“ I greeted the sun and asked it to smile at you .”
This is not a line from Pablo Neruda’s love poems but from a love letter written by Sayed Haider Raza to a fellow French artist, Janine Mongillat, who he fell in love with in 1952, and married in 1959. The iconic painter’s love letters, written in French, have been brought out in English translation by The Raza Foundation in collaboration with Vadehra Art Gallery.
Raza was born on February 22, 1922, in Babaria, Madhya Pradesh, and his centenary year is being celebrated in India by his friends and admirers. Two valuable books on his life and work have been released this year so far. Well-known artist Akhilesh, who knew Raza very closely, has written a book in Hindi titled Raza: Jaisa Maine Dekha ( Raza: As I Saw Him ) and published by Rajkamal Prakashan. HarperCollins India have brought out the first-ever biography of Raza, penned by renowned art critic Yashodhara Dalmia, titled Sayed Haider Raza: The Journey of an Iconic Artist . Last year, a revised version of eminent art scholar Geeti Sen’s 1997 book Bindu: Space and Time in Raza’s Vision was brought out by the Raza Foundation in collaboration with Mapin Publishing.
Raza had a deep bond with Sanskrit and Hindi literature. His family in Damoh (Madhya Pradesh) had to suffer the trauma and tribulations of Partition in 1947 and move to Lahore. His elder brother Yusuf Raza had completed his studies in Sanskrit and worked as editor of the Hindi newspaper Vishwamitra . But as tensions mounted in Damoh and their house was burnt, the family had to leave and live in refugee camps in Bhopal and Bombay before departing for Pakistan. But Raza decided to stay back. Dalmia quotes him in her book: “Even though the Partition was a tragedy in my eye, I decided to stay and I never regretted staying back. I am happy to have kept my name, my religion, my passport and to remain an Indian even after fifty-two years in France.” Raza returned to India in 2010 after the death of the love of his life — Janine.
After early schooling in Damoh, Raza joined the Nagpur School of Arts. In 1943, he was awarded a scholarship to study at the Sir J.J. School of Arts in Bombay. It was in Bombay that he was roped in by Francis Newton Souza — the young Goan artist who had been expelled from the J.J. School for participating in demonstrations against the exploitative colonial practices of the British — to form the now legendary Progressive Artists’ Group along with Maqbool Fida Husain, K.H. Ara, S.K. Bakre and H.A. Gade. Though shortlived, this group played a historic role in trying to find a truly ‘Indian’ art language that could express the aspirations of a nascent nation that had shaken off the colonial yoke. “The real common denominator for us,” said Raza later, “was significant form. We were expressing ourselves differently, we had different visions during the early days but what was common was a search for significant form.”
Akhilesh has described very intimately and endearingly how Raza was always encouraging and inspiring young artists and how he learnt from him to concentrate on colours, how he watched Raza applying black colour to start a fresh painting and how he learnt to delve deep into the mysteries of black. We learn from Dalmia that Raza fell in love with his first cousin Fatima in Damoh and persuaded his aunt (mother’s sister) to marry her daughter to him. The marriage that was solemnised in 1942 fell apart in 1959. Soon after his marriage, Raza left for Bombay to study at J.J. School and then for Paris on a scholarship. Fatima departed for Pakistan along with her family. Raza realised that she could not empathise with a husband who was struggling as a young artist and had her own aspirations. Then, in Paris, he fell in love with Janine and became gradually convinced that he had found a like-minded companion in her.
While Dalmia says that Raza did not invite his wife, Fatima, to Paris despite many pleadings from her, his mother-in-law and other relatives, Akhilesh says that he did invite her many times but she never came because of her attachment to her father. He also makes a mention of a police case registered against Raza in Pakistan charging him with not taking care of his wife, thus leading to the arrival of a posse of French police to his house. As Raza had kept all the receipts of the money sent to her, the police withdrew after apologising. Soon after, Raza married Janine.
Raza was deeply interested in Hindi literature and had many friends among top Hindi writers, including poet Ashok Vajpeyi. He was perhaps the only painter to inscribe lines from Hindi, Urdu and Sanskrit poetry in his paintings.
Raza’s early paintings were figurative but he gradually gravitated towards the abstract and got especially interested in the yogic and tantric concept of ‘Bindu’ (point or dot) that can also be interpreted as shoonya (void). Geeti Sen explains how Raza, inspired by the Ragamala paintings, brought literature, music and painting together. He also had friends among musicians and was particularly close to the U.K.-based sitar maestro Mahmud Mirza for whom he organised a special concert at India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, a few years before his death in 2016. As Vajpeyi says, “Raza was always in love, with the world, with colours, with art, with poetry, with friends. All his works could justifiably be read as love letters to the world... but his real love was his art.”
One hopes that Raza’s centenary celebrations will also prove to be a celebration of art and the grandeur of black will be appreciated in these dark times.
The writer is a senior Hindi poet and journalist who writes on politics and culture.