In an interview with the Pothi team, photographer Parthiv Shah recalls his childhood in Ahmedabad and the troop of “different people” who dropped by to meet with his father. This is the first part of his reminiscences.
This week if Haku Shah were alive it would have been different. We would have an artist who had blurred the boundaries between art and craft in a way that we have not seen in post-Independent India. For those of you who are not aware, Haku Shah was an Indian painter, Gandhian, cultural anthropologist and author on folk and tribal art and culture. His art belonged to the Baroda Group and his works are considered in the line of artists who brought themes of folk or tribal art to Indian art.
He received several awards including the Padma Shri (1989), the Jawarharlal Nehru Fellowship and the Kala Ratna for his contribution to art.
His story is crucial to us because he was born in a nowhere village in India and later on made his way to urban India. Haku Vajubhai Shah was born on 26 March 1934, in Valod (now in Surat district, Gujarat) to Vajubhai and Vadanben. His mother was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and it influenced him. He completed his primary and secondary school education in Valod and was an active member of student union. He graduated in fine arts (BFA) from M S University of Baroda in 1955, followed by a master’s degree in fine arts (MFA) from the same university.
What is important to know is that because of him Indian craft got its place in the sun and did not wallow in the western definition of what craft is supposed to mean. He saw the heart in Indian craft far clearly than anyone had done before him.
We met up with Haku Shah’s son Parthiv to take a closer look at the man that the artist was. The conversation obviously veered towards the time when Parthiv was a child. Was it a regular childhood? What he says makes it clear that it was not just a regular childhood but a childhood that was colourful enough to be an exciting childhood. “We had an open house. Lots of people came by. They came from different villages, various cities and different parts of the world. All kinds of people who did various kinds of things or plied different kinds of crafts. There would be some white-skinned foreigner in our house or a Japanese person to somebody who was from chhota Udaipur. It was an unusual childhood in that sense. It was visually new. Besides the usual troop of people who came by, we also had designers, art historian and artists like Swaminathan, M F Husain and K G Subramanyan as regular visitors. Many local artists would also visit us. They all sounded different, dressed different, looked different,” Parthiv says, recalling his childhood.
“At that time Ahmedabad was more like a big village. Everyone knew everyone, you could say. In fact, if some foreigner was asking about us, people would simply bring them to our house. Our house was a continual parade of different people. I was exposed to various things. It was like a magician’s bag. Besides many artists and crafts people who would drop by, I remember a woman who made toys come by. I remember my father asking her to make a whole host of toys and figures to create an entire diaroma for an exhibition. That’s the kind of environment I grew up in,” he adds.
“My father had three different kind of art practices. Or creative practice I would say. Being an artist he would paint but he was also interested in ethnography. In fact, when NID was being set up in 1961 he was invited to do research on Indian design, which basically was crafts then. He was asked to document Indian design and crafts. Charles Eames in his India report talks about the lota, how it was a holistic design, how it was ergonomic and so on. All of that contributed to my father’s interest in ethnography and arts and crafts. He also designed art shows,” Parthiv recalls.
By 1965 Haku Shah had held several one-man shows in Kolkata and Mumbai. In 1968, he curated the ‘Unknown India’ exhibition, organised by the art critic, Stella Kramrisch, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He received the Rockefeller Grant in the same year and in 1971, the Nehru Fellowship Award.
“We actually lived in a typical middle-class colony. We would be playing outside with the kids and somebody would visit. The we would get ready and meet these interesting people. Also, I would see my father photographing and take pictures of various crafts and the people. Basically, I would see how he would document all these things. So, I learnt to hold a camera when I was very young and photography became my passion,” Parthiv says, talking about how he himself got into photography in the first place.
“Of course, our ways of looking at photography was different. While he saw it as a way of documenting the arts and crafts of India, I began to see it as a way of documenting social issues or use it as a means to give voice to the marginalised, like labourers. For example, one of my books was on textiles. It looked at every aspect of textiles, like designs and what happened to some of the mills, why did it close down and so on,” he adds.
Going back to the earliest days of Haku Shah, Parthiv talks about his father’s days in Volod, the village where he grew up. This village was close to Bardoli, where Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel started the Bardoli Satyagraha of June 1928 during the British Raj. It was a major episode of civil disobedience and revolt in the Indian Independence Movement. Volod was also not far away from a Gandhi ashram, and the Gandhian ideas had a great influence on Haku Shah, something that he embraced all his life. “My father was probably the first person from his village to go out and study fine arts. His father was also a unique personality in the sense that he was a Sufi kind of person, though he worked in the Railways. But he was different in the sense that he was the only person who could read and write in English at the time. Somehow he was interested and he learnt that himself,” Parthiv says, giving a glimpse into Haku Shah’s lifelong interest in academia. “While there was education my father’s family was not rich. In fact, my father took breaks between his bachelor’s and master’s degree because there was no money. He had to do a job to get money and then he went back to finish his degree,” he adds. “When he was studying in M S Universty, he had to take tuitions to support himself. He, in fact, gave tuitions to the child of the artist N S Bendre,” he says.
These sacrifices paid off immensely and Haku Shah set out in the field of art, where he not only embraced the arts itself but various other aspects connected to it. Over the years, he carried out extensive field research and documentation on rural and tribal arts and crafts, traditions and folk lore. He taught at a Gandhian Ashram in south Gujarat for several years and established a tribal museum at Gujarat Vidyapith in Ahmedabad, which was set up by Mahatma Gandhi. Haku Shah curated the museum for several year, which was to become his last legacy. His multi-varied practice took him to various places.