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From a small village to MSU, pages from the journey of Haku Shah

Haku Shah

(March 21st marks two years of Gandhian painter Haku Shah’s departure. We have carried two pieces about him here and here, and now this is an excerpt from his autobiography Manush published by Rajkamal Prakashan in Hindi. The book is based on Haku Shah’s long conversations with noted Hindi poet and writer Piyush Daiiya. We thank Haku Shah’s son Parthiv for this permission.)

I was born in Valod village in district Surat. It is very near to Velchhi ashram. Almost entire region is of Adivasis (tribal people) and because of its vicinity to Bardoli, there is quite some influence in the area of the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel. My village had mostly people from three castes- Desai, Vanik and Qazi. Most people are landlords and my father was one of them. Life of landlords was dependent on exploitation of the tribal communities, but my father was an exception to quite an extent. My father loved nature and he used to go sit on the river banks and also roamed around the farms. People used to call him Badshah. In the worldly sense he was not known as a practical person. You could find him reading Srimadbhagwatgeeta are early hours at 2 or 3 AM or in afternoon catching a nap in the long chair of his Muslim friends’ house. Some times, if at midnight, one goes out to find his whereabouts, one could make out from the white cloth fluttering in the sands of the river banks, you would find the man who is apparently sleeping here in Badshah in his deep meditation. 

He was friends to the tribal people and could be seen spending time sharing chai, cooking khichdi, mingled with them. On day of Dashera he would give a one rupee coin to everyone who came to village. We had about a hundred acre of land, but by the time he died, we did not have much of that left. 

My mother also came from a prosperous family. Very talented and practical. During the Bardoli Satyagrah (which was a movement to refuse paying taxes to the British government). She remained closed in her house through the day, but in the dark she would go out. This was because government agents were not allowed to enter homes or neighbourhood during nights. She would do two things in night. Go get drinking water from well and join the village in this community dance Garba. 

I was about eight years old when I with two – three friends, I started a magazine called Shishu. It had my poems. At times, my mother would help find an appropriate word for my poems. One of my sister Neeru was a talented singer and she used to sing even when working in the kitchen. Another sister Bhadra was also a singer, and she would sing in public. My third sister used to teach students in Vanasthali, Surat from the tribal communities. My brother Babubhai and sister-in-law Tarla too have lived life teaching the children of tribal communities and their both children Urvin and Swati have studied in the same schools. 


The Vidyarthi Mandal (student board) I was active member of, used to organised interesting activities, though they may seem out of place now. We used to sing these lines throughout the village to wake up the people-

Jaago Jaago Jan Juvo / Raat Gayi Ne Bhor Bhayi 

( Wake up, wake up, see people / Night is gone and dawn has appeared)

I don’t know if it helped in creating awareness about nationalist feelings, but the singing surely helped to wake up people from their beds.

In the initial school days at Valod I was deeply interested in drawing. I tried to make realist drawings Gandhi ji and Subhas Chandra Bose. I used to draw wherever I would find space. My art teacher Chintamani Desai was a very lively person. He liked my sketches. The atmosphere of the school was like a beautiful village. 

We used to organise exhibitions of our sketches depicting exploitation in the society. We used to carry them in tin boxes from village to village and display them in the village Chaupal or in front of their houses. These activities included – cleaning roads with brooms, painting the walls with inspiring messages, going to the outskirts of village with lanterns in night to teach Doobla tribal people and also providing them health support, organise ballet and Garba dance, to pray, spin yarn through charkha and roam in the villages. Socialist leader Kulin Pandya was the main source of our inspiration. At the yearend we used to organise games for entertainment as well, where we used to actively participate. We also used to take out two big processions. One was anti-abuse day and other was anti- mosquito day. 

We had this river- Valmiki – in the village, and I vaguely remember some days I used to bring upto 40 buckets of water from there.

I was very fond of this musical instrument played by the tribal people called Dobdu and I loved its deeply resonating sound and also made hundreds of sketches of it. We also had an akhada (pit for wrestling/ exercising) outside the village, which we converted into a beautiful spot. We planted trees there, cleaned and coated the earth with cowdung. We brought some instruments as well and painted the wall with earth colours from used twigs of Neem tree which were used to clean teeth. 

These were the forties and fifties years. We used to roam through the villages with singing these lines-

Jaagjo, Jaagjo Navo Prabhat Jaagjo / Bharat me Ang Ang Harsh Na Uthe Tarang

(Wake up, wake up, wake up in this new morning / Every part of India is feeling waves rising)

Those days, every kid who would sit in annual exams, was considered promising and passed seventh standard, was eligible to become a teacher. I passed that exam and also in drawing. I also passed exams for Hindi (Kovid) and Hindustani (Vineet). I also liked spinning wheel and could do enough of thread to make a metre of cloth. 

After matriculating from Valod, I started working with Narhari Parikh for writing diary of Mahadev Desai. He would dictate some pages from the diary of Mahadev Bhai written about life of Mahatma Gandhi. I was paid per page and that was my first job of life. 

The problem was where do I go to study further. Shanti Niketan was very far, hence we thought about trying for JJ School of Arts in Mumbai or Fine Arts Department in Baroda. Mumbai rejected me. As luck would have it, some years later I sat next to same professor on a panel for interviewing art students. I had made a terra cotta bull for entrance in Baroda. Bendre, the head of department said – Good!. Though I was worried for my bull, as it could develop cracks. 

