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Ela Shah ’81 MA

Dancing with Fate

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portrait of Ela Shah

The life – and life’s work – of artist Ela Shah ’81 MA is being celebrated in a new documentary and accompanying book titled Ela: Breaking Boundaries. The film and book tell the story of Ela’s journey from girlhood in Bombay to young motherhood in New Jersey and her development as an artist against the backdrop of her devotion to her family.

“I began painting at a very early age,” Shah tells us. In fact, one of her earliest works is a small painting of Buddha that she painted for Bipin Shah, a boy in her neighborhood in Bombay who would later become her husband.

As a young wife, Shah was expected to become proficient in homemaking and while she embraced her role as family caregiver, she wanted more. “I was able to earn bachelor’s degrees in Psychology and Sociology without attending classes outside my home,” she says. “But then I wanted to study fine arts, which was an unusual path for a woman at that time. Bipin arranged for me to take the classes by telling our families that I was studying the home arts.”

Heartache and change were on the horizon for Shah, however. While still in India, the couple suffered the tragic loss of their first daughter, who was only one year old. A few years later they nearly lost their second daughter, a toddler at the time, to a poisonous snake bite. The young couple decided to begin anew in the U.S., where Bipin could continue developing his career as a doctor. In 1973, Shah moved to Montclair with her husband, their daughter and infant son, and her widowed mother-in-law.

The transition proved difficult for Shah, who struggled with the language and new culture. “I was so different from everyone else,” she says. “My husband needed to work long hours and my children were in school. I became very lonely.”

“Montclair State was close to home and offered art classes,” Shah continues. She wanted very much to paint, but the trauma of adapting to western culture had affected her deeply.

“I lost my ability to use colors,” she explains. “I needed to find a new way to express my ideas. One of my professors suggested I begin by focusing on sculpture.”

Shah first worked in clay, creating a moving tribute to her lost child. Soon, she was using bronze, exploring the female form through sculptures of women reaching for freedom.

sculpture by Ela Shah
Sculpture by Ela Shah

“Art was my escape,” she says. “I loved visiting the library at Montclair State, and attending the Thursday art forums. The forums exposed me to a lot of contemporary art and to visiting artists from around the country, helping to shape my own art. Programs like this help to build a greater understanding of art for all students.”

Shah eventually found herself able to work with color again. She began to bridge the
the visual language of the traditional Indian painting she learned as a young woman with the voice of a mature, modern artist combining painting, sculpture, and video. Her multimedia pieces vibrate with color and life, blending eastern and western cultural cues. The women in Shah’s art no longer struggled to break free but instead were taking center stage as the heroes of the story.

Shah’s work has been exhibited in the Museum of Modern Arts in New Delhi as well as museums throughout the United States. She has shown outdoor works at New Jersey institutions including the Montclair Art Museum, Grounds For Sculpture and the Clifton Art Center, and the Chester Wood Museum in Massachusetts. She has served as chairperson for the National Association of Women Artists in New York and has curated shows for them and other art institutions.

Her work is in numerous collections, including those of the New Jersey State Museum, the Montclair Art Museum, Jersey City Museum, the Newark Public Library, Air India, and Rutgers’ Zimmerli Art Museum. She has received the Amelia Peabody Memorial Award and the Elizabeth Morse Genius Foundation Award from the National Association of Women Artists in New York, the Dodge Foundation Residency Award and the New Jersey Innovative Printmaking Fellowship at Rutgers. She received a 1999 fellowship for sculpture and a 2006 fellowship for painting from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

Although Shah has overcome the challenges of her life to soar as an artist, family remains her first and most precious priority. She has great empathy for women and the balance of family and career, and also for those who come from abroad to build a new life in the U.S. “Faith of any kind, hope, and empathy for one another can help us search for answers and find a way to survive in this complicated world,” she says.

Painting by Ela Shah

She also highly recommends art as a way to work through these and other of life’s challenges. “It is so important to work with your hands,” she counsels. “It is a way of understanding and telling your story.”

Click here to learn more about Ela: Breaking Boundaries and to watch an interview with the artist herself.