Framing the inner eye: The last of the great masters, S H Raza
Sunset by the River Narmada is a sight to behold, and a joy to cherish. The glowing disc of the sun slides gently into a neck of the hills of the Satpura Range, like a gold coin slipping into a fold of a regal cloak, with the most resplendent natural hues and shades.
Such was the experience that I, along with a handful of guests, got to soak in on a gloomy evening last weekend. Such were the settings, doubtlessly for more magnificent, in which the late Syed Haider Raza spent his growing years.
In a quiet ceremony on the Sunday morning of July 23rd, by an as-yet unmarked grave in a burial ground at the municipality of Mandla, a handful of his loyal followers and friends gathered to pay their respects, and observe the first anniversary of the artist’s death.
In the July before that, in 2015, Raza was conferred the French civilian award, the Commander de la Legion d'honneur (Legion of Honour). Having lived and worked for six decades in Paris – the only Indian with such a long tenure, Raza returned to India in 2011, nine years after the death of his wife, the French artist Janine Mongillat.
His last few years were expectedly not as active, although Raza continued to support up-and-coming artists, while infrequently taking to his own canvases.
Goodwill and generosity
The life and works of Raza are well-documented in the public sphere, and yet, by virtue of his prolific output and the inestimable volumes of literature that he surrounded himself with, there’s a great deal of the artist’s past still waiting to be discovered, and introduced into the corpus of Indian art history.
As one of the three core members of the Progressive Artists Group, founded in 1947, alongside F N Souza and H A Gade, Raza’s early years were in the esteemed company of M F Husain, S K Bakre, V S Gaitonde, Ram Kumar, Krishen Khanna, Mohan Samant, Akbar Padamsee and Tyeb Mehta. “Not that any of them were very famous at the time,” reminds Ashok Vajpeyi, the poet, cultural ambassador and former chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi.
“Each of them had vastly differing styles and artistic idioms, and while they frequently disagreed with each other, they were always bound by a shared passion,” says Vajpeyi, who also heads The Raza Foundation. The anecdotes that persist about those early years are invariably about goodwill, even as Raza’s own reputation of generosity extended well into his late years, as he continued to extend support to his colleagues and up-and-coming artists in a manner that few others can ever hope to match.
As legend has it, three Jewish gentleman stepped up to assist the 28-year-old Raza, as he set off on a voyage to France in 1950, recounts Vajpeyi. “The art critic Rudolf Von Leyden, the Viennese collector Emmanuel Schlesinger, and the Austrian artist Walter Langhammar equipped him with basic supplies like shoes and an overcoat.”
Raza was always one to return favours, and over the adoration for his art, the high regard that he commanded amongst his peers was to do with his humility, and incredibly giving spirit. (So much that Khanna would famously chide him for being “stupidly charitable”.) Even in his ailing years, he would enthusiastically mentor emerging artists, and even get them to join him in group shows, thereby helping them gain visibility – another indication of his largehearted outlook.
How and what to paint
The decision to sail overseas happened after a chance encounter with the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who urged him to study the works of Cézanne. “The suggestion had a lasting impact, although Raza didn’t realise who Cartier-Bresson was at the time,” recalls Vajpeyi, who has authored a number of books on the artist’s life and works, and remained close to him until his final days.
“Over the years, Raza was known to declare, ‘I learned how to paint in France, and what to paint in India’,” recollects Vajpeyi. Even as he found himself in the midst of tumultuous times in Paris, witnessing “the infamous (Albert) Camus and (Jean-Paul) Sartre dispute”, for instance, Raza’s works belied any air of conflict. Instead, he stuck to his originative conceptions of unity, harmony and universal consciousness – all aspects that were inextricably linked to his unfathomable love for the natural world.
Raza was exposed to the jungle from an early age, noted the poet-writer Udayan Vajpeyi, at a dinner gathering in the Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh, 77km from Jabalpur, where the young artist spent much of his childhood. Born in the remote village of Babaria, in the home of Tahira Begum and Sayed Mohammed Razi, a Deputy Forest Ranger of the district, Raza went on to complete his education at the Government High School of Damoh.
“The shades of darkness, and deep silence, were always apparent to him, and he sought to convey that sense of divine calm and serenity in his art,” offered Udayan, who is one of the Raza Foundation's trustees, along with Arun Vadehra (of Vadehra Art Gallery), the artists Akhilesh and Manish Pushkale, the Kathak dancer Prerana Shrimali, and the cultural critics Ranjit Hoskote and Sadanand Menon.
