HIMMAT SHAHUntitled, 1962, collage on paper. Courtesy Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi. 

Hammer on the Square

Himmat Shah

Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

Himmat Shah has been a part of every group exhibition that the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi has held, but “Hammer on the Square,” the institution’s current retrospective of the nomadic artist, marks the most comprehensive showcasing of his work that they have done so far. It features 300 of his works, 215 of which belong to the museum’s collection, while the rest are loans from various public and private institutions and collections. It includes his never before seen drawings (dating from the 1950s to 2015) and four silver high-relief pieces (which are all that remain of those particular works after the others were destroyed by floods that ravaged Shah’s studio), as well as his more famous terracotta and bronze sculptures, burnt paper collages, etchings, photos and brochures from various exhibitions held across his career. There are even three high-relief murals that he made for a school in the west Indian city of Ahmadabad. It’s an extraordinary collection spanning a period of over 58 years, placed across 12 rooms within the museum.

The show is a testament to many things: the artist himself, who has endured difficult circumstances throughout his career; the collector Kiran Nadar, who bought the entire contents of Shah’s studio; the exhibition’s curator, Roobina Karode, who has written about and curated the artist’s works for over 25 years; the museum, which is focused on creating large, research-oriented retrospectives of modern Indian abstract artists to display across the world; and, finally, the progress of art in India since its independence in 1947.

HIMMAT SHAHUntitled, 1960s, pen and ink on paper. Courtesy Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi. 

A brief history lesson on Shah’s practice is, in my opinion, important to understanding his works. He was born in Lothal, Gujarat, which was significant in shaping his sensibilities. Memories of archaeologists and historians from across the world visiting his village, which was close to the archeological site of Harappa in Pakistan, have influenced Shah’s works. His visits to a nearby potter’s kiln as a child, and making toys with his own mother, also had a deep impact. After training as a drawing teacher at the JJ School of Art, Mumbai, in 1962 he helped found an artist’s group called Group 1890—a short-lived movement that tried to find a modern Indian art aesthetic based on Pahari miniature paintings, colors, Indian folk art and mysticism. That same year, Shah traveled to Delhi, where he lived with friends until he eventually settled at the Lalit Kala Garhi Artist Studio in the mid-1970s.

Shah’s work in the early 1960s included wonderfully colored paper juxtaposed against singed and burnt paper collages with fragile, charred edges that dispersed ashen dust. In 1965, Shah traveled to Paris to study design, but dropped out soon after. Instead, what he fully explored in Paris was the depths of European modernism, visiting numerous museums and engaging with the work of Henri Rousseau, Constantin Brâncuși and Alberto Giacometti, among others. In 1967, he then studied at the city’s Atelier 17 under artists Stanley William Hayter and Krishna Reddy, where he learned printmaking, lithography and etching.

Between 1967 and 1971, Shah also conceptualized, designed and executed three 18-by-20-foot walls in brick, concrete and cement at the Saint Xavier School in Ahmadabad, one of which featured 40 relief murals. By the mid-1970s, Shah had started working on sculpture, creating heads that he immersed in linseed oil until they hardened, and then covered with silver foil to make them look like relics of ageless deities. In approaching the mid-1980s, he formed the style that he continues today, covering an array of objects made of plaster, ceramic and terracotta with silver and gold-leaf to give them the appearance of shrines, deities and votive objects.

In the mid-1980s, Shah traveled with a photographer friend to the desert city of Jaisalmer and beyond. During his journey he constructed armatures and pyre-like structures of deadwood, stone and other materials, only to leave them behind as he traveled on. Photos of these objects, which are all that remain of these works, are the seeming focal point for Shah’s exhibition at Kiran Nadar, with the massive white shapes of the sculptural objects appearing like large desert trees and colossal pyres from ancient Harappa. In a room adjoining this display are Shah’s high-relief mural walls from Saint Xavier School—also timeless in their own way, but simultaneously urban, young and playful.

The artist’s evolution is very visible in the curation of the exhibition. The first room has a wall full of photographs and text that explains his life and works. The second space displays his colorful and variously styled drawings, terracotta works and silver paintings. Also there is a collection of his recent works, where Shah plants a bronze flag on top of local, quotidian shapes, such as Buddhist stupas made from painted rope. These sculptures that combine wood, granite, rope and terracotta seem to reference both the rural and urban sides of everyday India. The third and fourth rooms of the exhibition display some of his fabulous terracotta heads, intimidating in size, resplendent with texture, and equally evocative of modernism and ancient Indian monolithic traditions. Some have an element of shock, like one head that has a slit on its back, out of which gapes blood-like red paint.

HIMMAT SHAHHammer on the Square, 2007–08, bronze. Courtesy Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi. 

HIMMAT SHAH, Untitled, bronze with rope, c. 2006. Courtesy Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi. 

The next room, which contains Shah’s etchings and linocuts from the 1960s, showcase his early potential in drawing. They are funny, impactful and masterfully detailed. In his later etchings and drawings—like one which shows a man sucking a straw and another that features a haystack against a yellow background—objects appear to be both protected by and covered in bits of debris, displaying a sculptor’s sensitivity and meticulousness toward form-building and a draftsman’s astute attention to the fine subtleties of line. Meanwhile, the aforementioned photographs of Shah’s pyre-like structures show that his mind is constantly looking to reinvent the motifs that he explores in his works.

The last few rooms of the exhibition show Shah’s recent sculptures, which are quieter and more contemplative. Large bronze sculptures fill one room while small objects in another space highlight Shah’s preoccupation with terracotta. Some of the objects feature clay folded in on itself, creating shapes that are sensuous and tactile. Others have shapes that are vaguely familiar: a teapot that looks like an elephant, and an object that is reminiscent of a water pump. There is also a plant seed that Shah picked up and kept with himself for a long time, until one day he covered it with gold foil and made it into a votive object.

Some of the most noted pieces that Shah has worked on in his career, like his large drawing Man’s Fate (c. 1960s), are not a part of his retrospective at Kiran Nadar. Nonetheless, the exhibition effectively showcases the excess, voluptuousness, sensuality and spirituality that the nomadic and rebellious artist has been imparting onto his art. As the curator writes, the show “highlights key ideas in Himmat Shah’s works: fragility and transience of existence, the heightened relationship between ephemeral layers and stasis, his intense connect and understanding of materials and the material world, and echoes of lost civilizations and cultures.”

It is a pleasure to see the 82-year-young artist hold court to the younger artists of today, allowing creativity to fill and flow through his body. Shah has worn many hats over the years and he continues to exhilarate viewers of his work.

Himmat Shah’s “Hammer On the Square” is on view at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi, until July 20, 2016.