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Artist’s canvas S.H. Raza keeps India alive in Paris
Artist’s canvas S.H. Raza keeps India alive in Paris

Acclaimed artist Syed Haider Raza, who turned 86 this past week, talks about his life. RANA SIDDIQUI listens

He walks cautiously – with a stick and a man to support. He wears a thick kurta-pyjama and jacket to keep himself warm since he is susceptible to cough and cold too often. When he comes from Paris to Delhi, there are a bunch of people who surround him all the time. So much so, that when he signs an autograph or wants to write a few lines for a young and talented artist, they often stop him. And like an obedient child, he takes their instructions. But Raza understands this all. He may have gone physically weak but his mind is sharp as ever. Due to his advanced age, occasionally he veers from the topic, but comes back to the point, nonetheless. He smiles, cracks jokes, teases young women and his speech is full ofashar (poetic couplets).

“I have grown old physically. But at heart, I am still young,” he says smiling where author Ashok Vajpaye has invited people to celebrate the artist’s 86th birthday.

The occasion is celebrated in a unique way. Filmmaker Muzaffar Ali, who has been close to Raza for long, engages the veteran in a tête-À-tête on the stage while fragrance of delicious food and beverages wafts all across. A huge cake for the birthday boy is there too.

Missing his wife

But, a visibly happy Raza feels like sharing his heart today. “I am missing my wife (Janine Mongillat) who died seven years ago. We led a happy life for 42 years. She was French. She is buried in our family graveyard in Gorbio where I live. It is a small village of 7200 people. She is my French connection that will never break. I feel lonely without her. She was my support in my bad days. My works were not selling for a good price earlier. It started happening only for last five years – the times that Janine couldn’t see,” he says.

The veteran comes to India every year “to see and touch the soil I am made of”. To keep India alive in his heart, he speaks in Hindustani with Indians in Paris. “I read Bhagwad Gita every day to polish my knowledge of Sanskrit and Acharya Vinova Bhave for Hindi.”

The painter gets edgy when one talks of art as an investment. “Why equate art with money? Art is an act of love. I am not saying that a painter or a buyer should turn a saint but they should first take art as an object of love. I didn’t go to Paris for money. I went there to learn art as at that time (early 1950s). After having seen Indian art, I wanted to learn French art. Chala ja aql ke aage ke ye manzil nahi hai.Would he like to come back to India forever now?

“Sure, if I get a good Bengali girl for a wife…” he smiles, mischievously.

* * *

RAZA ROLL

Born Damoh, Madhya Pradesh in 1922Paris bound in 1950s, now his country of residenceGained fame after an auction in 2006. His painting sold for $1.4 million in the U.S.He co-founded the revolutionary Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) in 1947-1956 along with K.H. Ara and F.N. Souza He has also founded Raza Foundation in India for the promotion of art among Indian youth which gives Annual Raza Foundation Award to young artistsNext show At Royal Academy of Arts, LondonNext work On a mix of prakriti, purush and panchtatva

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