RAZAnama: The artist, the man

by Aakshat Sinha

"Well, art is reality, art is a muse if it helps us to realise the truth. It is the major guiding element which helps you to realise the truth." - Sayed Haider Raza

In the 100th year of one of the leading Indian artists Sayed Haider Raza, The Raza Foundation organised an exhibition of various articles from the artist's archive in Shridharni gallery at Triveni Kala Sangam, New Delhi. Raza was one of the greatest icons of modern art, who combined western abstraction with Indian visual traditions and helped to create a uniquely Indian style of modern and contemporary art. He was one of the founders of the enormously influential Progressive Artists group, though he participated in only one of the exhibitions with the group.

Born on 22 February 1922 in Babariya, District Narsinghpur (modern-day state of Madhya Pradesh) the artist was awarded the Padma Shri in 1981, Padma Bhushan in 2007 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2013. He lived and worked in France since 1950 till he returned to India in 2010. He constantly kept close ties with India and retained his passport. He was conferred with the Commandeur de la Legion d'honneur (Legion of Honour) in 2015.

I asked Ashok Vajpeyi, well-known poet and Managing Trustee of The Raza Foundation, how he would describe Raza as a human being. “Raza was an exceptionally generous, helpful and noble person,” he said. “He always overpaid the overtired taxi drivers, gardeners, maids, and waiters.” He mentioned how Raza was deeply interested in the younger generations of artists and would look at their artworks, discuss with them and if he liked some works he would buy the works as well. “He loved life and had a tremendous zest for life. He loved to be with nature,” Ashok Vajpeyi added. “He built a studio-house in Gorbio, a medieval village in the South of France and would spend four months every summer there, painting in solitude and close to nature. Nature was his central theme all through.”

Describing how Raza loved human company, Vajpeyi says that Raza was “very fond of yaarbaazi (meeting friends) and would remember with much gratitude his school teachers.” He adds, “A deeply spiritual person he used to visit the masjid (mosque), church and temple almost once a week regularly but observed no overt rituals. He spoke and used daily three languages – Hindi, French and English. He enjoyed poetry, music and dance. He was humble and full of gratitude towards the world. His paintings at one level can be seen and read as love letters to the world; as prayers for grant of grace to all.”

At the opening, from left: Manish Pushkale, Ashok Vajpeyi, Akhilesh (Photo courtesy of Rafique Shah)

I discussed with Rafique Shah (an artist and associated with the Raza Foundation), who was there throughout the duration of the show, on what the exhibition reflected and asked him to give me a walk-through. The following text is largely based on his inputs.

Rafique Shah and Aakshat Sinha at the exhibition 'Antrung Raza'

'Antrung Raza' is an exhibition in which we get to know the other side of an artist. How he handled his things, how he loved them, and how he carefully retained them at all times – his old letters, his catalogues. And how well-organized he was not only in painting but also in his life. In many ways it can be said that the artist’s memories are on display here.

Tools of the trade

As you enter the exhibition, you get an opportunity to examine the tools and instruments Raza used to make his famed Bindu series, the circles and other geometrical symbols. Seeing them on display, you instinctively begin to create images in your mind. Moving further down, there is a painting by him in which he has written 'Swadharma' (self-duty) in black where he has used a mix of yellow and white paint in the background. It is a very small work but the idea is very big. It prompts metaphors in your mind.

From left: 'Swadharm' painting; Sketching Janine; Raza and Janine in front of a Bindu painting

As we walk down, we see photographs of Raza with some of his friends. In the first photo, Raza is seen drawing a sketch of his wife. The next one shows the artist sitting with his wife Janine with one of his paintings from the ‘Bindu’ series in the background. Raza had a picture of Gandhi which he'd have probably cut out from a newspaper or magazine, which is also on display, capturing his deep reverence for the Mahatma. Raza had a beautiful studio in France, and there is a photograph of him painting and another one with his books, canvases and many other things that tell us a lot about the artist. The colour palette is an amazing stool that Raza has plastered with paint, reflecting the openness and joy he must have felt while painting.

Colour palette, the stool

A significant photograph in the collection is the one with Raza’s school teacher Mr. Athawale, who advised him to concentrate on the Bindu, that completely changed his life. We also see a photograph of Raza and Ashok Vajpeyi in their younger days – interestingly, Vajpeyi is wearing a T-shirt that has Raza's work printed on it. The photographs of Raza concentrating on his work and sitting down to examine his work show his process.

From left: Raza in his Paris studio; Early work; Raza with Janine and his school teacher, Mr Athawale

Raza painting outside his studio in Gorbio; Moment of rest at the studio;Working inside the studio

Ashok Vajpeyi and Raza; Mirror selfie of the artist; Raza working on a Bindu painting

Raza had an abiding relationship with his friends and fellow artists as can be seen in the photographs showcased in the display. These include close friends and artists such as Rajendra Dhawan, Akbar Padamsee, Bal Chhabra, Tyeb Mehta, Krishen Khanna, MF Husain, Jagdish Swaminathan, Akhilesh, Zarina Hashmi, KH Ara, HA Gaade, VS Gaitonde, FN Souza, Ram Kumar. His letters with them reflect the caring love and close bond he shared with them, including the earlier mentioned artist friends, Akbar Padamsee, Vivaan Sundaram, Bhupen Khakkar, Bal Chhabra, Nalini Malani, and some French artists as well. Some of the letters are from gallery owners and fans. He treasured all of them – there are altogether more than twenty thousand letters! He replied to them all. At times one would think that he cherished the letters even more than some of his artworks.