A response to Haku Shah's art
The disarming simplicity of artist-scholar Haku Shah is deceptive, says G. RAGHAV in a commentary on a show of his paintings held recently at the Habitat Centre, Delhi.
Dexterous moves upon the surface of the canvas. In one instance a smooth sllhouette ..
DIRT is not a natural phenomenon. Dirt is what a system recognises as outside it. Dirt is almost always a byproduct of creating order. "Where there is dirt," asks mythologist Lewis Hyde, "there is always a system of some kind, and rules about dirt are meant to preserve it." (1998) An adage runs, "Dirt is matter out of place". Not so long ago, "art" preserved itself by calling other made objects "dirty" (variously labelled craft, design, useful). A few artists emerged in the 1950s and the 1960s, and cleverly integrated the system and the dirt in northern and southern India. Their ingenuity lay in merging rich craft traditions with prevalent colonised art historical practices and discourses. These syncretic artists were tricksters. In the words of Lewis Hyde, tricksters are "boundary crossers". There are also cases in which "trickster creates a boundary, or brings to the surface a distinction previously hidden from sight". (Hyde, ibid.) More importantly they are masters of deception. In 1991, K.G. Subramanyan perceptively summed up the trickster in the nomad, artist and historian Haku Shah, "The disarming simplicity of Haku Shah is deceptive. For a relatively young artist-scholar his performance is credible".
Haku Shah indefatigably attempts to efface the boundaries of art and craft, bringing in newer dimensions to the comprehension of the past and the present. He forms a complex interface between knowledge and wisdom, folk traditions and urban practices, storytelling and philosophy, the past and present the city and the village. He stands in the middle of these binary opposites while constantly accommodating and even resolving them.
Overall, his paintings suggest a mythical landscape paintings that might very well belong to a fairytale book. On a closer look, however, his canvases do not easily pass off for illustrations. Haku Shah is a creator, and his oeuvre provokes a simplified topogenesis in the minds of all his beholders. "Once upon a great time", they seem to state and stop the past and the present now need to be filled in by the viewer.
While he paints in oils, he has deliberately quarantined its dominant practices. He recovers an alternate history of painting established by such artists as Gaugin and Sher Gill. A folk simplification and clarification is obvious in his facture; a prominent contour, though not explicit, serves to establish shape and order. Haku Shah dexterously plays upon the surface of the canvas in one instance a smooth silhouette, a fluid shape in another. The defined line, however, never moves, and establishes a visual symbol of a quest for another world.
Currently, Haku Shah responds to Nirgun poets, who themselves were rank tricksters in their own right. About 600 years ago, the poetry of these tricksters was the offshoot of times of enormous social and political turmoil. The country was undergoing a period of intense flux. The Moghul Empire was flourishing in northern India, and in southern India, the Vijayanagar Empire was on the decline. The Muslim and Persian cultures were well rooted, and the Nestorians had just arrived. People had become conscious of social divisions Hindu, Christian, Muslim and Parsi. There were conversions from one religion to another, and debate was widespread certain classes extolling and certain others denigrating social practices.
Economic connections with a few countries were clearly established. Rural culture was giving way to urban culture; and trade, commerce and employment were increasing in the cities.
People chose and became prosperous through the newly available opportunities, moving outside their caste-defined tasks. This loosened the existing caste rigidities to a great extent. Even then, anxiety loomed large, and the questions of social, religious and political order had to be re-inscribed if not reinstated. The period was somewhat like the present.
The time was ripe for tricksters to make their way into this chaos to establish order in the 1400s Ramananda, Kabir, Meera Bai, Guru Nanak, Krishna Chaitanya, Namdeo and Simpi. In the 1500s were Amardas, Surdas, Tulsidas, and Akbar himself with his Din Illahi (1582). In the South, at approximately the same time, were equally powerful tricksters Sripadaraja, Vyasaraya, Purandaradasa, Kanakadasa and Vadiraja in Karnataka, and other poets of their calibre in Tamil, Andhra and Kerala countries.
The scripture is what the society is not. (Nobody would bother to preach "Satyam Vada" if everybody spoke the truth.) The text, however, at once sums up the dominant conundrums of the times and offers integrated alternatives. Purandaradasa (1484 - 1564) starkly summed up the bane of the caste system and provided an alternative. Upon seeing someone "profane", they immediately craft a god within.
