Interview: Haku Shah

by Vandana Sood

An interview with painter, cultural anthropologist, teacher, and author Haku Shah, a well-known figurative painter. Shah's work draws upon folk and tribal art as well as ancient philosophical texts and Gandhian teachings, and his views on art encompass a holistic belief that the life soul is interconnected with art. Shah spoke about his influences and his process from his residence in New Delhi, India.

Where do you draw your inspiration from? What influences your art?

When I ventured to Baroda University in the beginning of my career, I was drawn to three main things—village and tribal life, and Gandhi's philosophy. These three things were part of who I was. Today I realize that they were all interconnected and have inspired me in my life and work in various ways.

In India our native tribal people are portrayed as being backward, illiterate, poor, and lacking knowledge. However, in my own fifty years I have found they are a deep source of knowledge in music, painting, and the arts. I have witnessed in their lifestyle a beautiful symbiotic relationship between their traditions and the arts. Take for example the Rathawa tribe. In harmony with the process of creation, they mix vibrant colors, cook delicious offerings, and then celebrate their life with music, feasts, and dance. Hence art is intrinsically linked together as an entity with their existence. The devotion and skill necessary for an artist comes automatically to them, they do not strive for it like us. There is an unknown force which the tribals respect. Their art is in glory of that higher wisdom and power.

I am also very stimulated by Gandhi's teachings. As a teacher I have always taught that austerity should be practiced. There should be minimum waste and color should not be used extravagantly for shock value or gimmickry.

Visnudharmottaram, the founding text for the discipline of Indian art history, elaborates on six essential elements, called shadanga or six limbs, of a chitra, or image. As an artist what is your interpretation of these ancient aesthetic guidelines?

Our tradition is seeped in astonishing and profound models of greatness in art, architecture, sculpture, literature, and poetry. The emphasis on skill and detail are documented in great works like the Visnudharmottaram, without which we would have no literary trace of our lineage in culture.

The first limb is rupabheda, or form. Roop, or the distinction of forms, has many connotations. The rupabheda is not just outer reality-there are many other interrelated realities behind that form. Those invisible symbols which lie in the artist's life, the reality of dreams, memory, and myriad unknown forces beyond life and death; the creator creates but layered realities determine that simple form. For example, a circle in tie-dyed cloth signifies jowar, the life-giving grain, and is also the sacred tikka. A simple hemispherical U-shape represents the lingam, or sacred Shiva. We interpret the same form in many ways. So artists put together many forms that speak to them and their inner reality.

Paramana, meaning proportion, is the second limb, seen in the discriminate usage of space, line, and color. It represents harmony and integrating one's own truth in one's work. For example, when a vocalist sings, a word or syllable can be repeated or elongated to connote something different, one's own perspective in a piece. The artist's knowledge, his art, the act of sharing and intention all manifest in the paramana of any creation. Proportion to us has immense meaning, as artists have the liberty to play with space and perspectives. A case in point is Picasso, who distorted his forms and structures to add artistic expression. Musicians such as Hari Prasad Chaurasia and Kumar Gandharva will stretch a single note or rhythmically break it into many parts as a devise of expression, one's own truth.

Bhava yojana and lavanya yojana, the third and fourth limbs, represent to me the seeking of beauty and charm for the satisfaction of the aesthetic spirit. It's a part of the emotional whole. For instance, the most famous smile in history is the unsolved riddle of the expression on the Mona Lisa's face. These limbs are the soul of content, through which the ultimate result comes as the rasa of art. It is the jiva, soul, or pathos and pleasure of art. Icons like Van Gogh paint the night with simple sweeping strokes, but we can feel the light and storm in the air when viewing his paintings. Bhava and lavanya yojana are eternal. So the joy felt by an artist as he/she paints permeates the painting and transfers to the viewer.

The fifth limb of sadrshya is about truth of form. You have to know an object closely to represent it. The painting of a tree will only impart that sense of leafiness when it is true to the essence of nature. An artist's sense is very sharp and perceives like a child, in awe and wonder. The artist whose work is full of devotion and intensity towards his or her subject will have sadrshya automatically.