Indeed, the hallmark of Raza’s oeuvre is his distinctive style, which he often paired with textual elements in the Devanagari script, at times even bringing in poetic texts of Rainer Maria Rilke. The concepts of the cosmic “bindu” as a symbol of primordial genesis, the meditative elements of yantras and mandalas, and the Kundalini, representative of an awakening of dormant energy, were central to his artistic output.
In that sense, Raza, a recipient of the Padma Shri, the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Vibhushan, remained intent on making art with an everlasting point of view, especially in terms of spatial relation, explained Ashok Vajpeyi. “He was a lot more interested in making art for eternity, rather than for art history,” says Vajpeyi.
A humble heart
At the state government-run middle school of Kakaiya, where Raza spent a few months studying in the fourth grade, the faculty members (mostly descendants of Raza’s tutors) fondly recall the artist’s visits. “He immediately prostrated at the school gates,” narrates one of the teachers. “He smeared mud from the ground on his forehead, and didn’t bother about the dust on his clothes.”
The origins of Raza’s “bindu” works find home in this school. As legend has it, to quell his restless nature, Nandalal Jhariya, one of his teachers, drew a circle on a blackboard and asked the boy Raza to concentrate. On his return to Mandla a few years back, Raza immortalised that lesson in a frame that he gifted to the school.
Raza’s self-effacing, humble manner continues to find praise, and is a standing testament among the school’s teachers, to his roots and honest-to-goodness manner of interacting with people. “Few people realise that Raza would regularly visit the temple and the church, while being a practicing Muslim. In that sense, he followed different religions, but stopped short of being overtly religious, and in addition, maintained a trilingual approach to his work and life – being equally fluent in French, English and Hindi,” explains Vajpeyi.
As Sanjeev Kumar Choube, Raza’s longtime confidante recalls emotionally, “I never heard him address anyone as ‘tum’. He always said, ‘aap’, according respect even to strangers.”
Raza’s paintings perceptibly avoid ulterior religious persuasions, and instead emphasise messages of freedom, spirituality, self-awareness, expression and the idea of opening one’s “third eye”. Played out in a vibrant colour palette, Raza’s canvases are as revelatory and transfixing as they are enlivening and enlightening.
All said, with a host of events lined up by The Raza Foundation, the artist’s legacy is set to extend well beyond his own body of work. But to completely comprehend the emotional depth in his works, there’s no better way than to take in the swell of the Narmada from a seat by the river’s banks.
The Raza Foundation’s events commemorating the artist’s first death anniversary
• The 11th KRITYA International Poetry Festival 2017, Thiruvananthapuram, hosted in collaboration with The Raza Foundation and Bharat Bhavan.
• A seminar on the works of Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh, to be held in Raipur. Dates to be announced.
• Aaj Kavita, a new series of poetry reading, starts July 2017.
• VAK — The Raza Biennale of Asian Poetry, slated to be held in New Delhi in 2019.
• Aarambh, a series of events for young practitioners in classical music, dance and theatre. Begins in August 2017, New Delhi.
• Uttaradhikar, The Raza Festival of Young Classical Artists, featuring disciples of eminent gurus. October 2017, New Delhi.
• Art Matters, a monthly programme of panel discussions with esteemed names from the fields of arts, literature, academics and performing arts.
• Seven annual memorial lectures named after the masters V S Gaitonde (visual arts), Agyeya (poetry), Habib Tanvir (theatre), Kelucharan Mohapatra (dance), Kumar Gandharva (music), Mani Kaul (cinema), and Daya Krishna (philosophy). Art Dialogue, another series of panel discussions featuring speakers from the worlds of literature, visual arts, performing arts and other disciplines.
• The fourth edition of the series, Raza in Correspondence, is set to be published, bringing to light the letters between Raza and his artist-wife, Janine. The 80-odd letters from 1952-1956 reveal the artist’s emotions and struggles in his initial time in France. Expected in 2018.
• The Raza Foundation also publishes three journals dedicated to the arts and culture — Aroop, a Hindi journal of literature and the arts; Samas, an English publication dedicated to the arts, poetry and ideas; and Swarmudra, with a focus specifically on performance arts and music in Hindi.