The Bihar Museum, Patna celebrates Himmat Shah, the high priest of modern art in India, in a retrospective by Roobina Karode of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. Starting this Sunday, “Under The Vastness of Sky” will feature more than 200 works personify the beauty and power of the master who has positioned himself as a sculptor of both modernist sensibility as well as a deepened sensitivity. It presents works from the KNMA collection along with art pieces loaned from various public and private institutions and collectors.
Shah shares insights on his career that spans six decades.
Your experiments with materiality, painstakingly manipulating clay or bronze seem to go back in time and come forward. Please reflect upon your creative urges, were they born in isolation?
Oh Yes! I just kept creating sculptures without any patrons, no market, not a word of appreciation. My works were born of my own experiences and my love for what is pure. When I began, my works were born of indigenous inspiration. I designed my own tools and innovative techniques. In those days, 40 years ago, no one was working in terracotta. I took an ancient material and brought it forward to give it a contemporary edge. Bronze was expensive. My techniques and working methods of slip-casting, pouring the viscous clay through an opening into the thick plaster mould to be absorbed slowly by it became fool proof. The opening of the mould with unexpected results of tiny fractures, transmuted cracks and holes become an accentuation of the tactile qualities of the surface and of clay. Solitude was my constant companion.
A closer look at your terracotta heads exudes an expression and power and the embodiment of the human spirit. What did global giants like Moore and Brancusi mean to you in terms of inspiration?
I thought of Henry Moore and the archetypal images he did. The human form has always been a dual figure in art. I saw Moore as an example of a contemporary artist who invoked the mother and child archetype in his sculptures. But I created my sculptures with the abstraction I developed in my love for Brancusi. This distinction between content and form allowed me embrace the abstract form in modern art. Abstraction for me is to explore the conscious from the real, a desire to seek out and give shape to the primordial image. Through abstraction, I understood modernism as an exploration to create the visual imaginary from the conscious.
Tell us about your experience while looking at your own older bronzes .
When I look at my older bronzes, I remember the struggles and my passion for creating sculptures even though I was not trained as a sculptor. As a young sculptor, I learnt about composition, about mass, about form and about the power of language in sculpture and in materials used. Henry Moore said: Bones are the inside structure that nature uses – for both lightness and strength…so in bones you can find the principles which can be very important in sculpture.”
What about your recurring theme of the monolith head?
When I was a student at MS University Vadodara, I had trained in drawing. Even in those days I was paring down details and creating simplified modern lines. When I decided to try my hand at sculpture my journey was one of constant innovation of techniques, I was experimenting and comprehending the plastic values of art.
At a time when everyone was only looking at figurative works to define modernism, I was experimenting with abstraction and primitivism into sculpture for the first time, for me it was important to the development of modern art. The radically reductive and non representational modernism that you find in my sculptures is what I learnt from a wider perspective of cultures – both Indian and international.
This is why in my heads you will see there is both fragility and transience of existence, the heightened relationship between different layers. Sculpture for me is about an intense connect and understanding of the materials and material world, and echoes of lost civilisations and cultures. It is as much about ancestral memories.
Let’s dwell on two salient features. The importance of purity and balance in your works. What role does experience play in this tenuous understanding?
Studying a sculpture for its properties of purity and balance are important. For years, I used to play with clay and then work on the lost wax process at Garhi Studios in Delhi. But in the years I went to London, I learnt that you can add a smoothness to the strength of bronze when you create the bones of a sculpture. If I have to think back, those years in London were unforgettable for me. l don’t think I was creating, my hands were creating, for when they had clay beneath them, I would be lost in another realm. If you look at both these works, they embody that smoothness. This state of creation was my foundation, it was a moment of combustion. I consider the best form of expression or abhivyakti arising out of the deepest devotion or sadhna.
How do you look back at 60 years of work?
In 60 years of work, I have followed one principle. For Moore and Giacometti and Brancusi the most important principle was ‘truth to materials’. This is what I have been loyal to as a sculptor. From the European masters I learnt the implications of these two ideas, ‘direct carving’ and ‘truth to materials’. For Henry Moore, truth to materials was seen as some of the most fundamental ideas of modern art, for Brancusi form was more important than subject. When you combine their insights, you gain fresh ground. I learnt that when you create, your work must embody integrity, experience, culture and the call of an inner spirit. So when I look at my works, I’m travelling through time – from the past to the present – from tradition to modernity.