Of art and ambrosia

Seasoned sculptor Himmat Shah, who will be honoured with Legends of India award in the Capital this week, talks about his passion for art and food

June 29, 2016 11:02 pm | Updated September 16, 2016 04:59 pm IST

Himmat Shah at Sheraton Hotel’s Delhi Pavilion restaurant of Sheraton hotel Photo V. Sudershan

Himmat Shah at Sheraton Hotel’s Delhi Pavilion restaurant of Sheraton hotel Photo V. Sudershan

Simple living and high thinking defines Himmat Shah. Luckily, his frugal eating habits do not come in the way of certain adventurism when he eats out.

One discovered this when one escorted Shah from the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, where a retrospective of his works is currently on, to Sheraton Hotel in Saket.

Shah, synonymous with extraordinary heads in terracotta and bronze, exudes excitement at the prospect of eating out in the five star hotel, as he has never dined there before. As we step inside, the artist cannot stop from gushing at the immaculately smooth flooring, architecture of interiors. His artistic eye is at work as he surveys the aesthetically built hotel. As Shah wants a quiet place, we take the window seat overlooking the swimming pool.

And the veteran artist, known for preparing “sativik” food, particularly dal, at Garhi studio in Delhi, stumps me when he orders grilled fish topped with lemon butter sauce and sautéed vegetables. ABC juice blended with beetroot, carrot and apple acts as a perfect accompaniment at the Delhi Pavilion restaurant of Sheraton.

Inspired by the way Shah pours three tablespoon of olive oil to enhance flavour of fish, I also follow suit. Pomfret seems too tempting to resist and we attack it straightaway.

As he begins taking small bites of fish, Shah, who has seen many ups and downs, rewinds, “At our village in Gujarat we ate khatta meetha food. My grandfather owned a vast farm where all kinds of vegetables including carrots, radish and cauliflower were grown. As a child my curiosity for colours developed while watching our servants pluck vegetables in green, white, pink and red. Every day we were served fresh vegetarian meal from the groceries grown on our back yard. Many years later I realised that the food I ate acted like a tonic for the brain. Our brain works according to the food we eat. Fish is a brain food; I take it occasionally as for a diabetic a complete vegetarian food needs to be avoided.”

Having lived all alone at Garhi, Shah continues to work like a loner in Jaipur, which he has made home for the past decade. But the tradition of cooking a meal, which made artists congregate at his studio in Delhi, has been discontinued. “I don’t cook anymore; my maid makes food according to what we ate at home.”

The food eaten nowadays takes him back to his growing up years. “My grandfather, a Marwari Jain, migrated from a place called Jhalawar in Rajasthan to Lothal in Gujarat. He married a Gujarati woman and settled down. Now I have gone back to my roots by settling down in Jaipur.”

Fascination for the enchanting magic and mystique of Rajasthan was so much that he left Delhi for good. “I made my first ceramic piece at Thar Desert and that piece acted as a catalyst in making me create one ceramic work after another.”

Like his grandfather, Shah also has a rebellious streak. “I was only 11 when I left home for Bhavnagar. I was a restless soul; not at peace with myself. I stayed in an ashram where I ate puri, alu ki sabzi and desi ghee laddu. It was such a divine food; gave me energy to start my day afresh. I would hurriedly run to interiors with my pencil and papers, observe the villages, its inhabitants and their way of life. Recreating them with my sketches would give me inner joy and creative satisfaction.”

More than learning, it has been observation which has made Shah one of the leading artists. It was his capacity to observe and recreate it in his art which impressed his peers at M.S. University in Baroda. They relaxed all rules to accommodate this exceptional artist. “I had no money to pay for fees but my gurus, N. S. Bendre, K. G. Subramanyam and Sankho Choudhary helped me immensely. They taught me everything yet gave me the liberty to choose my own route to arrive at the destination.”

In 1975, Shah participated in a ceramic camp at Garhi. “Two years later I was allotted space there. Since my financial condition was bleak it was a heavenly invitation. With peaceful environment, Garhi was just the right place I was looking for. I worked there for 25 years, gave my best years. And Garhi also gave me a chance to experiment with clay and develop a unique vocabulary in terracotta.”

Interestingly, Shah, renowned for his heads in varying shapes and sizes, started with ceramic as mud was affordable.

“Those days I would travel to New Delhi Railway Station where mud was sold for Rs.60 a kilo. I would buy 200 or 400 kg; take it to Garhi where I would methodically clean it. Gradually, soiling my hands in mud started becoming an enjoyable exercise. I developed different styles, techniques and textures. No bookish knowledge can teach you this. It is through practice that I developed my own idiom.”

Even today, Shah continues his search for creating an elusive piece.On the significance of “Hammer on the Square”, the title of the retrospective, at the museum in Delhi, Shah says: “When a man’s mind gets blocked it is necessary to use hammer. A hammer sans the hand fixed on a cube, it says, ‘Jaago logon’. Roobina Karode, the curator, liked the name so much that she used it for the retrospective. It is heartening that the museum purchased work from people to showcase my work here.”

On the changing times, Shah says, “In our times there was not so much freedom and outlets to express. But today anybody can claim to be an artist. The youth should take inspiration from our rich heritage of art and craft which has been inspiring artists for decades. But taking help from a weaver and incorporating in your work is just not right.”

This is not the Himmat Shah way. “Himmat Shah ko jo karna hai woh wahi karega. I do my own thing; even the fluttering flag in my recent work has been done by me. Once I used bottles of French wine because they had distinct artistic shapes. I bought them from the Chor Bazaar which opens near the Jama Masjid on Sundays. “

In his self-deprecating way, the artist dismisses the idea of teaching the youth. “Creativity cannot be taught; it is not a skill that can be cultivated. Art is something that emerges from within. But I help students while working on iron casting.”

Talking of youth, Shah could have settled down in France while he was on French Fellowship, for which Octavio Paz, Mexican poet-diplomat, had a big hand. Shah explains the rationale for never entertaining such a thought in his succinct yet effective way .

“The Fellowship was a learning experience but I had inhibitions about living there. I was shy, reticent character, preferring to stay in museum; only occasionally mixing with artists in cafeteria.”

As he skips desert for South Indian coffee, Shah’s mind jogs back to his days in France. “Those were good old days. My fond memories of that scholarship are continuing my passion for cooking. Jogen Chowdhury and I would cook at his studio.” And another story begins….

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