Prabha Shah

Prabha Shah

Location: India


Organic Growth

40" x 40". Oil on Canvas

This is Lutyens’ Delhi, with its gateway and large slabs of stone brought from Rajasthan. And be assured, someone will come to take the clothes off the line. The column in the middle is a living thing that has grown in the shape of a bird’s hanging nest. The ‘growth’, however, is in the colours reminiscent of the greyish-blue of electronica. Where is this city headed on its own?

Riverine “Riverine”

50" x 16". Oil on Canvas.

The all-important texture is steeped in a muddy brown. The slope of the hill on top, skimmed by a brown whiff of dust, doesn’t correspond with the dark jetty at the bottom. Another hill peeking over the top unsettles it even more. The balance, instead, is wrought from the radical vertical slice of a view. And the hint of treasure and access at the bottom. The right of the second door from the left dips into the reflective water in the front. Is it flowing at all?
A rusty river flows calmly next to a city’s mountainous slum. The river betrays
forms beneath. But other forms on it – the pole in the middle, the square slab below – hang on their own. The plank of a dark plane juts in at an angle at the bottom. But what’s there at the back near the top? Is it the golden dust of the sun on a higher, pristine peak? The soft glow reaching for the top belongs in another world. This side of the slum, layers of paint sit atop each other to absorb much light. The darkness is pierced only by specks and strips of a brilliant blue.

Granaries “Granaries”

With a division of space that she usually accomplishes by distending one side of a doorframe longer than the other, Prabha brings forward the left plain of the house at front. Two isosceles triangles rise through the middle to cast shadows that the sun cannot explain. No surface is an untextured flat – not even the door that’s blinded by the light at the bottom. The dry rubbish at the front is enveloped in the blueish white of the left field. It’s as if we are seeing the edge of a city through Prabha’s special prism.

Suburbia “Suburbia”

40" x 40". Oil on canvas

Unpainted cement surfaces, iron and steel, and maybe asbestos, too. All add up to heaped blocks of suburban flats that are a recurrent subject to Prabha. But the hide- and-seek orange that she usually reserves for edges of tiled roof creeps into this impersonal dystopia. The whole surface is treated in strips – at the centre, and to its left, bottom and right. The sky can be peeled off, almost. A not-so-common texture for the painter in not-so-common, rectangular colour fields.?

Knock “Knock”

24" x 35". Oil on canvas.

Yet another hint of her Rajasthani roots set amid peeling surfaces. The window is to be knocked on from the side of the viewer, but who is on the other side, who will open it? A hint of occupation is there in the rings on the window frame, coloured differently. Rust bathes the right surface in a different light and the peeling pilasters betray a mosaic to the left. What about the other frames? Are they to be opened too? ?

Requiem “Requiem”

46" x 36". Oil on canvas

Emerging Blue “Emerging Blue”

60" x 40". Oil on Canvas.

There’s a story behind each window of abstract blocks, many of them structures Prabha would expand upon in other frames. Some of the stories ring truer when framed in sensitive outlines beyond the regulation windows. The most hopeful thing is the blue sky that pierces the frame and, maybe, keeps the realities of the blocks separate.?

Deduction By Glass “Deduction By Glass”

40" x 40". Oil on canvas

You are looking through a glass that’s blocked off in the concave surfaces of squares. But what is it that you are looking at? The play between the abstract fields of texture and the hints of a Surreal landscape is heightened in this painting. If everything else is seen through the glass, how do we have the glassy, beady pinheads on this side of it? As if, it’s a giant jigsaw — to solve it, you have to first accept that the blocks aren’t as square as they may seem.?

The Foundry “The Foundry”

36" x 46". Oil on canvas.

You can magically see through the tinsheds lining a foundry wall. The blue wheels and their gears are molted in Prabha’s own style. Ah, there’s the brilliance of wood amid the peeling tins. While horizontal while wire at the top and a trailing blue angled one near the bottom do not split the surface. Instead, they are used as tools to lend depth to the walls beyond.

Three Skies “Three Skies”

40" x 40". Oil on canvas

For one of her most Surrealistic canvases in this collection, Prabha folds reality at will. The three localities of the three edges aren’t too different from each other on the social plane — but they do not share their skies. Even the birds on the horizontal one cannot fly into the other skies. What’s in store for each of these residential quarters? How do they talk to each other??

Will She Be Back “Will She Be Back”

25" x 47". Oil on canvas

Someone surely has gone through these glass doors. Will she come back? The joyous pink speaks a language Prabha had suppressed for decades. This is one of the most effervescent expressions of that corner of her palette in a long time. The doors are shut, but you can almost hear the rustling wind through the swaying pink beyond.

