Some people become a landmark in the cultural life around them in such a way that their presence is always felt and valued,and their disappearance enhances the worth of their presence.Somalal C.Shah ,avant garde painter and art teacher par excellence,who died at the ripe age of 89,was in this category.
For such people the late poet,Gani Dahinwala,had said poign-antly: Zindagino ej sachesach padgho chhe,Gani; Hoyna vyakti,ne enu nam bolaya kare. ( That ,Gani, is the real echo of a life truely lived,when a man may be no more but his name keeps cropping up.)
For more than 60 years,Somalal not only gave India superb wa-ter-colours, sketches and disciples in such an abundance that no artist or art teacher could have dreamt of leading a more meaning-fully productive life than was his.With his death,last of the major practitioners of the "wash method" in colour paintings is gone.But,he has left behind a rich line of disciples who include Khodidas Parmar,Pradyumna Dave,Natu Parikh,Urmi Parikh..The list seems endless.
The son of a lower-middle class shopkeeper in Kapadvanj in central Gujarat,Somalal's tallest contribution was the innumerable paintings and sketches he has done depicting the day-to-day life in Saurashtra.In an era before Independence when art was still re-garded as an exclusive preserve of the elite,he brought the com-mon man into his work with such an authenticity that his paintings have already become a documents of history to learn how people lived in not too distant a past.His work has often been compared with what Zaverchand Meghani did in words for the folk arts;he did it in paintings. Poet Prahlad Parekh called his works poetry in painting.
For three decades,he made Bhavnagar his home and brought on to paper in vivid water colours not only the colourful people but also the birds and animals of Kathiawad.His birds of Saurash-tra,done painstakingly and in bright colours, still remain un-matched, and are as well-known as the book of that name by Prince Dharmendrasinhji which they illustrated.
A contemporary of such artists as Rasiklal Parikh,Kanu Desai,Yagneshwar Shukla and Chhaganlal Jadav,Somalal was the last in the line that had been encouraged by Ravishankar Ra-val,often hailed as Gujarat's kalaguru.
A traditional painter,Somalal,however,was no conservative;while no despising anything ,whether modern or abstract,he would only want to stick to his own particular style,a mixture of Bengal's wash method ,further enriched by bright colours and an individuality of the artist that made it not only inimitable but also patently his own.
The tallness of the artist-and the man -in Somalal was that he was totally unassuming and without either the ego or the arrogance of his stature as an artist.Neither was he a show-man.
Ms.Urmi Parikh, a disciple of his,remembered him as a kindly uncle,dressed in white khadi zabbha and dhoti,topped with a khadi cap,a dark complexioned,wiry man.An older student ,Pradyumna Dave,retired professor of fine arts at the M.S.University in Baroda,said Somabhai was always like this. He remembered the days in Bhavnagar when his students would learn more from his talking-while-walking in the evening than from anywhere else.
Said Natu Parikh,another student,retired professor of the fine arts college in Ahmedabad: "One could not dream of having a bet-ter teacher in art than Somakaka.He had an innate kindliness and would never run down anyone,whether an abstract painter or a novice doing badly in his class." Somabhai's eldest son, Suresh Shah, an engineer by profession,remembers this trait of his father from early childhood.Innumerable number of noted and not-so-noted artists of today ,trained by Somabhai,say in unison that had it not been for the grand old man,they would never have become what they did.
Honours came to Somabhai early in life,along with recognition but these never left any burden on him.He would be till the last breath the same restless individualist,whose only regret in the past few months had been that because of bad eyesight he could not paint any longer.He was given the Rs.one lakh Ravishankar Raval state award for arts by the Gujarat government in 1990 on his 85th birthday.The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation gave him a civic reception in 1988,and he got an award from the Gujarat Lalit Kala Akadami.Much before that,in 1949, he was given the Ranjitram gold medal.
He was born on February 14,1905, in the family of Chunilal Shah,who had a grocery store (income Rs.120 a year in those days,according to Somabhai's son Suresh).There was no tradition of arts in the family where there always was a shortage of every-thing.Mother Jekorben had to bring up her son and three daughters in a household that could not buy more than 125 grammes of milk a day. Quoting his father,Suresh says:" They had to make do with-out even vegetables on many occasions;rotla and pickle being the staple."
The young boy,Somalal,was fond of drawing a lotus in his exer-cise book from his earliest days.Nobody could say where he got his inspiration or who guided him. "It seemed a sort of inborn talent to paint in him", says Madhav Ramanuj,poet and a professor of finer arts in Ahmedabad.Though without much guidance,the young man was a determined soul; he would merrily go on doing drawings even while evening duty at his father's store,unmindful of the pos-sibility that some buyer may cheat him by not paying the full amount for provisions purchased.
After passing the matriculation,he came to Ahmedabad to join a college for a degree in arts (not art),but hid heart was not in the books; it was in the water colours and palette.A sympathiser,Harilal M.Desai,sent the shy,hard-working youth of few words to the school of arts in Bombay.By that time,he had met Ravishankar Ra-val and had impressed him with his paintings,especially because these had been done without any formal training. The first recogni-tion of his talent had come a little before that in the early 1910s when a silver medal was given to a work of his at a students arts exhibition in Umreth.His output impressed the authorities in the Bombay school so much that he was admitted to the second year directly.
