While we know of Raza as a celebrated painter, he is also a great lover of literature, which imbues his art and life

Not many people know that Sayed Haider Raza, one of India’s top-ranking painters and a recent recipient of the Padma Vibhushan, is a great lover of Hindi literature. He writes flawless French, English, Urdu and Hindi, but the last mentioned has a special place in his heart. All his life, he has written letters to many of his friends in Hindi and used the language to jot down occasional musings in his diary. He has enjoyed close friendship with many Hindi writers and poets such as Sachchidanand Hiranand Vatsyayan ‘Agyeya’, Ashok Vajpeyi, Kedarnath Singh, Ramesh Chandra Shah, Prabhat Kumar Tripathi and Kamlesh, to name just a few. Many of his paintings were given titles in Hindi and old-timers recall one that was entitled “Aaj” (Today). Not only that, Raza made liberal use of lines from poets like Muktibodh, Agyeya, Kedarnath Singh and Ashok Vajpeyi and inscribed them on his paintings. He himself never wrote poetry, but the jottings in his diary are proof enough that he could use the Hindi language as creatively as he used lines and colours. In 1978, during his visit to Bhopal, he noted in his dairy lines from many young poets during a poetry recitation session.

On February 22, Raza turned 91 and, appropriately enough, his birthday celebrations started with a poetry reading session featuring two of Hindi’s senior most and highly regarded poets.

Kamlesh, well into his 70s, is a unique poet. He does not believe in writing prolifically and has shown a strange indifference to publishing his work. The first collection of his poems “Jaratkaru” has become a collector’s item and he has taken no interest in bringing out a second edition. This was the book that firmly placed him among the most talented poets more than three decades ago. It so happened that the third collection of his poems had come out the very same day, and Kamlesh read out two long poems and one short poem from his newest book. In contrast to the current norm, his multi-layered poetic language is laden with Sanskrit words and delves deep into hoary traditions to use them for contemporary purposes. Listening to him was a rich experience.

The other poet of the evening was Ajit Kumar, who had a spring in his walk and one could not believe that he was in his 80s. He presented Raza with a book of English poems written by his 18-year-old grandson, saying that he felt proud that the tradition of literary writing was thriving in his family. Ajit Kumar too read out a few poems that were simply scintillating, especially the last one on Gandhi, and had contemporary overtones.

A book titled “My Dear” has been brought out containing letters that were exchanged between well-known artist Krishen Khanna and Raza over a long period of time. Khanna is only three years younger to Raza, and the two have enjoyed a close friendship. He read out a few of the letters he wrote to Raza in the decades of 1950 and 1960, and Raza’s replies were read out by Shruti Issac, a researcher with the Raza Foundation. The letters showed what kind of deep intellectual reflection went into the two artists’ work, the kind of existential angst they felt and how they related to the happenings around them. Such well-written letters are rare to find even among literary writers, and it was a treat to listen to them. Among the invitees was Harshvardhan — Harsha to his friends — who has over the years emerged as a very successful painter. As the setting was literary, one remembered his father, the late Jagdish Swaminathan — Swami to one and all — who, as everyone knows, was one of our iconic painters. However, not many might know that he was also a wonderful Hindi poet. Recently, a Hindi news magazine published three of Swami’s Hindi poems in its annual number. He was also a close friend of Raza. Perhaps, besides painting, Hindi poetry too was a bond between them.