Raza@100: A journey that’s a celebration in itself

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Nidheesh Tyagi talks about the great S H Raza who journeyed from a hinterland town to Paris

Syed Haider Raza would have been into his 100th year this week. And it has been a long arduous journey from small villages of Madhya Pradesh through mofussil towns and then cities like Bombay to making a good name in Paris. But that is only a limited measure. The journey should be seen in light of work one does, navigating with one’s original elements, negotiating with the influences one gets to experience outside oneself.  How many lives one touches with one’s art and how many people through their own personal conduct, interactions and influences.

Raza’s signature work

Raza carried the forests, trees, the tribal (the Gonds and the Baigas) motifs of his childhood to his works through his Progressive Arts Group years and before that traveling through India (Kashmir, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Saurashtra, Bombay) and learning French to get a scholarship and then struggling there for many years before he settled on his now signature stamp of the Bindu, the Shunya, abstract geometric formations inspired from Tantra. He was the first non-French artist to be awarded the Prix de la critique in Paris in 1956. In his last years he returned to India and set up a foundation to facilitate young artists and creative minds. He passed away in 2016.

Eminent artist Akhilesh has penned a soon to be launched book (Raza: Jaisa Maine Dekha) which chronicles his many years with Raza since his student to the last phase of Raza’s life. This interface is interesting for many reasons. Through Raza he reinforced his journey into colours. At one point Raza tells him about acrylics over oil and gives him a box of tubes to experiment with. There is a shared sense of excitement and delight not just moving from one medium to another, but the realm of possibilities it opens for the artists. At another he tells him how colours open up and are their own elements (tatva) rather than just medium. In most of the exchanges, the master is very curious, keen, spaced and patient while talking about finer nuances of a colour, which opens the artist into newer journeys and forms. Forms which are not exactly dependant on making things obvious, but connecting to the real through subtle, deeper means.

Raza’s early work

It is a fascinating account because most artists are not known for documenting the processes, journeys and experiences. Akhilesh is a noted writer in Hindi in his own right and Raza is a poet in his own. A writer and a poet are talking in colours through the book.

Akhilesh has the facility to write about art in words better than most of us because he is living the story of art and can relate deeply to the triumphs, dilemmas and conflicts of another artist. And at the same time keeping the humaneness this word portraiture intact. He also keeps writing his own journey through these years. Akhilesh has also worked closely with Hussain and Swaminathan in his Bharat Bhawan years and later which brings more insight to his account.

I know how important this can be in the early years, how decisive, how critical to have someone tell us about what’s good about what we are. And that makes it more important for young artists and art lovers to read this amazing work.

His bindu works which are now a phenomenon worldwide

It has a certain dynamic motion to it. Like picture postcards from various  places in a very long journey and meeting points. His own and Raza’s. Most of this happened pre internet age and that speaks about how much effort one had to make to reach out, to document, to connect and converse across time and space. This book is a byproduct of that process. Of this open large-heartedness of a master painter and a young talent (then), who found much insight, validations, confidence, conviction in the process.

There is one more inspiring thing to celebrate.  That Raza was a small town boy, who took with him the bit of India, culture, words, meanings, shades along with him wherever he went and returned to share everything he had earned through his journey.

We will get to know more about it next week in translated excerpts from the book.

(Raza: Jaise Maine Dekha by Akhilesh is being published by Rajkamal Prakashan in Hindi)