New generation of artists must take art seriously: S.H. Raza

Madhusree Chatterjee

New Delhi, Feb 20 (IANS) Age may have etched itself in fine lines on the face of 86-year-old Syed Haider Raza, dubbed the living legend of Indian art, but the fire in him still smoulders. “Indian art is considered very seriously the world over and it is progressing in a very important way; in fact, doing quite well. But the new generation of artists need to put in more fundamental research on how to use colours. There is a tendency in them to rush through colours - especially in abstract drawings. They need to take art and life more seriously,” the master of abstraction and modern landscape S.H. Raza told IANS in an exclusive chat in the capital.

The new crop of artists must “ponder” over their work, study world art before experimenting, he said.

Raza, who has spent the last 55 years in Paris and is married to French artist Janine Mongillat, feels India has thrown several “talented” artists over the years, who are on par with their counterparts in the West.

“Look at Jamini Roy, Amrita Sher-Gil, Souza, Maqbool Fida Husain, Tyeb Mehta, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar, Sujata Bajaj… The list could on and on,” said the octogenarian, who still considers himself a student.

“I have been visiting India for the past 40-50 years to study Indian art. I loved painting European landscapes, especially those of the French countryside. The first 30 years of my life in France from 1950-1980 were devoted to classical European landscapes. It earned me recognition across the globe and I showed everywhere, but I was not happy,” said the artist, explaining his evolution from a landscape painter to an expressionist and finally a master of abstraction and profundity.

“But in 1980, I realised that I had to imbue my work with something deeper and decided to get India vision into it. Since I was passionate about landscapes, I introduced the concept of Indian time and space into my frames and played with the ‘prakriti-pourush’ (the male and the female energy) aspect of nature and human mind,” recalled Raza, walking down memory lane.

As a consequence, his paintings moved towards greater abstractions incorporating tenets of ‘tantrism’ from the ancient scriptures. They became landscapes of the human minds.

“My works began with a point (a bindu- the source of energy), and fanned out into triangles (tribhuj) in vibrant shades. There was a point (bindu) below, signifying the female energy source and a point at the top symbolising the male entity.”

One of his art works created a record in an auction in 2006 when it sold for $1.4 million. But Raza turns philosophical, when queried about commodification of art.

“It is an error to see art as an investment, one must look at it as an act of love. But if it becomes an effective instrument for investment, then I guess there is nothing one can do about it,” he sighed.

The artist may be working out of France, but he loves his country and shares an “umbilical bond” with it. “I am an Indian citizen, and it is India that my works have been reflecting for the last 25-30 years.”

Raza is now concentrating on “some of the most important lessons that Indian philosophy has given: “Shanti (Peace), Satya (Truth) and Ishwar (god)”.

Born in 1922 in Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh on the lush banks of the Narmada river, Raza grew up hating school.

“I was a poor student and my teachers disliked me. I loved watching the green countryside, spent most of time outside,” reminisced the artist. He started drawing around 12 as a “form of self-expression to calm his inner restlessness”.

The “restless child”, who spent his early years in Mandla and later in Damoh, however, is grateful to “his Brahmin teachers for showing him the way”, said Raza, just back from Mandla where he relived his childhood memories.

The artist trained at the J.J. School of Art in Mumbai. “The year was 1947. India had just gained independence and we were a group of young artists in our mid-twenties. We were disenchanted with the predominance of European realism in Indian art. We wanted to see art with an Indian eye, an inner vision (antar gyan) and create an identity for Indian art on the world stage.”

Thus was born the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group that decided to “enquire into global styles, master the genres and give them definite Indian shapes”.
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