The Fine Arts department in Baroda (MSU) had opened recently and they didn’t have their own building. Mr Markand Bhatt was elected dean of the department, who had retuned from the US after finishing his Masters. Mrs Hansa Mehta was Vice Chancellor. She had then said, if this department is able to make even one artist, she will find her endeavour meaningful and success. Art teachers were very energised and their way of teaching was a mix of Shanti Niketan and JJ School. Professor Bendre, KG Subramanyan and Shankho Chowdhury were helpful and affectionate to students and also very popular. I remember Shanti Dave working on wood cutter at mid night those days. Mani Sahab (Subramanyam) used to sit with us some times and could quickly make paintings in 10-15 water colours. Sometimes he would use chalk to draw on floor and talk about that to us .


Professor Bendre focussed on easel. He helped students with colours, with the upkeep of pellets and cleaning while teaching first lessons of arts.  We used to keenly hear him in pin drop silence when he would give us demonstration lectures. The relationship of students with Shankho Chowdhury  was so friendly and warm that so many students were found doing their own work at his house. Shankho himself used to work laboriously on wood and stones. He liked journeys, theatre shows, organising fairs, and KG Subramanyan also participated in them. There was a very warm relationship shared between students and teachers. Students could visit their home at any time. 

The environment at the university campus was like a large family. 

I was undergoing through huge financial difficulties during college days, but I was not harassed and discouraged for that. Near the room, where i lived, there was Nagin Bhai in those days, who was studying engineering. He was very caring for me. Often I used to find some currency notes slipped under my door, when I used to return after the day. I knew it was Nagin Bhai only. Once I was going for an arts camp arranged by college, he came to drop me at railway station. He noticed the box I was carrying didn’t have lock, and understood it was because I didn’t have money. He went quietly away and returned with a lock and gave the keys to me. 

We had this very delicate and silent but pulsating relationship. 

Many years after that, whilst I was working in National Institute of Design (NID), he suddenly appeared. He said he needed help and that is why he has come to me. He needed 200 rupees. I called my secretary and gave him the money. He was surprised that I made no excuses to give him the money and that too, with that amount. I said what you have done for me, it is much much more than what I am doing for him. 

I never felt poor while in college. There were problems of food and stay and also getting enough colours and papers, and commute. There were some other things too, but I never felt I am poor or in problems. I always felt this is the way of life. I never had much of a direct relationship with money. 

I remember I wrote a letter to my father those days, and he sent me a money order of seven rupees. I was living my life different from others, as I grew up in a particular milieu. This was more of harnessing the life principles I had learnt early. Daily spinning charkha for two -three years, wash my own clothes, cook my own food, and wash my own utensils. Often I did not have milk and bread, I would do with khichdi. If there wasn’t much time, I would have papad, cauliflower with halwa made of dough, semolina or sheera. Once I was left with a few coins. I bought some bhajia from a shop near railway station. I had 10 more paisas now. I had bought bhajia, so that if you have loads of water after eating them, you feel full. While walking towards my department in the university, I opened the paper wrap. Suddenly a vulture kind of bird attacked me and took away the bhajia. I kept holding the paper, but soon it also flew away. I accepted my situation. And further on way, bought some roasted chana (Bengal grams) from the remaining 10 paisas. 

I never had too many clothes to wear. I used to wash my kurta paijama in night and wrapped myself with a towel for night. I was given some task for practical exam to make a painting for which I was given 40 days. But I didn’t have colours to paint and I stopped going to college with the false excuse of being unwell. With much efforts I could arrange colours for the painting and I got fellowship award of that year. 

Often I wouldn’t have canvas or board and only very few colours. But the urge to draw was always deep. Once I made a painting behind a painting – on the other side of canvas.


I do not exactly know that my teachers knew about my state. But I felt they had a different kind of respect for me. I clearly remember some colours were kept in an almirah in the faculty, probably to give them to poor students. Bendre sir once gave me a tube from there. 

Once I was grinding some gesso on a cardboard sheet, while applying white, some cracks started emerging. I made a painting of cracks. Just then Professor Bendre looked at it and excitedly said, ‘ Very good, very good! Send this work to that art exhibition scheduled in Gwalior. Which I did. Sometimes Subramanyan also used to look at our works and talk about it. To see him in that act always filled me with joy. Work was the main thing. 

I also received two scholarships during those college days. One came from a relative, who used send it from Mumbai. The other came from Bhavnagar, but I could never know who that person was. First fetched my 40 rupees and and other 30. My teachers were aware of my hard work and my special concerns for Gandhi and tribal people and perhaps had some respect for my commitment for idealism and sense of service. 

Subramanyan and Bendre were my teachers but there art style, way for teaching and routine life was completely different from mine. They had different nature as well. I had some relation with Bendre- I used to teach his intense and hyper son. Mani Sahab was a complete teacher whose work and life were amazingly aligned and I was very impressed with that. His wife Sushila and Uma were very kind. We have family relations for last 40 years. He was completely immersed in Indian culture, and he had his original insight and high human values. 

Because the students and teachers had come from all parts of India, there was interaction for different dimension, through a huge canvas it was  complete india and the world, which shaped the subjects of our education. 

For me this was hugely refreshing, because I came from a relatively small place. I always felt fertile finding newer things in arts. The environment was very alive. Though the scope of our curriculum was large – English, Gujarati, Psychology, Aesthetics, World History, and Music , but we never felt it was overbearing. In the arts curriculum, drawing, painting, wood cut, lithography, sculpture were part of it. We were allowed to do other things as well. There was more focus on applied part. This was not true that degree will have more importance than diploma. In the students amongst others we had Jyoti Bhatt, Shanti Dave, Vinay Trivedi, Ratan Parimu, Ramesh Pandya, Raghav Kanoriya in those days.



Copyright | Parthiv Shah   Translation | Nidheesh Tyagi