In the final part of this special story, the Pothi team talks to Parthiv Shah about the changing perspectives in the world of art. He also has simple but crucial advice for young artists. You can read the first part of this story here.
As we continue our conversation with photographer Parthiv Shah, the son of the late artist Haku Shah, we move on from his early years to his time at M S University.
So, when did Haku Shah find his voice as an artist? “I would say that he found his own unique voice as an artist pretty early. While he was a student at MSU. He started realising that the kind of things he got interested in were in his village, which was a tribal area. There were things that were made of, say, terracotta, the rituals of the tribals, their art and so on. Tribal culture was always around and, somehow, he connected to it deeply. At that time art was taught in the universities from a European perspective. Most of the idioms were borrowed from the West. They were not taught art from the Mughal times, for instance. They may have been taken to Khajuraho or Ajanta to see Indian art, but the way mediums were taught were Euro-centric. But he, somehow, felt that what the tribals did or the sensibility of India, was art. It was close to his heart. I remember him taking a terracotta horse from his village for one biennale. He showed it to N S Bendre, if my memory serves me right. The horse was received with amazement. He loved it. It even won a prize. In today’s world, it would be considered craft but my father thought of it as art.”
Now, we moved to a contentious question: did Haku Shah ever differentiate between craft and art? “Of course. But I think he found more similarities than differences. A craftsman is not a less creative person. End of the day it is about creativity. The notion that art is somewhere higher up and craft is below that germinates from set ideas you develop when you study art formally. A potter or a weaver may have not gone to a school but my father believed that they were as creative as any formally trained artist. In fact, sometimes he would say that they are more creative because they are more intuitive and they do not have too much baggage. And they don’t have the kind of ego that an artist is liable to have. What happens is when you become an artist and start practicing, you develop an ego because you start thinking ‘I created this’,” he says.
Parthiv believes that things are different today as the art world itself has undergone a sea change. “Now, an artist might not even touch a brush or hammer. The entire project may be created in China or Belgium. Of course, the concept might belong to the artist. She or he may even sketch it out. However, heavy duty work like welding or other skills are actually created by people who know the craft. Today, there is a lot of collaborative effort in making a piece of art. For instance, there are situations where an artist tells a photographer to click of a photo of something that he has arranged, which is later probably worked on again by a designer working on photoshop. However, it is still a photograph at the end of the day. Similarly, an artist may use many crafts people to create a project. But today that is accepted and people consider it as art. It is about perception,” he adds.
Parthiv says that there was a time when whatever you did yourself was your work. “Even a sculptor like Sankho Chowdhury would carve all day, labour over his work. My father told me that many times he would even bleed doing all the work. But the discussion is different today. Now, let’s say you click an image. Now, can you add things to it on photoshop and, maybe, process it and so on? It is still an image. Art practice is no longer the same as in the past,” he adds.
He thinks that today it is the experience that counts. He illustrates this by citing the example of British graffiti artist Banksy whose one work Sotheby’s sold for $1.4 million in 2018. The piece was a copy of one of the artist’s most famous works, an image of a girl releasing a red balloon, and moments after it was sold, the painting self-destructed, shredding itself while onlookers watched.
That does not stop Parthiv from having the view that what is actually done by hand by an artist does have a certain “affinity to its maker”. It is not similar to a piece that is made by a workshop in some other place.
Coming back to Haku Shah, Parthiv explains that his father’s practice was also not traditional in the strictest sense. While he painted often, he did not always depend on selling art. He wrote books, created shows, did documentation, did research, taught and travelled. “He was an artist first, just that the allied activities that he engaged in was also a part of his art. It is just that he did not paint every day. I know writers who do not write every day and there are writers who write something daily. In that sense, my father was different. In fact, till much later in his life, because he was not under pressure to sell, he would price his works much lesser than younger artists. Plus, he had this Gandhian ideal that how could one think of art in terms of money. He would even tell a viewer that if you do not like this work please do not buy,” he adds.