The harmony of colors constitutes the last limb, called varnika-bhanga. Through socialization we are taught to perceive art or design in relation to certain elements or cultural stereotypes. For example, when we see the night we call it dark or black, but there are many other colors all around. It has to be appreciated and not negated. Similarly there are many types of white. The visual of a white cat sitting on white marble will look different because of different tones, textures, and depth. Observations of light reveal the characteristic of making colors brighter or darker and imparting life to it.

In my experience the inner expression of your being integrated with these six elements creates art.

In your own process of artistic creation how do you incorporate the shandanga's six elements?

I don't try to incorporate these elements intentionally. But I do try to make my work more intense, hence following bhava yojana and lavanya yojana. When I paint I become happy or, if I am ill, become well. During the process of creating I don't think and feel much and instead I become engrossed on the lines, colors, and forms that express the timeless within. This inadvertently imparts joy within me. So I don't consciously incorporate these elements, they come on their own, without my intervention.

All my creations evolve as I work on them. When I paint, form and colors take on a life of their own. It's very difficult to describe or define this. A hand drawn by me can look as if I have studied anatomy, and also as if I was a child painting for the first time. The strokes, the amount of paint used, and the thickness of lines all vary from time to time. My own knowledge, schooling and life experiences come into my painting. When I draw and time passes the forms can change drastically. I do not plan my canvases. Somewhere along the line I come to a point where the image makes me content and I leave it then.

So the color, form, the putting together of different elements develops as a process. Although thematically there are certain elements from my travels and experiences, which I paint repeatedly, I feel that human beings and nature are the things that are closest to god. For me the purpose of any art has to be eventually to express the rasa or power of soul. This according to me is the foundation of bhava and lavanya yojana. So I try to make my colors or paintings happy by taking time and harmonizing with my work.

Video art, film, and photography have similar guidelines regarding composition within a limited frame. How would you relate these essential principles of shadanga to new media like these?

When we talk of photography or film the foundation of the creative expression is the same. The ultimate aim of creative expression should convey the soul or jiva. Tribal people say that when they create they have given birth to a soul. The self or soul of an individual comes in all of these elements. Without self these things have no meaning. The self is attached to them like a happy marriage. Any creator cannot deny the self in creative expression of any kind in the world. Hence these new mediums do not dictate any reinvention of the shadanga and instead urge a re-looking. It calls for an adoption based on time and space.

What do you feel is the relevance of these aesthetic guidelines in today's contemporary world of art?

These limbs were written thousands of years ago in a different era. But in today's time they are very essential as Indian artists should not try to blindly imitate western modern art but instead search for their own talents within their own rich traditions. And it is hoped that all artists will come back to the essential, keeping in mind their roots and how they uniquely experience the universe.

Haku Shah's career spans five decades, and he has been associated with the Museum for Tribal Cultures at the Gujurat Vidyapeeth; the Museum of Mankind, London; the Tropical Museum, Amsterdam; and the Mingie International Museum of World Folk Art, San Diego, California. Haku Shah first worked as a staff member and then as a part of the governing council with the prestigious National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. To his laurels are the distinguished Padma Shri award, the Nehru Fellowship Award for research in the tribal art of Gujarat, the Nehru Memorial Fund, and the Rockefeller Grant.

Vandana Sood is a graduate from the Mass Communication Research Centre in New Delhi and started her career as a camerawoman on a WHO film. In 2004 Ms. Sood won the prestigious Commonwealth Vision Award for her film on education from the Royal Commonwealth Society. Ms. Sood's work explores a plethora of media arts. As editorial coordinator for the 'I' a quarterly newsletter published by the Visual Arts Gallery, New Delhi she has written on various issues like silent cinema, public art and creativity. In 2006 Ms. Sood was part of the World of Knowledge, a UNDP program working with students in Poland, delivering workshops on global issues. Vandana Sood was driven to do a double masters and is currently pursuing an MFA at Hunter College's renowned Integrated media arts program.

"Kaliya Daman"

Images courtesy Haku Shah