The solitary reaper: Art exhibition at Delhi’s Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

Continued experimentations with terracotta have been behind Himmat Shah’s famed monolithic heads, on display at KNMA

Published: 27th November 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th November 2022 02:01 PM   |  A+A-

Himmat Shah

Himmat Shah

Artist Himmat Shah has, over the years, said solitude has been his lifelong companion. Whether he is referring to his decision to never get married, he doesn’t reveal, but his works seem to give a sense of what he means.

At Around the Table: Conversations about Milestones, Memories, Mappings, an exhibition currently underway at Delhi’s Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), several of Shah’s works are on display alongside other masters such as Arpita Singh, Gulammohammed Sheikh, Jyoti Bhatt and Vivan Sundaram.

The gallery is a full house—Bhatt’s stellar portraits of artists, Sundaram’s charcoal sketches, Sheikh and Singh’s multi-hued transportive landscapes—but Shah’s sculptures, in bronze, terracotta, wood and relief work (a wall-mounted sculpture in which the three-dimensional elements are raised from a flat base) seem to epitomise the notion of being alone in a crowd.

Shah doesn’t make it look like a bad thing. “Over the years I have come to realise that it is only after you are completely alone that you will get what you truly want,” he says. 

The artist’s monolithic heads

The 89-year-old artist is best known for his monolithic heads, many of which find a place in the KNMA show. One of them, an untitled golden bronze head, evidently missing all facial features, is covered in folk-style patterns of dotted lines, combining, what appears to be, the sensibilities and styles of NS Bendre and KG Subramanyam, two artists that Shah has admittedly learnt from.

It is perhaps the steady aura that these heads seem to generate, which draws the artist and the viewers alike to these seemingly unassuming sculptures.

“The head is the first thing that anyone draws, even a child. It is fundamental. The face allows a person to communicate with the outside world which adds to his life experiences. For me, these heads are the abstraction of wisdom,” says the Jaipur-based artist.

Shah has a phenomenal career spanning over six decades. A graduate of Baroda’s MS University, he started off his journey with drawings that gradually turned into paintings. He also received a French Government scholarship to study etching in Paris in 1967.

It was while exploring textures that paint rendered on his canvas, that he later broke into the “three-dimensional” world of sculptures. He was also part of the 20th-century artists’ collective called Group 1890, founded by painter and poet Jagdish Swaminathan, which was disbanded after their first show.

If he wasn’t an artist, Shah would have probably been a chemist. In fact, during his practice, his search for the perfect medium has been one long experiment that continues even today. He began his career as a sculptor with terracotta because it was inexpensive, but soon discovered the magic that the reddish soil had to offer. “Terracotta soil has a lot of flexibility. It is also a medium that has taught me a lot. When you play with it, you pick up on the nuances of form and texture,” Shah says.

The artist, over the years, went on to work with other mediums such as bronze, marble and wood, but terracotta, he says, has become a part of his “abhivyakti” or expression. He mixes marble dust, brick dust and other materials and allows the combination to surprise him when it comes out of the kiln.  

“I have mixed the soil and waited for decades for it to get old and achieve a certain colour,” he says.
Often terracotta, when baked, comes out with minor fissures. One of the heads, exhibited at the KNMA show, has two holes as eyes, and a coincidentally perfectly placed crack as lips. “It is amazing how these inadvertent lines that seem like flaws add to the narrative of my sculptures,” Shah says.

When & Where
Around the Table: Conversations about Milestones, Memories, Mappings

KNMA, Saket, New Delhi
Till: December 4



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