May 30, 2020
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Catalytic Craftsman

A generous and timely tribute

Catalytic Craftsman
Invisible Order: A Tribute To Haku Shah
By Eberhard Fischer
Art Indus Not mentioned
Haku Shah, as many of the contributors to this volume affectionately recall, is a little man. Nor is he particularly memorable to look at. It's his smile (so open and radiant) and that amazing mixture of serenity and positive energy that most people remember.

As a nation, we Indians aren't particularly gracious in giving thanks, preferring to complain and find fault. We recognise our heroes after they are dead. This is particularly true in the world of crafts. Master craftspeople often get awards when they're geriatric or dead, and are seldom given the dignity of a name, even when awarded. The names of the vips attending awards ceremonies are covered by the Press, the craftspeople themselves remain anonymous.

It is a testimonial, therefore, to the quality of Haku Shah, that he received his Padma Shri at the age of 55 and that a galaxy of Indian and foreign cultural luminaries have collected their memories to honour him with this tribute on his 60th birthday. The contributors come from many countries - the US, Australia, the UK, Japan, Finland, France, Germany, Switzerland - for Haku is a universal man. The phrase "no man is an island" might have been coined in his praise. He gives and receives like breathing.

The roll-call of writers is staggering - K.G. Subramanian, Pupul Jayakar, Mulk Raj Anand, Kapila Vatsyayan, B.N. Goswamy, Sankho Chaudhuri, Charles Correa, to name only a few of the Indians. Stella Kramrisch, Louis Cort, Martha Longeneker, Masatoshi Konishi, Edith Wyle, Jim Masselos, Oppi Untracht, are some of the foreign. Inevitably, a book, about a man whose life spans 50 years of India's Independence, is not just the story of Haku Shah but also encompasses the evolution of Indian contemporary craft and design. As Indian craft struggles to find an identity in this new, branded, global marketplace, many notable individuals have been part of that journey of renewal. They're divided into impresarios (Jayakar, Rajiv Sethi, Jyotindra Jain, Martand Singh) and nurturers (Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, Chandramouli, John Bissell). Haku, with his gentle, catalytic enthusiasm, his sensitivity to cultural origins as well as end-products, is one of the latter. Jayakar, the queen-empress of Indian craft, had an unerring eye for talented young men. She sent Haku, just one of many art college pass-outs, to one of the first weavers' service centres and later to be part of the formative years of the National Institute of Design (nid), where he's still an advisor.

Just as Invisible Order is a patchwork of scholarly articles and affectionate memoirs, the story of Saroj, the wife of a destitute mill worker whom Haku rehabilitated, making her into an innovative artist through the medium of the patchwork applique of her forefathers, is a motif that appears and reappears throughout the book. It becomes a metaphor for Haku's way of looking at craft and problem-solving - to go back to tradition, but not be afraid of breaking the mould.

Another recurring motif is the warmth and sharing of Haku's marriage. Anyone who meets Haku can see he's a happy man and much of this stems from Vilu, his wife. Their wonderful partnership and the all-embracing openness and hospitality of their home echoes through the 70-odd articles.

It would need an incurable optimist to contend (as Haku did at the Dakshinchitra Maker & Meaning Conference in Chennai where I last saw him) that a craft piece today "ultimately contains craft + life, craft + love, craft + god". The piles of tacky, imitative bric-a-brac at any craft mela decry this wishful thinking. But we need optimists and dreamers today, as India staggers towards the millennium carrying so much mess and muddle, ugliness and pain: the baggage of the past along with its visions of the future. May Haku Shah prosper and thrive. And may his small, leprechaun, khadi-clad figure, joyous and active, lead us into a beautiful, properly crafted new century.

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