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Shanti Dave: the calligraphic modernist

The first ever retrospective of the artist traces his journey from figuration to abstraction, and explores the role of script in his paintings

Shanti Dave at work. Photo: from the DAG archives

By Abhilasha Ojha

LAST PUBLISHED 18.07.2023  |  04:30 PM IST

Last week, at the opening of the first-ever retrospective of 92-year-old modernist, Shanti Dave, many in the gathering felt emotional. It was quite an experience, hearing him talk about nearly 80 of his paintings with a childlike enthusiasm. Titled, Shanti Dave: Neither Earth, Nor Sky, the show captures the essence of a prolific career, spanning 1950-2014, and traces his journey from figuration to abstraction. The works can be viewed at DAG’s Janpath gallery till 10 September.

This is not a solitary showcase of the artist by DAG. In 2019, it had exhibited some of his works in a solo exhibition at Art Dubai, which is one of Middle East’s leading art fairs.

“Though he remains one of the most underrated Indian artists, I have always felt confident about him. His style and technique are unparalleled. He is among the finest abstractionists in Indian modern art, the first one to incorporate beeswax into his practice," says Ashish Anand, CEO and managing director, DAG.

According to him, in the 1960s-70s, Dave was one of the most sought-after artists, getting some of the most important commissions. And yet somewhere along the way, he began to fade out of public memory. “In recent times, though, interest in his work is once again rising with paintings coming up frequently in auctions," adds Anand. Among the various paintings and murals done by Dave in his career, the Indo-Pak War series from 1965 highlight his strength with colour, form, and script.

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A few days before the show’s opening, I meet the artist at his south Delhi home. Dressed in an orange kurta-pyjama, he’s insistent in a lot of matters—giving shagan for my daughter’s sixth birthday; urging me to finish a bowlful of homemade mawa mithai (Indian sweetmeat), savouries, and masala chai, all of which his daughter has prepared for us. He also dissuades me firmly from touching his feet—“tum meri beti jaisi ho, devi bhi (you are like my daughter, and a goddess, too)".

Devi, or goddess, has been significant to his practice. From his childhood days in Badapura, when he used to hold his mother’s hand and travel to a devi temple with his family, to the time when he would paint, spurred on by the goddess’s shakti (power)—his art is steeped in spirituality. Dave proudly shows me the book that DAG has brought out on him—with essays by the curator of the show, Jesal Thacker, besides others by noted Hindi poet, writer, essayist, and scriptwriter Udayan Vajpeyi, art writer Meera Menezes, and Kishore Singh, DAG’s senior vice-president. He turns each page slowly and lovingly with his shaking, trembling hands. His face beams with pride, and I notice that despite his weak eyesight, he’s squinting to take a closer look, even asking me to read a couple of sentences on some of the paintings that he wants me to take note of.

According to Thacker, Dave was the first Indian artist to explore script in his art. As an art scholar, Thacker has always been intrigued by the use of calligraphy by several Indian artists such as Shankar Paliskar, V. S. Gaitonde, and K. C. S. Paniker. She defines Dave as a “calligraphic modernist". “Shanti Dave proposes a new genre of abstraction… it is an important exhibition that allows us to look at his abstraction through a different lens—one that doesn’t necessarily travel from West to East but vice versa," she says.

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In this context, Dave feels that it was his early days as a signboard painter that inspired him to leave all apprehensions about incorporating the written word in art behind. “Rang aur akshara ka bhay bahaut pehle nikal gaya tha kyunki mera canvas hamesha badaa raha (The fear of colours and script was over very early on because my canvas [of signboards and billboards] was always big)," he says. Married early (he was 18 years old; his bride, Sushila, 13), the artist joined the first batch of the Faculty of Fine Arts (Vadodara) in 1950 under the tutelage of N.S. Bendre and K. G. Subramanyan. He kept experimenting “like a scientist", reading about techniques and mediums, eventually falling in love with the encaustic medium. “Main din raat rangon ke bare mein sochta aur kuch na kuch karta rehta (I would think of colours day and night and keep experimenting)," he says. It’s no surprise then that he dabbled in several mediums and genres, working as a painter, muralist, and printmaker.

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'Untitled', oil and encaustic on canvas (1960). Courtesy: DAG

He was commissioned to do a mural for the Parliament House in the mid-1950s. However, the turning point came when he travelled extensively to the US and Europe to work on murals commissioned by Air India in the 1960s. The anecdotes of those times are delightful—from borrowing money from F. N. Souza in London when he ran out of cash to living with Mohan Samant and eating pizzas in the US when his passport, cash, air tickets, and other belongings, got stolen. He also found a warm friendship in author Ved Mehta and sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar. He narrates these stories, perhaps, also to reinforce the idea of how artists can leave professional differences aside to help one another.

Travelling transformed him, and he soon became one of the fastest-selling artists of his times. It was Cairo, however, which left Dave mesmerised, and steered him towards the encaustic medium. He recreated the technique used in mummification on canvas. While many were intrigued by his encaustic technique, critics such as Richard Bartholomew, as Singh’s essay reveals, weren’t particularly impressed, dismissing the artist’s accolades, including the Lalit Kala Akademi National Award that he won thrice in a row in the 1950s.

“He deserves his day in the sun. Now (with this retrospective) his legacy is honoured," says Singh. Going by the number of people enquiring about the artist’s paintings at the launch, that seems quite evident.

Shanti Dave: Neither Earth, Nor Sky can be viewed at DAG’s Janpath gallery till 10 September.

Abhilasha Ojha is a Delhi-based culture writer.

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