Artist S.H. Raza tells Shailaja Tripathi that he is happy to be back in a country that abounds in traditions and rich heritage
Living amongst us, painting amidst us, we can now truly claim the celebrated artist S.H. Raza to be our own. Not that the Indian sensibilities ever left his canvases or that the love for his land faded away with time. It was, in fact, in France where he lived for 60 long years, that he embarked on the ‘bindu' and the ‘panch tatva'. While he became a life-long student of this philosophy, to the world and people at home keenly watching Indian contemporary art, the image became one of the most endearing of its times.
But now even the physical distance of 4600 miles has been done away with. The iconic artist returned to India last December, and celebrated his 89th birthday recently in his newly bought house — two floors in a plush building — in Safdarjung Development Area in New Delhi. His health might have played a spoilsport in the last couple of months — severe chest congestion was followed by a fall which subsequently led to hospitalisation and a fractured left femur bone from which the artist is yet to recover completely — halting his plans to roam around the country, visit his friends, but the joy and contentment in his spirit is intact.
His wish of being a Hindi speaking and tax paying citizen of India has been granted. And now, as he gradually inches towards recovery, the artist talks of his plans of visiting Mandla, his hometown in Madhya Pradesh, besides Rajasthan, West Bengal and South India. “I was lucky to have had a house by the sacred river Narmada. We could see it from our house and we bowed to her every morning. What luck I had! I think I have another seven-eight years left and I want to visit all these places as soon as I get alright,” says a beaming Raza. Explaining why he chose Delhi over Mumbai for his permanent place of residence, he adds, “Delhi is well-connected. I have many friends and it's easier to travel from here.”
He is seated in his wheelchair against the backdrop of a canvas bearing the drawing of a cross in pencil. While the cross-laden canvas is meant to be a gift for a dear one, the new set of paintings which will be showcased at Vadehra Art Gallery in November this year will have sketches and patterns in ink inscribed with the words ‘bindu' and ‘avartan'. “Besides all this, I have taken up another project which is ‘Apna Ghar',” he says.
Raza had left India in 1950 after winning a scholarship to the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts and lived in Paris for more than 60 years. “I fell in love with a French artist. We went to the same arts school and trained under the same professor. Her parents were scared that I would return to India after marrying her, so, I stayed on.” His wife, Janine Mongillat, died after a prolonged illness in 2002 leaving him alone and further fuelling his desire to come back to his roots.
The recipient of Padma Bhushan had set up Raza Foundation in 2001 and now, the Foundation is in talks with the Delhi Government to set up a museum within the city, housing the seminal collection of Indian contemporary art of the Raza Foundation.
Before he left for France, Raza together with M.F. Husain, F.N. Souza, K.H. Ara and V.S. Gaitonde, was in the process of arriving at a new visual language that was essentially rooted in Indian sensibilities. The artists, who called themselves the Progressive Artists Group, wrote a new chapter in the history of modern art of the country, which had just attained independence. “People at that time made fun of us. Many didn't agree with our philosophy. But today if you look back, in which other groupwould you find Gaitonde, (Akbar) Padamsee, Souza, Kishen Khanna,” says the artist in response to a question regarding the significance of the group today.
Remind him about the auction world — his acrylic on canvas ‘Saurashtra' created auction history last year when it sold for Rs.16.42 crore at a Christie's auction and now hangs in the Kiran Nadar Museum in Saket — and he sounds dismissive when he opines, “People don't know what is Raza up to, or any other painter, but they know how much his painting sold for. Painting is not done to earn money but to research art. A lot of people have forgotten that today. Your art has to be true, only then it will have some value.”