Raza@100: Artist Akhilesh talks about the many times he crossed paths with the master of colour

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(Editor’s note: Abir Pothi is excited to bring you book excerpts from Raza: Jaisa Maine Dekha (Rajkamal Prakashan) by noted artist Akhilesh, where he has sketched with words his long association with Syed Haidar Raza from the author’s early days to Raza’s last. We thank Akhilesh for allowing us to translate and use excerpts for Abir readers. This is special because Raza would have entered his 100th year in 2021. It is a useful book for art lovers and, specially, young artists as they get a ringside view of the journeys of two artists crossing, connecting and sometimes entwining their paths and destinations.)

 

1978 was an important year for me. This was the year when I completed my studies and wanted to take a specialisation course on sculpture studies. This was also the golden jubilee year of our college. And to have Devlalikar Sahab as our teacher was something wonderful. One more thing happened, which we had no idea of, but which taught me how to see.

During winters we came to know that S H Raza’s work would be shown in ‘Utsav 78’, a multi-art programme organised by Kala Parishad Bhopal. I had not seen his work before, nor had any idea about how his works looked like. During the Utsav, exhibitions of Husain and Bendre had already been organised, so we had a sense this too would be a special exhibition and Raza would be an important artist. We talked amongst ourselves who all are keen to go, but not many showed interest. Finally, only three of us – Qadir, Haren Shah and I – went to see Raza’s work. We took a night train without ticket and reached Bhopal early in the morning and we went straight to Kala Parishad, where the exhibition was to be inaugurated. We reached about 10 in the morning and met Raza sahab in the campus. Those days in our minds image of a painter for us was closer to Husain, with his shabby clothes, unkempt beard, a jhola slung on his shoulders. This was the common image. To imagine an artist without all that was not only difficult, but also as if wrong.

He was standing there: gentlemanly, clean shaven and in a good suit. Raza was very particular about his choice of clothes (till the end and, if you happened to be with him, he would also be very conscious about your choice of clothes), soft-spoken and very contrary to the image we had. When he found out we have come from Indore to watch his works, his face gleamed. He asked each of us our names and excitedly walked us into the exhibition. This was my first experience of watching an exhibition of abstract works. As we entered into the gallery and saw his abstract works, I asked Raza sahab, “Samjhaiye…” (please explain). He asked me, “How many days are you going to be here?” I said, “Three days”. He said, “Watch it for three days then, we will talk in the end.” The exhibition was not completely set up. Some works were still left to be hanged.

He then got busy talking to the carpenter and some other people, and we three were left alone with the paintings. The gallery was illuminated with the colours of Raza’s paintings, their colours were glowing. The attraction of colours was pulling us deeper into them. This was a celebration of Raza’s freedom. Before this he was painting landscapes, Indian landscapes – Onkareshwar, Maheshwar, Kashmir, Mumbai etc., and now living in France, scenes from there, in his own signature construction and constitution, as mentioned by Henry Cartier Bresson in Kashmir about the lack of construction in painting.

S H Raza’s painting ‘Rajasthan’

These works from the Seventies marked a fresh beginning for him, which made him what he is known for. These works were the personification of his wandering through the forests of Central India in Mandla, from his childhood days.

Here it is relevant to talk about his meeting with Cartier-Bresson. Raza received a scholarship in 1948 to travel to various parts of India and make landscapes. (I don’t know why this scholarship was discontinued), and he travelled to Onkareshwar, Maheshwar (Banks of Narmada river near Indore) and reached up to Kashmir. There he met Cartier Bresson (the very reputed photographer of ‘The decide moment’ fame), who saw his works and told him that the works are very good, but they lacked construction. It was difficult for a 26-year-old youth to understand what is construction in a painting. Bresson just hinted that to understand construction one could look at Paul Cézanne’s work. Raza returned to Mumbai intrigued and started looking for Cézanne’s works.