"Cling clang", they ring the bell.
(Coveting) the wealth and wives of others, isn't that profane?
Keeping, nurturing within, the profane that's outside,
What's the cure for that,
Translation: Dr. Chandra S. Balachandran and G. Raghav
Kanaka Dasa (1509 - 1607) lamented the fact that people,
"are hollering, `caste, caste, caste'.
What is caste for those with true
Translation: Dr. Chandra S. Balachandran and G. Raghav
These poets offered a worldview with simple ontology and ethics. Often nature was read as spiritual text. Kabir's (1414 - 1518) constant preoccupation was to derive lessons from natural landscapes.
Where you are, vitality already exists.
There is no difference between this hill and the other;
But look at the stars above.
Here are the pearls, this is where I have to find ME.
Good people, listen! Here's where everything reposes for us.
Translation: N.N. Anil Kumar
Haku Shah responds to the above verse, and rather dramatically. He paints a large nut-brown Sun that occupies three-fourths of the frame. He puns on its image to connote a flower, by delineating its rays in the shape of petals. Nine stylised figures stand below it with no details on them seven of them draped in white, contrasted by two of them in scarlet. The entire backdrop the sky is painted yellow, with an understated suggestion of white clouds on them.
Kabir also took references of human-made landscapes to assert a point. Quite often, these were sacred landscapes for example, pilgrim centres.
In the narrow lanes of Amarapuri, watch your step.
As you traverse them, if you encounter the clanging of true knowledge, throw your attention there.
Indeed, that's the stuff of Amarapuri, and you have to bargain to procure it.
.. a fluid shape in another.
This is the home of the knowledgeable, take the effort to receive their darshan.
Where there is a coterie of the knowledgeable, that is where humanity is.
Kabir says, "Listen, O Sadhus! Swim in this vast ocean!"
Translation: N.N. Anil Kumar
Haku Shah has bounced off this doha by planting prominently, a stylised blue figure in the middle a figure that recovers the sensibility of a potter's style. The figure is propped up by a "curtain" in deep vermilion, decorated and vitalised by clusters of white leaves economically painted. Up left, a group of people is gathered. Up right, a landscape comprising pieces of architecture moves to the north of the frame. It is important to note here that the poetry of Kabir and others only act as a foil for Haku Shah's paintings. The texts only serve reference, but Haku Shah (re)presents the essence of the verses in his signature style.
Simplicity is a dominant theme that runs through his canvases, similar to the hymns of the tricksters he paints direct, eloquent and colloquial. His favourite poets perceived the world with wit and humour as they transformed landscapes with their brilliant sparks of metaphor. Contrast this with a paradigmatic discourse such as physics, which fails to offer us an everyday discourse of this kind for, embedded in its speech after Newton, is an antithesis to human experience. "For example," says cognitive scientist Donald Norman (1989), "Aristotle thought that moving objects kept moving only if something kept pushing them. Today's physicist says nonsense: a moving object continues to move unless some force is exerted to stop it. Yet anyone who has pushed a heavy box along a street or, for that matter, hiked for miles into the wilderness, knows that Aristotle was right: if you don't keep on pushing the movement stops." For Aristotle, the epistemological base was the everyday percept/s, and only this legitimised the concept/s "(His) theory may be bad physics, but it describes reasonably well what we can see in the real world." (Norman, ibid.)
Put another way, the laws of science do not offer a sensory grip on the world anymore. Haku Shah offers an anodyne to the problem through everyday wisdom enshrined in the Nirgun poets "naïve" science, "naïve" metaphysics, and "naïve" ethics.
In the village, images have a deep significance. In the city, they are a sight to be seen. The city fosters movement and instance the relationship between people and places is ephemeral. Now our globalised cities (and increasingly our villages) are becoming suffused with instances that die as they are born. Tricksters are needed to revitalise the present and integrate disparate stimuli. Haku Shah smiles and gently urges us to go back to the basics.
"We are taught so much," he says, "we forget ourselves and the important things."
G. Raghav is a writer, critic and photographer based in Bangalore.
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