions like the Tropical Museum, Amsterdam; the Mingi International Museum of World Folk Art, California; and the Museum of Mankind, London. He himself has collected exquisite and priceless art objects and has also documented their functional background, encouraging innovative forms of tribal art practice. According to him, rural and tribal art/craft traditions need to reach masses and also get the attention that it thoroughly deserves not only in India but also internationally. Haku Shah has practiced what he professes, which makes him stand apart as an artist, educator and scholar.