Just around this time he finalised the idea of forming the Progressive Artists Group with F N Souza and K H Ara and also that the group should not be very big. They decided each will add one member to the group. Souza brought in M F Hussain, Raza brought in H A Gade and Ara included Sadanand Bakre to the group. Thus, the foundation of this group was kept during the exhibition of Raza’s works, made through the scholarship. Later, in the same year, the group’s first and only exhibition was held. Raza kept his quest alive and he found out about a one-year scholarship offered by the French Embassy and that it required knowledge of the French language in order to be considered. Raza took French classes and learnt it fast enough. His works, his keen quest, and probably his newly-learnt French helped him land the scholarship with a concession. It was extended to a two-year period. Raza reached Paris in beginning of the Fifties.

 

‘Colours are not just the medium…’

The exhibition in Kala Parishad, Bhopal, was an evidence of “seeing” Raza. The works were evidence of what the artist was living and breathing. These works were not different from the landscapes any more, but the scene was not something external anymore. These were landscapes which were not there earlier. This was a gift of Raza to the world. The ‘Rajasthan’ he painted does not exist anywhere in the world, but only in his painting. The sun he painted is not about painting the sun. It was Raza’s sun, the shine of which had encompassed the blue of his painting ‘Sailab’, where a storm was just about to strike.

Photo credit: Raza Nyas

This was the time when Raza had just started painting with acrylic colours and left oils, which was the newest medium then. Raza went to Berkeley University in California for three years to teach in the Sixties. Acrylic colours had just been invented around that time and introduced in the American market. Raza loved the water colour quality of this new medium and gave up working with oil colours. These works were painted in this new medium and had a fresh flavour to it. It marked a new beginning for Raza. This also helped him find his own direction. Ajit Mukherji’s book ‘Tantra’ introduced new forms related to tantrik practice, which attracted many modern painters. Some kept copying them over and over, but Raza took time to understand and assimilate them, to harness and process them with his own childhood experiences and developed his own style to start a new chapter in the arts, which we know as Raza’s art. In this exhibition the displayed paintings ‘Sailab’ and ‘Rajasthan’ are not about a storm, or floods or the deserts. Nor are they visualisations of the literal meanings of those nouns. These works were actually ‘metascapes’.

These were paintings of ‘colour-feelings’ far from the traditional visualisation of landscapes. For the first time I began to understand that colours are not the medium but the main elements of art. The dominance of red is not a distraction, but an attraction, that it is not aggressive, that it is also calm and very beautiful. In ‘Rajasthan’ one can note the relation of red colour with others. The white used here is the pulse of the painting. These works shook my common perception of colours. I remembered this sentence from a letter Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, “The artist of future would be of colour’s.” I saw this happen with my own eyes.

One could sense the conversations colours were striking with us through those works. I was hooked.  For three days I kept looking at the works with much attention and found out about Raza’s process, how he begins, how he applies colours. My friends kept spending time meeting their friends and others in Bhopal, but they would drop me at the gallery in the morning. Raza also saw me spend my time with his works. Last day he walked to me and said, “Let me explain to you now. I said, “I have understood.” He was happy and walked away. We returned to Indore.

 

Black, the primal, was Raza’s starting point

On our way back from Bhopal to Indore, I kept wondering about how Raza begins to work on his painting. Mostly with black colour. During the journey Haren and Qadir began to see Raza’s works through my way of seeing. His colours kept chasing me even after reaching Indore. Around that time, in our college (Chandresh) Saxena sir told us Raza is coming and an exhibition will be organised in his honour. Works of local artists and pass-outs from the college will be included in this show. We students were excited and took it upon ourselves to organise it and within two days, collected all the works. A grand exhibition was installed under the direction of Saxena sir. Soon one day we saw Raza climbing the stairs of our college.

I had no idea about the surprises waiting for us. One was that Saxena sir and Raza saheb had studied together. We students were standing outside the college hall. Raza and Saxena sir climbed the stairs and we all folded hands before him. Nodding to us, he asked Saxena sir, where is the exhibition, ‘ I would like to first see it and alone.’  Saxena sir opened the door and ushered him in. We remained standing outside and kept watching Raza entering the hall. Saxena sir went to his room, where other artists of the city were present. My father (Ramji Varma) was amongst them.

