Photography by Tanuj Ahuja
Anything But Ordinary
An ordinary Thursday evening in New Delhi, the winter chill had just announced her presence. I found myself standing outside a building in one of the many gated, tree-lined colonies of South Delhi. Four bold letters popped out of the otherwise drab, grey boundary wall, simply spelling RAZA, unknowingly announcing the presence of not just its owner but a man who is one of the most well-regarded Indian artists. This was my first meeting with the legend himself – Syed Haider Raza, an undeniable master of Indian art. His art has spoken for itself, be it at the auction table with the gravel sounding off at a now historic Rs. 16.42 Crores for his work titled Saurasthra at a Christie’s auction or through his massive body of work where he has, over the decades, created his very own artistic language by using Indian thought and structuring it out through colour, symbol and form. Once in, and after the introductions are over and done with by his trusty assistant, a seemingly regular man shuffles onto the couch for our evening together. Five minutes into what was supposed to be an interview and I happily slide aside my notebook full of questions and notes, and settled into what was instead an engrossing story, speckled with the kind of wisdom that only comes with the number of folds on your skin – about this artist’s life, conviction and passion. In seconds, the still boyish charm of this 90-year-old reveals a person who is forever hungry and in search of new ideas, experiences and dialogue. And the evening turned out to be anything but ordinary…
He begins by describing his daily routine, ‘I get up at 9.00 in the morning, by 11.00 I am in my studio working, I then break for lunch and rest for a bit, I come back at 4.30 and work till around 6.00 in the evening,’ and chuckles naughtily as he adds, ’After that, I have time for my girlfriends!’ And even though he claims to be tired, there is no stopping this artistic genius, having just completed an exhibition in Mumbai, he is busy painting for four exhibitions scheduled for 2013, that will take him from New York to New Delhi.
After dealing with the banal realities of everyday life, he shoves the current away and a sense of nostalgia sweeps over him as he quickly rewinds to his early days, in Madhya Pradesh. Born in Babaria in the Mandala district of Madhya Pradesh, he left at the age of 13 and moved to Damoh. His father was a forest ranger, and the young Raza grew up in and around the jungles of central India. ‘There began my love for beautiful landscapes. I was a restless child and I was never a good student. This inadvertently led to my becoming an artist. I did not know anything about art back then.’ In fact, he never even imagined that he would be an artist someday. It was quite by default that he stumbled into the world of art. His parents and teachers assumed that since he was no good with academics, art school would suit him.
‘My parents didn’t want me too far away from home, so they sent me to The Nagpur School of Art. This was my initiation into painting and I am very grateful that they decided this for me. At school, they showed me what painting was, through reproductions of European and British art. This was my first contact with painting. I was familiar with music and dance, but I never knew painting before. I translated my ideas onto canvas. It was happiness for me, to be able to discover what drawing and painting were and to be able to paint these things that I loved so much.’
‘It was in Nagpur, then Mumbai and finally in Paris that I began to know what painting was all about. It takes months and years to understand it. And I chased it passionately.’ His quest found focus in Mumbai where he realized that Indian art was in a state of absolute confusion. There was a blind emulation of European realism at the time, propagated by art schools and the colonial rule that had only recently ended. With Independence kicking in, there began a lot of questioning of the Indian identity and Francis Newton Souza founded the Progressive Artists’ Group, home to almost all the Masters of Indian art today including M.F Husain, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee and so on. ‘We were a group of young artists, struggling to understand and figure out what Indian art was at that time. We weren’t concentrating on what was going to happen, we were just trying to figure out what we were doing and why. We used to paint every single day, and meet every week or fortnight, and show each other what we had painted. All we did was discuss the hell out of what we were doing. Later, those works were exhibited and appreciated.’
At the time Raza was immersed in landscapes, for him it was always about capturing the beauty that he saw around him. So far, driven by the subject and way of representation of his paintings, a chance encounter with the legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson pushed him to further question and understand technique. ‘He advised me to look at the work of Paul Cézzane - at the time my work was very fluid and completely lacked construction. I didn’t even know what “construction” was. He told me that a painting is like a house and has to be constructed on a solid base, with walls, doors and windows. I then realised the importance of geometry and tried to see how I could incorporate it in my landscapes. This little piece of wisdom helped me. That is the learning process in art.
Paris was the only place I wanted to go to study painting better. I applied for and won a scholarship. I learned a lot about technique there, and it became my home for a very long time. I won the Pris de la critique, and this appreciation only encouraged me to pursue my art more and more. Painting and art were my passion and I concentrated on it without thinking of results, money or fame. And this went on for months, years and I am still at it.’ In Paris, he sharpened his technique, got exposed to all that was going on in the Western world of art and shared studio space with Janine Mongillat. The young Indian boy, found himself head over heels in love with his fellow-artist and the two were soon married. He chose to stay on there and continued to pursue his artistic enquiry. She passed away in 2002, prompting his shift back to India. A sense of romanticism fills him as he points to her portrait that hangs in the corner of his studio, and reflects fondly on his 43-year-long love affair.