Colour My Mind “Colour My Mind”

60" x 30". Oil on canvas.

The division of space by colour is to painting what light is to photography. But what, beyond science, dictates which colour would represent what in our minds? Here’s Prabha’s interpretation of the sky above a set of low-lying houses. The rise of the heavenly staircase to the right corresponds with the incline of the red middle-ground. But what balances it below that layer? Apparently nothing. This is where the artist’s innate sense of counterpoint — a sense that may not be apparent to the viewer at first glance — gets a mature run.

Gurgaon “Gurgaon”

46" x 36". Oil on canvas.

You roll up the tattered blinds to see a new city rising, gleaming with steel and glass. It’s like a hologram, an imprint from the future hovering like a mirage in the distance. But it’s aspiration or gullibility on this side of the blinds, from the landowner-peasant’s vantage, which fathered the new blocks. On this side is a clear palimpsest of the past. The interplay between the fine lines of the chik at the top and the solid building blocks at the bottom highlight the tension between the traditional and the modern.

Reaching for Something in Distance “Reaching for Something in Distance”

40" x 40". Oil on canvas

One can’t be too sure of the suggested movement in this one. The steps rise to the right, but the railings are slanted the other way. The blocks in the middle curve right but don’t go all the way. The familiar Harlequin checks in the middle distance – they, too, don’t have an origin or a destination. The only slab of certainty is the textured block foregrounded on the left. But that surface isn’t quite the same as the one facing the viewer from the side of the steps. What stains separate the two??

Rift Valley “Rift Valley”

48" x 48". Oil on canvas.

A massive schism that developed millions of years across the tectonic plate in East Africa decided the future of our planet. The Rift Valley, a place where elements colluded to give birth to all life forms, is the cradle of civilizations. It’s where cool waters splashed with hot earth for thousands of years; where layers of sediment settled to form a new set of rocks. And where beings that lived on oxygen first came about. Wait a minute. Is it really about that? Isn’t it about cracked wood screwed to place? Well, what’s the difference?

Secessionist “Secessionist”

40" x 40". Oil on canvas.

We have three bands, a central block that holds together the bands, and a representation of life in the middle. We have a unique emblem awash in red, which is life, which is our colour. Shall we break away and propose a new nation? We need not be as the others are. We need not have a sickle or a hammer in there. We need not match the orange to the left with the pink on the right. Let us be different. We need not frame the molten bits in the centre all the way round. How far do we take this thing? Where is all this headed?

Peace in Blue “Peace in Blue”

46" x 36". Oil on canvas.

Did you, as a child, ever see figures in a small-stone, random mosaic? If you did, you would know how difficult it may be to see anything else once you see your own figure in the apparent randomness. This brilliant mosaic of blue invites us to play the game. It anchors the ornate pillar and goes beyond the rough square it originally lay within. Two-dimensional images sit atop three-dimensional ones, and fields of colour that wouldn’t usually be found next to each other bleed into each other.

Dusk to Dawn “Dusk to Dawn”

46" x 36". Oil on canvas.

What do you get when you throw in a number of textures, colours, forms and techniques that you have employed again and again in various canvases you have painted over decades? Maybe you get a theme that you have painted again and again: heaped and haphazard apartment blocks of a city built in haste. Here, rules are meant to be broken. Here, the day falls and the night breaks. All that emerges while the artist sticks to her own rules, down to the three red blocks at the top. In her own way, Prabha pits dimensions against each other.

After the Storm “After the Storm”

46" x 36"/ Oil on canvas.

This is another division of space that’s Prabha’s own. The textures, too, are to be found elsewhere in her oeuvre, as are the patterns on the tiles on top of the doorway. Note the vertical ribbons of textures on the top that are narrowing towards the right. As if, unmindfully, Prabha is pressing the space, indicating a greater world outside those stone walls. But is it really so? Look again: a blazing wind has passed and uprooted the tree with its power. But the stone facade stands erect and silent. A testimony to things that endure.

And I am Glad “And I am Glad”

46" x 36". Oil on canvas.

A rock-face texture that gathers moss holds the attention. Is that the white shimmer of a waterfall to the left? Even if the streaks are not water and the moss does not promise orchids flowering in their midst, this is better than what could have been. The streaks reveal the painter’s sure hand – there when the drips need to be guided, otherwise letting them roll down. A planned construction isn’t that far off – the rectangles and blocks at the bottom are surely constructed. But then, how did they find their way into this frame?

