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Raza: Not just the second-most expensive Indian painter

by Vimal Kumar

Raza’s birth centenary is being celebrated this year with special events being held in his native place Mandla

Did you know that the first painting of the internationally renowned painter, Syed Haider Raza, fetched a measly sum of forty rupees but after his death one of his paintings was sold for Rs 29 crore and he was possibly the most expensive painter of the country during his time? Earlier, Raja Ravi Varma, Tyeb Mehta, Maqbool Fida Hussain, and a few others have been counted among the expensive painters of the country. Later, Vasudev Gaitonde broke Raza Saheb’s record; his painting sold for Rs 31 crore.

Recently, the first official biography of Raza Saheb, The Journey of an Iconic Artist, by art scholar Yashodhara Dalmiya has been published in English, which states that two water colours by Raza were sold for forty rupees each in 1943 at a painting exhibition of the Mumbai Art Society. In those days he worked in Express Block Studio and his salary was a mere Rs 40 per month for which he had to work 8 to 10 hours a day. But see the hand of fate – the artist who never had money for the treatment of his ailing wife, but after his death, one of his paintings, Tapovan, sold for Rs 29 crore at an auction in New York in 2018. He had made this painting in 1972. It was only years later that this record was broken. In 1983, one of his paintings sold in London for Rs 16 crore 30 lakh, which was an Indian record at that time. After four years, one of his paintings was sold in New York again for Rs 21 crore. So, Raza started his art journey with a painting of just Rs 40 and a couple of years after he passed away on 23 July 2016 another work sold for Rs 29 crore. During his lifetime his paintings sold altogether for 20 crore.

Tapovan, 1972

But an artist should not be judged simply by the value of his paintings. The price game is the market game. Just because the paintings of Nand Lal Bose, Yamini Rai, Binode Bihari Mukherjee, NS Bendre, KK Hebbar or Bhavesh Sanyal do not sell for 31 crore like Gaitonde does not mean that their contribution is in any way less.

Born on 22 February 1922 in Mandla, Madhya Pradesh, this is the birth centenary year of Raza and an official biography has been released on him. Raza Foundation started a special programme in Mandla from 21st to 23rd July to celebrate Raza Saheb’s birth centenary. The Foundation had started several programmes and lectures on him in his memory from last year itself.

According to the book, Raza Saheb was brought up in a family that was very liberal and secular in its values. At the same time, it was rooted in Indian culture. This is the reason that Raza Saheb was also allowed to go to the temple to read Ramcharitmanas and other religious texts. In his childhood he developed a keen interest in Hindi literature due to his teacher and he started liking the compositions of Nirala, Sumitranandan Pant, Mahadevi Verma, etc. His great-grandfather was Bahadur Shah Zafar's employee and was also in contact with the poet, Ghalib, and others.

Raza Saheb's father was a forest ranger, so the environment affected the young artist’s soft, sensitive mind and inspired his artistic mind. In 1939 he joined the Nagpur School of Art where his interest in art grew and he also got a government fellowship to join the JJ School of Art in Mumbai. He reached Mumbai in 1943 to take admission there, but due to a delay, he could not join the course and his fellowship was also terminated. Meanwhile, his father had passed away in 1942 and his mother also died within a year of that, so he decided to take care of himself and took up a job in a studio. From 1943 to 1950, his life was quite a struggle, but while staying there, he met many famous artists of that era, who later became his close friends. These include KH Ara, Souza, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee, Maqbool Fida Husain, Gaitonde, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar, etc.

Raza Saheb joined the JJ School of Art in 1947 and graduated from there in 1948. Meanwhile, Souza from Goa had founded the Progressive Artists Group in 1947; after joining the group, Raza's art flourished and in those days he also made many beautiful oil paintings about the city of Bombay (now Mumbai). Earlier, in 1942, he was married to a distant cousin, but when India-Pakistan Partition took place, Raza Saheb chose not go to Pakistan while his three siblings and his wife did. This was Raza's love of India. Raza Saheb said that he could not leave Gandhi's country and go to Pakistan. In fact, Gandhi and Nehru had a deep influence on Raza Saheb. One of his paintings on Gandhi is titled Hey Ram and he later also made some works on Gandhi. But in 1950 Raza Saheb went to Paris after getting a government fellowship and he settled there. He was not with his first wife as she’d moved to Pakistan. Raza Saheb married a French woman, Janine Mongillat, and lived in Paris as long as she lived.

Hey Ram, 2013

After Janine's death, he returned to India and settled here again. In the meantime, he had visited India several times with his wife and also visited the cities he had spent in his childhood with her. He travelled extensively in India with his wife. Raza Saheb was a lover of Hindi literature and had also studied the poems of Nirala, Pant, Mahadevi, Kedarnath Singh and Muktibodh and and the works of these poets can also be seen scribbled in his paintings. Like Maqbool Fida Husain, Raza Saheb was also accused of denigrating Indian symbols but like Husain, Raza Sahab was also a true Indian and a secular individual. His paintings were inspired and rooted in Indian tradition. Even when he was accused of doing tantric art, he always considered himself to be different from tantric paintings and once even refused to give his painting to be exhibited at the tantric art exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art. After his stay in France, he once again turned to abstract art and in later days he gave great prominence to the ‘Bindu’ in his abstract paintings. But his paintings did not follow tantric art by any means.

Raza Saheb illuminated the name of Indian painting abroad much in the same way as Ravi Shankar did for Indian classical music. Raza Saheb was given his due recognition and awarded the Padma Vibhushan. Raza had a close friendship with the famous Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi. He left his property (art collection) to the Raza Foundation, which also conducts many programmes schemes for the promotion of Hindi literature and art. In this way a patriotic painter left everything to his country even after his death.

(Translated into English by Aakshat Sinha from the original article in Hindi.)


Vimal Kumar is a poet with six books of poems among the 12 published books that he has written. At present he is working as a freelance journalist and an active poet. He retired from UNI after 35 years of service as a journalist, of which he worked 20 years covering the Indian Parliament.

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