A rare artist, an extraordinary journey

Celebrated artist S.H. Raza tells Atul Mittal about his childhood days and how he took to canvas

January 09, 2013 08:48 pm | Updated 08:48 pm IST - NEW DELHI:

The dots of life: Syed Haider Raza at his residence in New Delhi. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

The dots of life: Syed Haider Raza at his residence in New Delhi. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

There is not an art-lover who does not identify the much-talked about ‘bindu’ with S.H. Raza. And ever since he came back from France, Raza has been short of neither connoisseurs nor popular acclaim. He has held court at literary festival, art galleries and even seminars. Some excerpts from a chat with the high spirited veteran:

You have never written about your childhood from which 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 very intelligent and gave us direction with respect to religion and the environment of Madhya Pradesh where I was born.

In our district, Brahmins, other Hindus and other tribes lived with nature, trees, hills and the mountains. 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 and pettiness. I disliked school and did not take maths or any other subject seriously. I was about 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 veranda 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 came five to ten minutes later and said, “Shabash”, (Well done). From then on, he started giving me private instructions in art according to my father’s direction. 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 focussed on Gond tribes, nature, birds and the like and this went on till I was ten or eleven. This 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 mid and high school in Damoh and after that 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 after two years I went to Bombay to JJ School of Art on a government scholarship. There Ahiwasi was my teacher. He was a Hindu to the core and filled me with information on art, Hindu tradition and other such subjects. I was really happy in that congenial atmosphere from 1945 to 1948. I was 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.

At the same time, being in India, we were very happy with Independence attained in 1947 and 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 face European art face-to-face. The French cultural attaché suggested I learn French so that I could try for a scholarship. I studied French for two to three years like crazy and got the scholarship. In 1952 I joined the Ecole and it was a magnificent experience to see art there apart from books and visiting libraries. This period of enthusiasm lasted some 20 years but I earned praise for my shows 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 according to my vision then. They were liked and are still sold at Christies and other auctioneers at prices I can’t have imagined then! (Smiles)

Twenty to thirty years of hard work followed. I got an American invitation to go to Berkeley as an invitee and I visited other cities too like New York, Los Angeles, among others. 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. There you are!

Can art be taught?

Yes, art can be and should be. 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 work I have of hers would be 40 years old.

Tell us about your association with her?

I had (smiles affectionately) a very wonderful association with her – as happy as one could be. We shared art ideas. At our wedding, my mother in-law said very politely to me to stay 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. It all depends on the temperament of the artist. 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. Bengali painters, who have contributed to world art, are being recognised abroad now.

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