We then move on to Parthiv’s journey as a photographer and designer. It is only natural that if your father is an artist, you are likely to be influenced by him. “I would say that whatever I do, both photography and design, my father is a huge influence on me. For instance, I have this love for detailing. Also, I am not very ambitious. I do not go after something like, say, a business person goes after. I am more interested in the process… how you arrive at something. The destination does not really matter. Life itself is a process. If you have not enjoyed the journey, what’s the fun anyway? All that comes from my father,” he says.
We ask him about the portraits that he has photographed of famous artists like M F Husain. What was the motivation behind it? “See, I like people. In that I am like my father. He respected all human beings. He didn’t care who was big or who is small. My father respected the scholarship or skill in a person. He spoke of art critic Stella Kramrisch (Philadelphia Museum of Art) in the same breath as he spoke of this tribal called Chelia. For him both were equal. My thing is also that I like human beings. You know, each person has so much to offer, especially when somebody reaches a level of accomplishment in art or music or dance or architecture. I love music and I have photographed a lot of musicians. My major project was on Husain. I followed him very closely. Similarly, I would go for music programmes and generally hang around and photograph them, going about their work. So, I became friends with many musicians, including the great Mallikarjun Mansur. He used to call me whenever he was performing and I would go with my camera and photograph him. I liked Mansur because he was a simple person. Like my father, I run away from people who are showy or have big egos or those who talk too much about themselves,” he says.
Elaborating on his journey as a photographer, Parthiv candidly says that he “did not make much money via photography till recently”. “To me photography is not about money. It more about documenting, doing something interesting, something of value. For example, the German technology company GTZ called me. They wanted a photographer for their annual report. They also work in other areas like health. In those days, HIV Aids was quite prevalent and they were working with the transgender community. They had a ten-day project in mind to document their work. The thing is, a lot of my work is about representing others. When you are photographing somebody, you are also representing others in front of the world. What happens is, we already have biases. For instance, if I say ‘Muslim woman’, a particular kind of image comes to mind… a woman with a burkha. The stereotype, basically. Even the media wants that. Now, if I show a Muslim woman in a doctor’s coat with a stethoscope, people ask me what is Muslim in this. Anyway, I told the company that just taking pictures for an annual report would not be the best thing to do because it would just lie around. I could have just taken the money and gone ahead, but I like to go deeper into things. So, I suggested that they do an exhibition instead, which means they would also have pictures. I also gave them ten days of my time for free and asked them to add another ten. Basically, I wanted 40 days and they would have to pay me only for 20 days. I suggested that we do a workshop with the transgender community and they would take photographs themselves, documenting their lives. That would be real, because it would not somebody else looking at them. They loved the idea and it finally became a book. The exhibition went all over the world. The transgender community was instrumental in curating the show even. It was something I enjoyed, creating something real,” he adds.
Currently, Parthiv is working on a project that has to do with the pandemic. He contacted about 150 friends during the lockdown and asked them to take pictures of themselves, reflecting about this major upheavel in their lives when they were awash with time for themselves. This project will now become a book.
Finally, we ask Parthiv what would he advise young artists who wish to do better art and be successful? “Some very cliché lines come to my mind but they do work ultimately. Let me give you an example. Now it’s spring and I am standing on my terrace and looking at a mango tree. The mango won’t come tomorrow. It will take some time. So, a young artist needs to understand that certain things require time. Ideas must incubate. I am not saying they should procrastinate. Rather you have to work very hard but you can’t expect things to happen tomorrow. Be patient. Everything requires some time to come to fruition. Secondly, today there are many opportunities to showcase their work, though they is a lot more competition. Nobody can stop you from showing your work today, unlike in the past. I remember when I was a young photographer and India Today published one of my pictures I was thrilled. I felt like throwing a party. Today you don’t need India Today. Today, you can have your own Instagram handle. It will probably have far more reach than any physical magazine. Who knows Shakira might be looking at your photographs,” he says with a chuckle.
As he signs off, Parthiv advises young artist to avoid trends like the plague and do your own thing. And, yes, be patient and keep working. Because nothing succeeds like a huge body of work.