After a while Raza walked out of the exhibition hall and went to Saxena sir’s office and returned with all artists and entered the hall again. We students were still waiting outside for the formal opening and address by Raza. After some time again the door opened and Saxena sir came outside. He looked at me and asked me come inside. I opened the door and got inside and saw Raza standing before my work and on seeing me coming in, said it loudly, ‘This is the only painting in the room!’

Everyone started looking at me, which included Vishnu Chinchalkar, D J Joshi, Dubey sir, my father, Mirza Ismail Beg, Shantilal Jain, Saswadkar sir, Saksena sir, Vasant Agashe, D C Jayant among others.

I felt sudden pang of awkward embarrassment. That Raza singled out my work for praise, while the hall was full of works from respected and senior artists were also there, who all have been source of inspiration for me. I walked towards him with bowed head. Raza said that sentence again and then my father said, he is my son. Raza looked at him and said this time looking at me, ‘I liked your work.’ I kept listening with my bowed head and was waiting for this to get over. Raza again said something in praise. I mumbled about this work is based on a shlok (couplet) of the poet Kalidas from his work Ritu Samhara. He describes various seasons in this anthology. In his chapter of Grishma Ritu (summers), Kalidas describes a young woman wanting to rest in the heat of the day, and in the process she is unaware of how dishevelled her clothes have become.

Raza liked my description and started looking at the work again. While he was seeing the work, I said Namaskar to him and walked out of the hall. After that the event began. As he sat on podium Saxena sir in his welcome address said he and Raza sahab were together in art school and my father was one year senior to them. They used to go to Mumbai for yearly exams from Madhya Pradesh. These exams went on for three months and they had to rent a room and lived together. Saxena sir was from Ujjain. Raza came from Nagpur and my father from Indore. They became thick friends during those four-five years. During holidays in between exams they would go to various locations in and around Mumbai to do landscapes.

Raza became sentimental while speaking. He said this is the day of Ram and Bharat milaap. This was also coincidental that Raza returned to his birthplace state of Madhya Pradesh after 14 years. Saxena sir kept these 14 years in centre of his address. My father also addressed the gathering remembering his association with Raza. He remembered how Raza advised a student to use deep yellow colour in place of blue skies in a painting. And that student got better marks after making this small change.

Not just for me, but that day was full of learning for all students. Raza spent good time seeing the paintings and spoke to the ones, whose works he liked. The time for students, who were thoroughly enjoying meeting and talking to him, had to end. In between he told me, he would want to see more of my works and if he would get an opportunity he would definitely see them. I told my father that Raza saheb wants to see more of my paintings, so he should invite him home. He told me, you invite him, but he must be busy, he is a state guest. Raza was state guest and had a 10-member security detail from state police. Just when he was about to leave, I invited him. He stopped and took out his diary and started looking at it. His second day was completely full with appointments. He said, ‘I am busy from seven in the morning.’ I said, ‘can I come to get you at six? Our house is just two minutes away from where you are staying.’ Raza was staying at Residency Kothi at Indore, and our house was indeed two minutes away. Raza kept thinking and took out his pen. He asked, “What is your name?’ And wrote in his diary – “Akhilesh morning 6 o’clock.”

I was euphoric by this development and had no clue of more surprises which awaited me. We were all enamoured by Raza’s gracious and dignified presence, and his style of speaking, besides showing attention to finer details of all works and talking about it. We kept talking about him after he had left and kept trying to look at paintings from his view point. Raza had created in all of us a new way of thinking.

 

A gift box of acrylic colours

Next day, I reached Residency Kothi early in the morning. Raza was ready and sitting outside. I said “Namaste” to him. He beamed at me happily and asked me to sit. One more time, he asked me about the subject of the painting and took out his diary and noted Kalidas, Ritu Samhar. It was quarter to six then. He looked at his watch. His security detail had not arrived and he was getting a bit anxious about it. He asked me about acrylic colours. Obviously, I was hearing about them for the first time and had no clue what were they about. He started talking about them and then went inside his room. He came out with a box in his hands. He gave it to me and said, please try using them. “You will find effects of both — oil as well as water colours in them.”

