First, although he was trained as an artist and not as an anthropologist, he did not drool over the aesthetic aspects of the work in his lectures and writings. His documentations were thorough, and using a sequence of images he made the process of making (all the way from raw materials to the product) explicit, and made us feel that we were participants in the process of observation. He seems to have intuitively grasped that still images are often better than moving ones for analysing the processes of image making. Using them he broke down the process into a series of discrete actions or stages, just as the craftsperson did while working, and conveyed this subliminally. His descriptions and technical analysis were precise and minimal, and he let the images do the talking. Simple as it sounds, it reflected a deep understanding of the crafts and was not a method he applied mechanically. As a man of few words, having revealed to us the process of making, he did not proceed to wrap it up in some grand theory of his own, but enriched the object with recollections of conversations he had had with the makers and the native users of the objects. Here again, although the stories were tossed out almost casually, his method was similar to his use of photographs – selective, sequential and unobtrusive. Through the stories (combining facts, myths, superstitions – nothing was irrelevant to him) he embedded the work in the communitarian lives of the maker and the user, and in the complex world of their social interconnectedness. We could call this method immersive rather than exegetical, but it contained a definitive perspective on village and tribal arts, and on the societies that nurture them, and he shared it with us without pedantry, in the most lucid way.
The second aspect I wish to draw attention to is Shah’s discerning eye. I once visited the museum of tribal art at the Gujarat Vidyapith, which he helped found, and of which he was the curator for a very long time, to look at the copies of the Haripura Posters by Nandalal Bose in its collection. He showed them to me, but the museum and its other collections made a deeper impression. The museum with its cow dung washed floors was open, airy and spartan and had the ambience of a village. Everything about it, including the curator’s room, was simple and clean in a Gandhian way, and the objects on display merged with the ambience. The display included, besides functional objects of all kinds, a collection of tribal jewellery, and every single piece was exquisite. From conventionally produced objects he had picked out not only representative objects but also exemplary, unique pieces. Shah, who wished to teach us to see folk and tribal arts as part of a way of life, I realized, carried forward the traditions of both Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and Bose. Like Coomaraswamy, he had a connoisseur’s eye, and like Bose, he felt a need to harmonize individual objects to an overarching ecosystem of design.
The third aspect of Shah I find special is his role as a motivator and sustainer of creativity. This is related to both his deep understanding of folk and tribal art and his discerning eye, and found expression in two ways. First, by locating and nurturing exceptional talent among the children of traditional craftsmen, he ensured the best among them got a chance to survive and flourish. Second, and this is more significant, he helped tribal migrants to cities who were alienated from their cultural moorings and reduced to labourers to rediscover their latent talent. He did not devise a method to do this, for that would be straitjacketing. He saw them as individuals and did not try to mould them in the same way or push them towards traditional forms of art, but encouraged them to discover the unconventional within them.
Haku Shah. Jhini Jhini Bini Chadariya: Kabir with Birds. Oil on canvas. 33” x 54”. 2002.
There are several of them, and they came from all kinds of background. The most well know are Gopal and Saroj. Gopal was a folk singer, he migrated to Ahmedabad from south Rajasthan during a bad drought and became a stone breaker. Shah recognized that Gopal’s songs were imaginative and meticulously narrative, and encouraged him to translate them into drawings. Having never put pen to paper, Gopal was unsure but Shah offered him the same wage he received as a stone breaker for a day’s drawing. This encouraged Gopal to try his hand at drawing and he finally emerged as a fine but unconventional draftsman. Saroj’s story is even more unusual. She was the wife of a lowly paid local electrician teetering on the brink of poverty, she came from the cobbler caste and had no prior interest in art of any kind. Shah persuaded her to try her hand at appliqué and though she started reluctantly she gradually evolved to a confident and powerful artist. Eventually, both Gopal and Saroj were appreciated, their works exhibited internationally, and honoured with official awards.
Haku Shahwrote Form and Many Forms of Mother Clay (Mati Ye Tere Roop) for the exhibition he conceptualized, curated and designed in 1983 at the Crafts Museum in New Delhi.
They are part of Shah’s lifelong endeavour to build bridges between art school trained artists and the unlettered masters of the visual world. Acknowledging his success, apropos Saroj, Stella Kramrisch wrote to him, “Saroj’s cloth paintings are a source of inexhaustible joy to me. Her strength and balance sustain me…. You have sent a great gift into the world that could not have come about without you. Whatever you do has a special blessedness. In it your life is lived and that of Saroj and the others [who] became artists because you formed and inspired them. More over and at the very root is your own creativity.” He enriched himself by enriching others.