Creeping Marble “Creeping Marble”

50" x 50". Oil on Canvas.

The Mughals mostly constructed in red stone. But when Shah Jahan came along in the 17th century, he shifted to white marble. It changed architecture in the Indian subcontinent forever. But in his later years, the emperor became a captive in one of his own creations. Prabha uses a traditional Rajasthani doorway on a rusty red facade where the white is creeping up, like a poor man’s marble. The artist’s trademark of asymmetric threshold is there. As is the feeling that this painting is a surface that sits on top of another.

City Greens “City Greens”

46" x 36". Oil on canvas.

City spaces and nature combine often in Prabha’s works. But they usually segue into each other, creating a dreamlike flow between them. Here it’s possibly closer to reality. But there’s a dream in this painting, too. It’s the swirl of an aquatic moss across a wall, which has sprung from a crack in the otherwise stolid stone blocks. As if nature wants to come over and touch the man-made green floor. Someone has left a letter on the floor. Like in so many other works of Prabha, it’s a human absence that allows us the space to build our own stories. Whose letter do you think it is??

Makar Sakranti “Makar Sakranti”

46" x 36". Oil on Canvas.

This harvest festival in the middle of January is celebrated in various ways around India. Kite-flying forms an essential part of the festivities in several parts of the country. Prabha takes the motif and tones down the light in her inimical way, making way for an almost abstract representation of an usually loud and busy event. The kites are also depicted on a riveted frame indoors, draining an outdoor activity of the sun it usually gets. A hint of her trademark technique lies in the positioning different planes. The light coming out of the horizontal one at the bottom suggests, there is indeed sunshine in another plane.

Red Wood “Red Wood”

36" x 46". Oil on canvas.

A number of textures jostle for attention. The red, not used so extensively in most of Prabha’s works, draws the eyes. But what stuns the senses is the almost textureless white slab floating in the middle of it all, like a seat. Above is the sharp texture of dry wood, below there’s a wet green and an uneasy eddy of briny froth. The busy textures are all in reference to the hovering thin slab.?

Marble Palace “Marble Palace”

36" x 46". Oil on canvas.

Parts of a city where middle-class houses are coming up are often littered with shops selling granite and marble slabs of various shapes. The slabs lean against each other outside, inviting passersby. It’s a study in how a line can travel in an abstract painting, hinting at parallels in another plane, perhaps in another colour. Together they fall within the essential form that commands the whole painting and create surfaces that speak to each other. The blue and white plays tricks with the warmer colours around, defying them. But the green? That’s surely a dare – a colour that doesn’t belong with the rest of them and is not allowed to fill a complete form.

The Space Within “The Space Within”

46" x 36". Oil on canvas.

Three windows overlook magnificent foliage. A white welt rips across the face of the wall like a cold wound. What do the windows hold within? The clothesline on the right betrays human absence. The window within the central window is allegorical. By the time we reach the left window we don’t know what we want to read into it. A purer form of abstraction takes hold. It’s reflected by the courageous vermilion at the bottom left that threatens to upset the balance of the frame. Shadows of the windows and of the chips below give off the air of another dimension.

Floating Debris “Floating Debris”

40" x 40". Oil on canvas.

A truly meditative frame. Apart from the flat, light- absorbing blue-grey of the background, there are two textures used in this painting – one of what looks like a cut-stone surface or overlapping gauges, and the other of a mossy rock. Both of them familiar in Prabha’s language. But it’s the use of space that makes the viewer’s mind float serenely, without a wave on the surface. The pieces in the middle are like rocks across a pool painted with overlapping horizontal strokes, leading one to an unseen other side. Is that the key to the meditation? No, it’s the shaft of blue-grey towards the right that brings out the frame’s inner balance. That’s what anchors the quietude.

Rustle “Rustle”

46" x 36".

A masterful play in allocating space – both in movement of the loose fronds and in nestling the room with a door amid them. Within the lines falling in intent motion from the top right are cut-aways suggested by separation of colour. The motion in it all is mesmerising, though at times it seems that they are the surface of a metal or of a translucent stone cut with streams of wayward water over time. More than suggested motion, there’s sound in this painting, even in the leaves flying about in and out of the doorway- without-a-door. And that’s remarkable coming from Prabha, who cannot hear.

Flying into a Tangle “Flying into a Tangle”

30" x30". Oil on Canvas.