For Raza colour was the prime element in his art. He made colours sing

I opened the box. It had 12 tubes of acrylic colours inside them. I was excited by this rise of adventurous feeling of using new colours. We used to work hard those days. Saxena sir had allowed some of the serious students (I, Prakash Ghatole and Dariyav) to keep working through late hours. The college closed at noon and most students left the classes. After that there were only few of us, who were keen to work.

One of those days, Mehta Babu from the college’s office called me to say, ‘Your fees for this year have not been deposited.’ He also meant my father hasn’t come to college for some days. He was the one who would deposit the fee. I was also not mindful about this. When I reached home, I told my father about my conversation with Mehta Babu. That my fee has not been deposited and Mehta Babu was remembering him.  My father gave me Rs 2 and said this is your fee for four months, you can deposit this. I was shocked that the monthly fee of my college was 50 paise. We used to spend more on drinking tea daily. Annual fee was Rs 6. Colours were not cheap and we always felt short of them. One tube costed 75 paise and it was not easy to buy. Since we worked more, we were always short of colours. But we found a way to address this shortage.

There were many female students who would take admission in college waiting for their marriages and they were not short of money. We — Ghatole, Dariyav and I — spread the word in the college that we are available to do sessional works for students. We will do it for free. All we needed was colours and other materials. Soon, we had many students giving us materials. This gave us two benefits. One, we got more opportunity to work. And, two, we could save colours from the work for our own use. This arrangement really made me very happy.

Back there, I could sense an increasing restlessness in Raza sahab. He was a state guest and his security detail should have arrived by quarter to six, but they were nowhere to be seen. He asked me if I would have some tea and then asked the Khansama in the guest house to bring two cups of chai. He was visibly restless now. He was distracted while talking to me about college and art scene of Indore city. I told him about my first exhibition. About a drawing which was 110 feet long. He was paying attention to me now. He said he would like to see that work. When I told him it got torn, while removing it from the exhibition, he said an artist should not just be responsible for making art, but also be careful about their upkeep, maintenance, framing, mounting etc.

I found out much later, when I could visit his studios in Paris and Gorbio in South of France, that he used to frame his paintings himself. I hadn’t paid much heed when he was telling me in that solitary corner of Residency Kothi about how the edges are cut at 90 degrees to fit into each other and how one should do it without carpenter’s help. I was extremely happy that he is going to come home and I am here to take him there.

I could see him losing his patience, but he kept talking about how acrylic colours need special canvas. Canvas available in India then were meant for oils, and one cannot use acrylic on those surfaces. He told me, the base of these colours is water and since the usual canvas is meant for oils, the colours will not stay on them. This, too, was a new thing for me. We just knew one type of canvas. He went in and brought out a role of acrylic canvas and gave it to me, saying you must use those colours on this canvas. This is specially made for acrylic colours. Now I had two things.

 

A visit full of surprises

Suddenly, he went down the flight of stairs and looked in the direction of the road, from where police guards were to come. There was no trace of them anywhere, so he returned. By then the khansama had brought tea and poured in two cups. It was already six and Raza sahab was very restless. We drank the tea at ease. After a while he said, you were saying your house is nearby, only two minutes away. Let us go. He called the khansama and told him, “When the security guards come, please ask them to stay here. I will come back in some time.”

We started walking. As we reached the gates of the huge Residency Kothi, three cars entered the premises. Some police officers alighted from the cars and they saluted Raza sahab and stood by with the door open of the middle car to usher him in. Raza gave them an angry lecture about being late and then we both sat. The cars began to move. Another surprise was waiting for me at my house.

Because of the car, we reached my house faster. While getting down Raza said, “It is indeed two minutes away. Usually in India people say two minutes, which turn into hours.” He also said his many visiting friends from India in Paris are very casual about time and don’t act responsibly. “They say something and do something else. They promise they will come in evening and won’t come, won’t even inform on phone. When you meet them after four days, even then they will not tell you why they couldn’t make it. When you ask them, they will tell you they had some work and will forgot about it again. You should always remember this. If people do not believe words they speak, why should they be trusted by others.”