By this time, he was fixed on following Bengal's wash method of painting.After a year in Bombay, Somalal shifted to Kala Bhavan in Baroda,in 1927,where a noted painter, Pramod Kumar Chatterjee really initiated him in the work of his life-time.To further hone his skills,Soomalal later went to Calcutta to study for eight months at Oriental Art Society,set up by Avanindranath Tagore,living in a godown;he would sleep with his shoes on so that the rats infesting the godown would not bite him.He learnt a lot about the wash method,and eventually earned high praise from Avanindranath for his painting,Bride.The painting today is in the collection of the Bhavnagar maharaja.After seeing the work,Tagore told Somabhai:" You need not go to any institution to learn any more.Learn from Nature and life because while life is an ocean,an institution is only comparable to a pot." It was in 1929.Nanabhai Bhatt was on the look-out for an ideal art teacher for his innovating educational insti-tution,Dakshina Moorti Vidyarthi Bhavan in Bhavnagar. He stayed on in the princely town for thirty long years, later teaching the princes ,and then joining Alfred High School.He was an ideal teacher,recalls Khodidas Parmar,pursuing nothing but paintings in all his waking hours. He had a keen and observant eye,registering minutiae of the daily life around him in Gohilwad and Saurash-tra.The colours of their attire as also also of the landscape made a deep impression on Somabhai,further refining his wash method,adding bright colours,giving a symmetrical proportion to his compositions,teaching him a great deal about the importance of a camera-like registering of details of anatomy. Said Natu Parikh,"He would carefully study and imbibe the details,the colours and the proportions of everything around him before doing anything."
Said Khodidas;" He began putting on paper what he considered to be thelife-force in the things,people,animals, birds and even landscape around him." The result was masterpieces like Chhaiyo, Govalan, Mindhalbandho, Saarika, Vanjara,among others of his hundreds of works over the years. Ms Urmi Parikh,quoted Somab-hai himself about how these came about."He would say, 'In the evening,I would be on the terrace,with the sun about to set.The rays of a dying strobe would be trying to ward off the oncoming dusk,as cows came home,kicking up clouds of dust.This would in-terest me immensely. Then, in the mornings and evenings, my mind would go on photographing sub-consciously the Bharwad and Mer women,walking in a musical gait,with shining brass pitchers balanced on the head,their colourful odhni flying in the wake.All these colours and compositions would later get into my paintings."
His students agreed that his eyes would see the beauty of soul even in most commonplace of subjects and objects.This ,they felt, was not just the result of innate intuition; it also was a mental disci-pline that could empty his mind of all other things to enable it to be filled forever with indelible pictures of a grazing goat,or a running buffalo.He also had the ability to retrieve these images and bring-ing them on to the paper,put in appropriate colours so that one will feel the life-force in the painting even if one had never felt in the original scene.
Pradyumna Dave said that Sombhai pursued his profession like a yogi,detached but fully immersed in it. He would sometimes take as much as two months over a painting if it did not satisfy his own critical judgement.Natu Parikh has seen him washing off colours even if others had found the work to be fine."He was never outward oriented,or do anything to make a buyer happy or complete a work in a deadline," added Dave.
Said Urmi Parikh:"Somakaka had an uncanny ability to bring to life ordinary scenes and characters,be they birds,animals,human beings or even a balcony of an old house.He would also do a lot of paintings on historical and mythological characters such as Karna and Kunti. Nothing was alien to him." His son,Suresh ,recalled the old man had done superb ink drawing to illustrate history text books for children.
He liked soft contrast in his paintings,even though he was a master of bright colours.Till the colours and tone meshed, he would go on working. He would say:"I believe the picture frame should stand out on a wall, and the picture should stand out in a frame.In the paintings,in the same manner,the characters should stand out from the rest of the background.Then only can it become an out-standing work." Most of his were.
He insisted on making a painting that would be pleasing to look at not only from a distance,but also from close proximity.A stickler for perfection,he also knew where and how to leave things unfin-ished at places in a picture so that the painting would have a cer-tain raw and fresh quality about it.His sense of colour was so sharp that he,according to Suresh Sheth,art critic and professor of fine arts,could perceive difference in tone in the different hues of even white.
His studio on the first of his house at Diwakar society in Paldi area of Ahmedabad had a deserted look after his death.There were a couple of wooden beds,and nothing else,although in the storing space under the beds were caches of his works-- paint-ing,sketches,some finished,many unfinished. He had the facility to work on several projects simultaneously and could switch from one painting to another.In later years,Somabhai had taken to start working around 2 p m after a cup of teach; he would sit on the floor in a lotus position and on a low stool in front would be the board with a paper on it. Around him would be cakes of water col-our,tubes,a big palette,a flower pot full of brushes of different sizes and two bowls of water to wash out the used brushes.He would get lost in work.Sometimes he would start working in the morning too.That was at the age past 85. His eyesight had failed him,leaving him with a lasting regret, said Dr. Dinesh Parikh, a medical scientist who knew him well, that he could not paint as much as he wished to.
Quite early in his life, painting had ceased to be work, a chore; it had become a hobby,then a profession and then an obsession. The magnificent obsession survives in the form of hundreds of paintings, sketches, illustrations, and will keep his memory green for a long time now that he is gone.