India in his heart

Legendary strokes: Artist Sayed Haider Raza
Remembering the master artist, S.H.Raza on his first death anniversary that falls on July 23

Every day after breakfast, Sayed Haider Raza would walk to his studio, close his eyes, mumble something and then begin to paint. “I thought it was a prayer,” says Ashok Vajpeyi, one of Raza’s closest friends and chairperson of the cultural organisation, the Raza Foundation. Raza who died last year on July 23, was a believer of all faiths. He visited the church, temple and a mosque almost every week, yet didn’t practice any other rituals. Till the end, Vajpeyi was intrigued about Raza’s everyday routine. One day, Vajpeyi mustered the guts and asked the artist what he muttered before colouring the canvas. The answer was telling, “Listen to that voice of silence lies buried somewhere”, which is a line from late German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s works. The late artist has the distinction of having been awarded the Padma Shri in 1981), Padma Bhushan in 2007 and Padma Vibhushan in 2013.

Unique vision

There is perhaps and nor will be any other artist like Raza – so dedicated and passionate towards art and his country. He was a founding member of the Bombay Progressive Art Group along with F.N. Souza, V.S. Gaitonde and M.F. Husain, which sought to make a mark for the newly independent India in 1947. In the same year Raza’s mother died and next year his father. While some of his siblings migrated to Pakistan, Raza went to France to accomplish his group’s mission.

In the beginning, Raza often painted French landscapes, the country where he now lived and also became a visiting faculty at an art school in Berkley. But by 1970 he felt lost and restless. His trip to Benaras, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Ajanta and Ellora caves in Maharashtra gave birth to his life-long quest for the ‘Bindu’ (an Indian, tantric philosophical concept, which broadly describes the merging point of masculine and feminine energies). The epic, Mahabharata and practise of tantra also influenced his paintings.

“Raza combined the best of West’s sensitivity and influences that with the spirit of his work, which always carried India in its heart,” says Hugo Weihe, CEO of the auction house, Saffronart. Raza’s ‘Saurashtra’, sold in 2010 at a London auction, to an Indian collector, broke the record of highest priced Indian painting at an auction. “It’s exemplary of the artist’s connection to Indian places, the feeling of earth and Indian colours,” says Weihe. “But it’s also reminiscent of the time he was introduced to acrylic colours in Berkley, US, in 1960s.” Raza was sensitive to what other artists had achieved in the West of the world and combined it with Indian sensitivity. “There is an inherent logic to his oeuvre and how it evolved. I find that extraordinarily brilliant,” says Weihe.

Most of Raza’s creations are signed in Devanagiri and several of them influenced by Hindi, Urdu, English and even French poetry. He combined and promoted all kinds of art and the Raza Foundation, formed after his return to India, from France, in 2010, has awarded the likes of Ranjit Hoskote, poet and cultural theorist, visual artist Atul Dodiya, dancer Kelucharan Mahapatra and vocalist Kumar Gandharva.

Dedicated to art

To mark Raza’s first death anniversary the foundation will host an art camp for final-year art students at his native town and final resting place Mandala, Madhya Pradesh, to expose them to different forms of art. “Raza Saab was perhaps the only senior and celebrated painter who kept a keen eye on what young artists are doing,” says artist Manish Pushkale. “He taught me to have conviction in my work through constant dialogues and emotional support.”

Pushkale vividly remembers that 2002 day when he visited the master after he lost his artist wife Janine Mongilat’s to cancer, “He was distraught. We all knew that. But he still painted and kept at it,” says Pushkale. “That taught me one of the greatest lessons of life. If you love your work it will be your respite even in the toughest times and that’s exactly what you must do all your life.”

Raza did that. Even during his last days he continued to paint with shivering hands and was resolute to give it back to the art and the art fraternity he so dearly loved and lived for. “It took me three whole days to convince Raza that the foundation be named after him,” says Vajpeyi. This despite, having bequeathed all his wealth, properties and paintings to the foundation. He was so principled that he paid rent to live in the foundation building, which was in fact, built by him.

Riddhi Doshi - 21 july

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