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It all began with a dot

ATUL MITAL
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CHAT Celebrated artist S.H. Raza talks about his childhood days and how he took to brush and canvas

HEART IN ARTSyed Haider RazaPhoto: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar
HEART IN ARTSyed Haider RazaPhoto: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

There is not an art-lover who does not identify the much-talked about bindu with S.H. Raza. He has held court at literary festivals, art galleries and seminars. Excerpts from a chat with the veteran:

You have never written about your childhood where your journey as a painter began more than eight decades ago.

I would like to write about my childhood, but health and other issues stop me. I grew up in a wonderfully secular Muslim family. My father, a forest ranger, was intelligent and gave us direction with respect to religion and the environment of Madhya Pradesh where I was born.

We could see the Narmada from our house. The interesting thing is the juxtaposition — my father was an intellectual and respected Hindus. My teachers were mostly Hindus and a cultured set. There was no jealousy or pettiness. I disliked school and did not take math or any other subject seriously. I was around six years old then.

What happened then?

One day my teacher Nandlal Jharia asked me to stay back after school. He took me to the verandah and drew a point on the wall. He said, ‘ Tu sab kuch bhool ja. Yahan par baith ja aur is bindu par dhyan de. Main abhi aata hoon .’ (Forget everything. Sit down over here and concentrate on the bindu . I’ll just come). I was afraid of what was happening and thought he would beat me.

He returned a few minutes later and said, ‘ Shabash ’, (Well done). From then on, he started giving me private instructions in art. He helped me concentrate on subjects I disliked but I was interested only in Nature! There were fascinating trees, mountains, birds and animals in the area. My energy was focussed on the Gond tribe, Nature and birds, and this went on till I was 10 or 11. It worried my parents. My parents never discriminated in terms of religion, and I went to the temple, mosque and church. This was a great advantage. It affected me subconsciously.

I did my middle and high school in Damoh; after which my father sent me to Nagpur for art studies. My teacher was Bapurao Athwale, whose portrait hangs in my bedroom. He influenced me a lot. He gave affectionate advice and I moved on to Bombay two years later to the JJ School of Art on a government scholarship. There, Ahiwasi was my teacher. He filled me with information on art and tradition. I was happy in that congenial atmosphere from 1945 to 1948. I was also ambitious and determined. I met H.A. Gade, Sadanand Bakre, K.H. Ara, F.N. Souza and M.F. Husain. In 1948, we started the Progressive Movement, and it was an important and historic moment in my life. Instead of British Realism and Renaissance, we took to Indian art, culture and tradition.

We were very happy with Independence attained in 1947. That gave us an identity.

Did all of you stick together?

Souza went to England, Husain travelled here and there in India, Gade, Bakre and Ara remained in Bombay. I left for France to acquaint myself with European art. The French cultural attaché suggested I learn French so I could try for a scholarship. I studied French for two or three years and got the scholarship. In 1952, I joined the Ecole and it was a magnificent experience to see art there, read books and visit libraries. I earned praise for my shows which I did in my own style.

How did the 50s unfold for you?

In 1956, I was conferred the Prix de la Critique, Paris — the critics award. It made me famous overnight. I started selling and life became easier. I concentrated on work. I went around France and painted landscapes. They were liked and are still sold at Christies and other auctioneers at prices I can’t have imagined then!

Twenty to 30 years of hard work followed. I got invited by Berkeley and I also visited other cities such as New York and Los Angeles. They liked my work and offered me an art teacher’s post at the University. I didn’t want to teach. So I thanked them and went back to France to paint.

Can art be taught?

Yes, art can be and should be taught. It should be seen in silence and then concentrated on. It has to be felt in silence.

Collage is rather neglected in India. Your comment?

Collage and pottery are linked with sculpture. My wife Janine Mongillat did beautiful work and I have some of it. One of her works I have would be 40 years old.

Tell us about your association with her?

I had a very wonderful association with her — as happy as one could be. We shared art ideas. At our wedding, my mother in-law politely suggested that I stay on in France as she had only one daughter. I said, ‘I’ll do my best.’ After her death I felt I should return to India though I had spent 60 years in France. It took me several years before I could return to my home country. Still, I never became French and remained very much an Indian.

Who are your favourite painters?

Amrita Sher-gil and V.S. Gaitonde are my favourites.

ATUL MITAL

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