Back to the Roots

Back to the Roots

Haku Shah was instrumental in making folk and craft traditions part of mainstream art discourse. R. Siva Kumar pays homage to the virtuoso.

Haku Shah (1934 – 2019) was an artist, designer, teacher, scholar, curator, cultural anthropologist and writer rolled into one. His knowledge of the folk and tribal arts of India was exceptional, and he was even more exceptional as a person. Gentle and soft-spoken, he almost erased himself and allowed the objects of his study and their makers to speak through him.

Born and brought up in a Gandhian milieu in south Gujarat and trained in art at Baroda, Shah combined his aesthetic education and Gandhian outlook to develop a lifelong interest in tribal and folk arts. This interest brought him close to Pupul Jayakar and to Stella Kramrisch who made him her Indian collaborator for the 1968 exhibition Unknown India: Ritual Art in Tribe and Village. So far, scholars, including Kramrisch, had been focusing primarily on classical traditions of Indian art. The exhibition removed this blinker and helped in drawing the attention of a whole host of scholars to Indian crafts, folk and tribal arts. Shah played a seminal role in this development and was a generous friend and guide to many who shaped this field. His own rich and varied contribution to the subject as a researcher, teacher, curator and author are well-known, I shall not elaborate on them, but point to three qualities that made him special.