Introducing ‘From The Easel Of’: monthly column by Ela Shah

Ela Shah

Welcome to “From the Easel of” a new monthly column written by acclaimed Indian-American artist Ela Shah. Shah was born in Bombay, India, where she earned her B.A in Psychology and Sociology with distinction from SNDT Women’s University along with a diploma in fine arts. Shah moved to the US in 1973 with husband Bipin Shah, MD, children, and mother-in-law. The young family settled in Montclair, New Jersey where she subsequently received an M.A in sculpture from Montclair State University. Shah is the subject of the award-winning film documentary “ela: breaking boundaries” and is the author of a companion book of the same name.

An American citizen, Ela’s art reflects the two cultures that have shaped her life. “Hers is a hybrid universe of the imagination where comic book heroes may mix with the gods of Hinduism and transport may be offered by an elephant or a yellow school bus” said art curator Jeffry Weschler.  Her extensive oeuvre includes painting, sculpture in bronze, wood and ceramic, video, and installations.

In today’s inaugural column we talk with Ela about her artistic journey, the challenges of being a woman artist and how her work reflects the integration of her Female-Indian-American experience.

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Q: Welcome Ela. How did you first get interested in art?

“I think my mother influenced me when I was young because she was very artistic. She always decorated the house and created beautiful rangoli on the floor for occasions like Diwali and my sisters and I always got involved and would help her…. When I started going to school, art was always my favorite subject and I learned by sketching what I saw around me. I studied and copied the work of Indian masters… and was inspired by festivals, Indian mythology and the seasons.”

Q: Did your parents and family encourage you?

“Being an artist wasn’t considered a proper path for a girl.  But my family saw that whenever I was sad or confused, I’d turn to my art to find answers. Eventually my family realized how important art was for me… My sisters are now my biggest supporters!”

Q: I learned that you married relatively young and that your marriage was a love marriage. Tell us about that time in your life.

“My husband, Bipin, was a neighbor of ours when I was growing up.  He had the same dream as me—to do something meaningful with his life…We went ahead and married even though he was Jain and I was Hindu. It wasn’t easy at first, but we are still together after many years.”

Q: You and your husband moved to a small village in India after he finished his medical training in Bombay. What motivated the move?

“Since our dream was to have a meaningful life and help people, we moved to a small rural village (Cambay.) We lived there for seven years. Bipin was the only doctor with advanced training in internal medicine and people lined up for hours from all around to see him…We got a lot of love from the people there and many of them and the doctors who joined us are still good friends.”

 Q: And what led you to leave India for the US?

“We began our family in Cambay, but our first daughter died there when she was an infant. After our second daughter was bitten by a snake and came close to death, Bipin began to think seriously about continuing his studies and coming to the US…and we arrived in the early ‘70s.”

 Q: Were you able to continue your art in America?

“No…not for a long time. Bipin was busy building his career and I was in charge of running the home with two small children and my widowed mother-in-law. It was a difficult time for me without friends and my family. The way I usually describe it is to say the colors left me.”

Jab Tak Hai Card (As Long as I Have the Card), 2013. Gold Leaf and Mixed Media on Wood, 60″ X 55″ X 1.5″. A “Desi” girl, clothed in a hybrid of Indian and American garments, emerges from a puzzle with a computer and an H1B Visa card. The workaddresses the uncertainty, enthusiasm, pleasures and pains of getting a temporary visa. The puzzled woman is trying to fit in the frame and confidently assert her presence. In 2013. this work was a winner of the Smithsonian Museum’s Asian American Heritage program.Photo: Provided by Ela Shah

Q: You eventually received an advanced arts degree from Montclair State University. What changed?

“As the years passed, I grew more confident living here, being a wife and mother, and managing our home.  I realized that I had never lost my desire to make things beautiful and meaningful. I needed my art and so with Bipin’s encouragement I began my studies and eventually, the colors returned to me.”

Q: Much of your work is clearly informed by female, Indian and American motifs. How do you balance those elements in your work?

“I wouldn’t say that I consciously balance different elements…more that my work reveals what I’m thinking and feeling.  Because I was born, raised, and married in India, I suppose you could say that my work is inherently Indian. But as a contemporary artist living and working in America, I am obviously integrating my experiences here as a wife and mother…I am a proud housewife and mature artist, and I tell my stories through my art.”

Q: You work in everything from paint to bronze and multimedia. What drives you to expand your artistic language into new areas? 

” I love to learn and I especially love learning new ways of telling my stories. But no matter what technique I learn, I don’t sacrifice my artistic vision by trying to learn each to perfection. That’s what I see as the difference between being an artist and being a craftsman…I keep learning because people are communicating in so many new and different ways and if I want to stay current and reach new people, I always have to keep learning.”

If you would like to learn more about Ela Shah, her life and artistic journey, visit www.elashah.com

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