It’s world shaped by humans – the traditional windows and columns, the more modern and silently-swaying curtains of a chiffon-like fabric. But there’s no life, no human activity immediately suggested by those. That comes from the kite tangled in the crossing wires. Someone must have flown it and been disheartened when the soaring kite was caught in the wires. It’s a disappointment, but we hardly linger on kites. Life moves on in overlapping and ongoing periods of the blues.?

Walled up. “Walled up.”

50" x 24". Oil on canvas.

This is a pure play of textures. Most of them are known if you are familiar with Prabha’s oeuvre, but it’s the mix that’s courageous. A broken archway, topped by peeling pilasters, is walled up with red cement mixed with ferrous oxide, like floors were laid in parts of India long ago. They used to be plastered with hand, which, if not well trained, would leave an undulating texture. That’s what is recalled in the archway in the middle, with mildew gathering on it with years of abandonment. Like with edges in Prabha’s paintings, the colours and textures bleed on to distinct surfaces. And together they hold up the wall, which itself stands for melancholia.

Land, Water and God “Land, Water and God”

50" x 24". Oil on Canvas.

Though this was painted years before flash floods claimed hundreds of lives and devastated vast tracts of built-up land near temples in the Himalayas in 2013, it depicts the horror of such a situation all too plainly. A huge gush of water ploughing through habitations and upsetting the neat geometry of man-made streets is a reminder, once more, of the clash between nature and the rampant expansion of man’s concrete jungles all over the world. The frothy blue surface, too, is ripped across by a white welt. Nothing is too sacred in front of onrushing nature. Everything may perish, even in the land of god.?

Pick the Leaf “Pick the Leaf”

50" x 60". Oil on Canvas.

Three vertical strips portraying horizontal ones within sit beside each other. The one on right, with buntings, promise a celebration. They are gone in the left-most strip. But the one in the middle is not from either of these worlds. It strikes out by itself. Only, nature intrudes with the memory of life – the dry leaf and a half in the foreground which reminds one of what was once fresh and green. If you pick the leaves, the painting becomes more ordered, more man- made. But then that would be the rub.

Advancing Mist “Advancing Mist”

36" x 46". Oil on canvas.

A temple at dawn. The priest hasn’t arrived yet. The bells are silent. The mist plays peek-a-boo with timeless stone carvings that are massed on one side of the frame. Visibility goes down progressively. Is there a devotee waiting for blessings in the distance? We will never know. The sombre colours are pierced by a shiny golden strip hanging on the left. It’s what takes the realistic depiction of the stone pillars to an abstract level that’s the painter’s own.

Turning Point “Turning Point”

46" x 36". Oil on Canvas.

A rusty red wall leading to a traditional arched way and a modern rectangular frame in cloudy white sit next to each other on different planes. Different realities overlap. Where goes one turn – from which to which? The painter’s oft- repeated themes of doorways and steps take on a distinct play in this painting. But as elsewhere, the boundary between the two planes is not obvious and complete. Therein lies the unresolved tension.?

Thin While Line “Thin While Line”

40" x 40". Oil on canvas.

With a texture of homespun cotton, with a base colour that’s neither clearly fresh and alive or past-due-date, Prabha tilts towards the abstract. The leaves and the towers may be another interplay between nature and man-made reality. Whatever the inner take, the sheer white line holds the balance of the frame delicately. Everything else is a transmission from another dimension; just the white line is clear and sure. But so much uncertainty doesn’t disturb, instead it speaks of a calm that’s the painter’s own.

Ionian Blue “Ionian Blue”

46" x 36". Oil on canvas.

The Sanskrit word for a curtain is ‘yavanika’, that which the Yavans or Ionians, one of the ancient Greek peoples, brought. Here, the finely-woven and finely-bordered curtain has something in common with the lapping waves of blue underneath. The folds of the blue are reminiscent of the delicate but sure folds of clothes in the earliest Buddhist iconography from the Gandhara period. It’s not a deep blue wrought of many pigments, it’s a basic, unashamed blue of the Mediterranean. It’s washing over the cobbled stones of history. Earth washed by water, over which air blows. Just the fire is missing.

Let There be Beauty “Let There be Beauty”

36" x 46". Oil on Canvas.

There’s a hint of beauty in the humdrum of unkempt, ad-hoc living. The blue of the pipe to the left corresponds to the door-frame, but then, to the right, it brings up the fatter, fading design. Notice closely and you will find a difficult balance between all colours of the vibgyor. Touches and soft swathes of the warmer colours are balanced by the sure blue and mossy green massed on the right. It’s a frame balanced on lengthy contemplation, something that comes only after going back to the painting time and again.?