And it was also in Paris that he reinvented himself by digging into his own cultural vocabulary and became the artist we known him as today. Over the decades, his search found him examining how he could bring into his work what he considered ‘the essence of his being’, and it was in the 1980s when he found his ‘eureka’ moment. It went back to when his teacher in primary school drew a dot on the class blackboard and got the fidgety child in him to concentrate by forcing him to stare at the dot for ten to fifteen minutes. That dot soon found him unearthing his cultural baggage through Indian ethnography and philosophy. Today, when you think of Raza, the first thing that pops into your head is the signature bindu, the use of the panchtatva (the five elements), the aum symbol, the tribhuj (symbolic of space and time), and prakriti-purukhshathis (male and female energy). And you can’t help but wonder how his landscapes went from fluid to structured to a symbolic geometry and a codified language that he went on to create, canvas after canvas.
‘I think it was my preoccupation with form, I did not know to what dimension I could go with visualization alone. Colour, symbol and form are very important, for me, in a painting. Along with this, there has to be a feeling and meaning to it all. An artist has to have a vision. It is not as I see, but as the mind sees. I see what is around me but if I close my eyes, my mind perceives a different sense of matter. I started to look back to India as that was where the substance of my work lay. Even with the Progressive Artists Group, the whole intention was to move away from what you see to what you imagine. And I wanted to explore my mind’s eye.’
Tuning into his third eye took him back to his religiosity and spirituality. As a boy, when Raza wasn’t staring off into the wilderness, he was between the mosque and the temple. ‘I have always had a religious temperament; Hinduism and Islam have come to me from my childhood, and Christianity from my wife. These three religions are very significant and sufficient for me to attain the almighty and the spiritual self realization that is integral to my art. In our everyday life and work, we have this desire to understand and know the complexity of Indian culture and figure out how we can make it a part of our life. And this is true for not just painters; you could be working in a bank or a post office. You just have to figure out how you can include it in your everyday life.’
‘For me, that is the relation of thought to colour and form. I have to imagine for myself even what I do not know, I have to find out what is possible on the canvas—it is a fascinating thing. Back in the ‘80s in Paris, I began to realize the significance of the bindu, aum, and other symbols and concepts. The very basis of Hindu thought. For me these are landscapes not seen by the eyes, but by the mind. It was haunting me and I wanted to do something in this direction and that’s when works like the Bindu and Naga came about. And the result is what you see in my work ever since. New ideas get me excited and passionate. I was never indifferent. I was very keen towards anything new.’
Raza, while known for creating his own artistic vocabulary, is better known as one of the most expensive Indian artists around. Steeped in his spirituality, one cannot but wonder how he balances the more material aspects of his art. ‘Commercialization goes on, on its own. Beyond a point, I’m pretty unaware of the details of it. Art dealers and gallerists I work with know my opinions and my stand. They know I will not compromise with my paintings, ever. So people don’t ask me to do anything that I won’t do. Some might come and say paint me a painting like this or like that, but I will not copy the reference painting. I might create something in a similar direction, which might be very different from the painting they want. Galleries who represent me know me better and they explain my point of view to the collectors. I don’t know how these deals happen or don’t happen, how much they get or I get, I stay out of all that. I have my assistant, Sanjiv, he takes care of all this with the gallerists and art dealers. I try to concentrate on my work and keep myself here.’
He stiffens as he speaks of the art market; there is a sort of strange mix of dismissal and acceptance. ‘For the artist, the work shouldn’t be about the money or the price it can fetch. Some artists overprice their work, and then their art will never leave their studio. There is no point in doing this. I think an artist’s work lies in his art, if you’re doing what people want or expect, it won’t lead to you nurturing your art itself.’ And then there is some clarity to the slight jadedness in the other wise forever curious and energetic artist in him, ’Now there is a lot of demand for my work and my exhibitions as well. I will not take on more than I can do, I feel an exhibition should have at least 10-15 pieces. I need at least three months to complete 10 paintings... The white bindu painting in the corner of my studio is very personal for me, it’s shanti. It’s all about peace, truth and a godly sort of feeling. There are some paintings that I don’t want to sell, so I keep them for myself.’
‘My last exhibition in Mumbai, has been one of the most successful exhibitions that I have ever had. It just gets bigger and bigger every time, I never realized so many women were so fond of me. “I am your fan, I am your follower.” But seriously, dozens of art lovers wanted to ask me questions, and talk to me, I was smothered in appreciation. It feels great but you have to distinguish between intelligent compliments and the banal ones. There is happiness in it but you should know how to distinguish the good, from the superficial.’ And even as we continue our conversation, people come and go, some reverential, some genuine, and others busy jotting down who’s next in line. All the while he entertains, only to come right back to his story, with complete focus and that charming smile. He ends with the same enthusiasm that has fuelled his artistic journey, ‘I have beautiful memories. Now, I want to go to Shantiniketan, a few ashrams and continue painting. I am home now.’
Our conversation with S H Raza was first published in our Art Issue of 2014. This article is a part of Throwback Thursday series where we take you back in time with our substantial article archive.
Text Shahnaz Siganporia
The first major exhibition of Sayed Haider Raza since his death in 2016, the show at Piramal Museum of Art celebrates one of the most significant artists in Indian Modernism and a founder member of the Bombay Progressives. Know more about the exhibition here.