In his introduction to Ela Shah’s visual autobiography “ela: Breaking Boundaries” art curator and critic Jeffrey Wechsler describes the narrative as being “intensely personal, touching on instances of difficulty and transcendence, hesitation, and determination (all) described in a manner alternately searching and forthright, rich with experience, emotion, and spirituality.”
These tensions are expressed vividly in Shah’s artistry, reflecting her deep connections to her ancestral home and Hindu upbringing, and her lived experience as a sensitive, young Indian mother transplanted with her family to the US.
Much of the turmoil of her early years in the states was generated by the clash of Indian and American cultures: exacerbated by Shah’s desire to meet societal and familial expectations as expressed in an Indian proverb. In the English translation of the Sanskrit “(She) will be a maid servant in serving her husband, like the earth in forgiveness, like a mother in giving care, and like a Celestial dancer in the bedroom.”
Kalpenn, well-known actor and producer, is Shah’s nephew. In the preface to her book “ela: Breaking Boundaries” he recalls his first memory of Shah’s work.
“My first memory of one of Ela Auntie’s pieces was a five-year-old me standing on my tiptoes. I was looking at a thin ladder sticking up from a bronze piece resting atop a table in her home. I was too short to see the whole sculpture and remained fixated on the top. ‘Where does it go’ I asked, ‘If you climb it?’ She replied, ‘The ladder can go wherever you want, beta.’
“There are, of course, multiple interpretations of various ladders, windows, roots, and Sesame Street characters throughout Ela Auntie’s work. Multiple references to boundless possibility. I was too young to understand more fully the subtexts of pain, struggle, and triumph as a child, though I do remember smiling as I thought “In all of her work, the women are superheroes.”
As Shah matured in all her varied roles—wife, mother, caregiver, artist—she expanded her artistic vocabulary and expressive range. In this month’s column, she shares three of her works, describing the motivation and emotions that compelled her to create.