Sahil Shah: From Santacruz to Samurais

Sahil Shah: From Santacruz to Samurais

A graduate of the Art Center College of Design in California, Sahil lives and works out of his studio in Bombay. With a vast range of inspirations from Japanese Ukiyo-e art, comic books and posters, to metal, rap and reggae, Sahil often creates bleak, dystopic worlds, that are never missing his sharp sense of humour.

KS: Tell us a little about growing up — when did you decide you wanted to pursue art and design seriously?

Sahil: I was born and raised in Bombay. I’m currently at my third address on the same street in Santacruz. My dad’s side of the family is straight-talking people of logic and science, mostly doctors and engineers. My mother’s side of the family is more colourful; lots of artists, writers, teachers, social activists, so I was always encouraged in my artistic endeavours, although academics were paramount in the school years. I went to Bombay Scottish, kindergarten through to the 10th, then the briefest of stints at Jai Hind College (studying science, of all things) where I managed to flunk out in my first year in spectacular fashion. I’d wanted to study arts at Xavier’s, but was discouraged from doing so. The prevailing attitude at the time was, “What are you going to do with a liberal arts degree?? Teach? Be a journalist??” I wish I’d stuck to my guns.

Having flunked out and with no clear direction in life, I studied commerce at Poddar College in Matunga. It was a total waste of 5 years from an academic point of view, I attended some 30 odd classes in the 5 years, and somehow managed to pass with an utterly useless (to me at least) B.Com degree. Throughout, I’d drawn and painted for pleasure, and knew I had an aptitude for it, and finally, at 22, I decided that it was what I wanted to do full time.


Sahil Shah was our first guest artist for Sketchbook Sundays.

KS: How did you decide on California? What was it like, studying there?

Sahil: Once I decided I wanted to do art full time, the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena really stood out (plus I was seeing this girl in LA at the time, which had no small part to play in my decision), so I spent the next few months putting together a portfolio and was accepted into the Bachelors program in Fine Art. I started in 2007 with a focus on painting. The Fine Art program concentrated more on critical thinking rather than technique; if a student wished to gain technique, such as figure drawing or welding, we were able to take those classes with the Illustration or the Industrial Design departments. While we were forced to take certain classes, a large part of the course could be customized to suit individual interests, which was great.

But it was hardcore man, the first year was like bootcamp. Barely any sleep, up to 10 hours of studio classes a day, homework all night, repeat. Weekends were for catching up on homework. Lots of people quit, everyone thought about quitting at some time or another. Humbling too, to see so many people at least as talented as you, if not more. Here were some really amazing, patient, knowledgeable and kind teachers there, all of whom were working professionals in the field they taught, not just academics. It was such a radical change from the Indian system I was used to. The 4 years I spent there were amazing- not always fun, not always happy, but fully immersed in art and surrounded by a community of like-minded and talented individuals. It’s that community I miss most. And the gorgeous hillside campus, with wild deer and coyotes, and the Friday Hooligan’s football game in the sculpture garden.


Some of Sahil's architectural inspired fine art landscape works

KS: What made you return to set up a studio in Bombay?

Sahil: I graduated from Art Center in 2010, when the American economy was visibly bad. And a B.F.A. in Fine Art doesn’t exactly make you easily employable. Bombay seemed like it presented more opportunity like things were just starting up and just about to get exciting. Having said all that, like the initial move to LA, the move back was also motivated in no small way by a girl (different girl). I can report that it was a good decision.


Sahil's sketches from his sketchbook

KS: You’ve said you’re inspired by ukiyo-e prints and comic books. What about these two art forms did you respond to? Do these two come together at any point in your work?

Sahil: There are a lot of similarities between the two styles- they’re visually striking, there’s generally a narrative involved, both are figurative, and in both, the line has a strong presence. The use of colour is generally simplified. I’ve always been fascinated by Japanese culture, especially their attitude toward art and craft, simultaneously attempting to achieve perfection while knowing that it is the small imperfections that give character, make things interesting. Not to mention ninjas and samurais and the yakuza and all that cool shit. Hergé, the creator of the Tintin series, is one of my all-time favourite illustrators. Simple, yet not simplistic, and an amazing eye for detail. These are often the sources I look at when trying to tackle specific subject matter, like, how did Hokusai handle water or trees, how does Chikanobu deal with perspective, or how did Hergé show light and shadow with a relatively simplified use of colour. In my skeleton series, there are influences from Japanese printmakers like Takiyasha and Kawanabe Kyosai, done in a stark, black heavy style that draws from pulp newspaper comic strips, like Lee Falk’s Mandrake and the Phantom.


More sketches!

KS: You’ve painted a number of cityscapes, or incorporated them in your work (including one in the mural at Mothership). How’d you get so caught up in looking at the city?

Sahil: I’m from Bombay, how could I not?? Like most born and raised Bombay folk, I have a love-hate relationship with this city. It’s not just a place, it’s a character in my life. And the architecture has so much to do with the feel of a place. I’m drawn to the seriality in architecture and the breaks in that seriality, the apparent sameness and the subtly idiosyncratic nature of the structures and systems. Living and traveling abroad has allowed me to look at Bombay with some amount of objectivity, and to realize what a crazy, ridiculous, unique place it is. It’s kind of impressive and frightening at the same time- a showcase of human ingenuity and collective effort on the one hand, and something so unnatural, toxic and barely sustainable on the other.


Sahil's mural at Mothership

KS: What, according to you is the difference between fine arts and design, considering you’re involved in a bit of both?

Sahil: In a general sense, fine art has no utility other than to be art, while the design has utility. Fine art/conceptual art gives precedence to the concept over aesthetics, or even at the expense of aesthetics. Graphic design and commercial art have utility- to provide information, tell a story, sell products, be decorative, etc. Design (or at least good design) follows function, which is to say how it works is more important than how it looks.


Sahil's Memento Mori for the Kulture Shop theme Dreamscapes | Sketch to Tee

KS: What’s your take on the design scene in India, especially now, with online showcases  & platforms that promote it more aggressively than ever before?

Sahil: It’s really great that there are more forums showcasing local artists. It's awesome that there’s a greater interest in art and design, that they’re becoming legit career options. In terms of the art itself, there are some really interesting artists and designers out there, but I also see a lot of pretty generic stuff, like a lot of variations on the same handful of themes. I don’t know whether that’s more reflective of the audience or of the artists.

KS: Lastly, what are some of your favorite projects to have worked on, and what’re you working on currently?

Sahil: Working on Mansoor Khan’s book, The Third Curve, was pretty fun. I did about 70-80 illustrations for it. It was a long and at times difficult process, but some genuinely good work came out of it. It helped that Mansoor is real laid back. I got to paint a structure in Goa in “dazzle camouflage” (an actual type of military camouflage) a couple of years ago, which wasn’t much of a challenge technically, but is something I’ve wanted to do for ages! Plus I was working practically on the beach. I’ve done a few gigs for Mothership Productions, the last was a large mural in enamel over metal, at their Pali Village office, which came out pretty tight (I thought). Right now I’m working on some ink drawings for a private commission.


Sahil's work in Goa


Check out his kickass artwork for our theme Machines — Springtime Tsujigiri
Left: Initial Sketch | Right: Final Silkscreened Organic Tee