The car stopped. One police officer opened the doors and before alighting from the car, Raza looked towards the house attentively. Then he got down. He was welcomed by my father, my brother Devesh and Qadir. Qadir was my childhood friend. He used to paint but was not studying in college. I had called Qadir with some of his work so that he could meet Raza sahab and also show his work to him. He had come early morning. Qadir had a pleasing persona and was a very lovable character. We got to know Raza better then. We didn’t know that he was interested in young artists’ works.  He was a state guest and a very famous man. We were in awe of the glorious man. He was the first state guest visiting our house.

Just then I was really surprised the second time. Raza entered our house, as if it was a familiar place for him. He came inside and paused to see the wall, where I had painted a scene from Ajanta and on other the side a Kangra miniature with Radha-Krishna. He saw them and crossed the room and entered middle room and into the courtyard. Then he walked into the room, which was my mother’s room in the house. We used to have 3-4 wooden beds (takhats). They were so big and heavy that they were only moved during annual Diwali cleaning and when the house needed to be painted. Raza sahab looked at that room. Then he pointed towards one of the beds and asked my father, “Is this where I used to sleep? My father nodded in affirmation. Raza sahab walked to the wall of the room and touched it. His eyes were moist and gleaming. He walked out of the room. From the verandah he walked to the courtyard. He knelt down and picked some earth and touched his forehead with it. He saw two guava trees in the courtyard and asked father, “These were not there then?” Father told him, “Yes these are new. The old ones had died.” Raza kept looking at the courtyard. It had one Bael tree and two guava ones. There were shrubs of roses. He walked to the trees and touched them and then returned. He kept looking at the tiled roofs of the house, and other parts of courtyard. As if trying to remember the time he spent here.

That he had lived in this house was shocking information to me.

I asked Qadir to show him his work. I had asked him to bring only a few selected works, but he brought about three hundred works. His younger brother Quddus was also with him. Raza began to see his work. In between he kept asking and talking to him as well. Qadir was very excited. But soon Raza looked at me and said, “I want to see your work.” Father brought him to the drawing room of the house. He saw some of my works there. I found it unbelievable that Raza had come to this house earlier and used to stay here. I was very surprised that father never told us about it. In fact, they didn’t ever say it in college where they met, that they were such good acquaintances. When Raza got his scholarship in 1948 to travel across India and make landscapes, he had spent 3-4 months at our place. This was his base camp. He was travelling to Onkareshwar, Maheshwar and other places to do landscapes. That he has spent such long span of time at our house, that he was my father’s friend, my father never told us. He didn’t even mention it in his speech at college. It was strange for me, that he was this close but there was also this sense of distance. Raza’s affection and concerns were clearly visible. There were some other things, which disappointed me. Father always told us to spend every formal occasion with simplicity and piety. He was tasteful but simple. He was always conscious and alert that even if one doesn’t celebrate with pomp and cheer, one can wear clean and decent dress. Everyone was impressed with this taste, but that day he was just wearing a lungi (drape) and a shawl over a dishevelled sweater. I did not like this part of the moment.

Raza who was very conscious about taste, was welcomed by his friend with such affinity and he was treated in the same old ways. Raza did not eat anything for the time he was there. Sumptuous food was made for him, but it was all given to the security guards attached to him. All that Raza wanted to have was coffee and kept watching my work and sketch books with interest. He kept talking and listening. He spoke to my father about their times. From Kababs of Bade Miyan to the difficult situation at J J School. They were soon lost in talking about shared memories of the olden days. He had come for only an hour and was supposed to visit someone at 7, but now it was all delayed. He told one of the police officers to go inform the person that he will be late. Raza spent that time at my house and with his friend with all those memories which were from their time. I was very surprised by that and also that father was so distanced from all this.

Not just for me, Raza’s Indore visit enthused and inspired all artists. We all had this eternal image of the artist in Husain. But that image was slightly dented now. We knew now artists could come in different forms. Not that we didn’t really know about it. My father was an artist and we were visited by all kinds of artists and they were all different from each other. Vishnu Chinchalkar was diametrically different from Dhawal Klant. But we had not seen anyone like Raza. I had met Husain, Bendre, Ram Kumar amongst others, besides Husain, no one had that persona that would leave an impression on us. Raza, as against all the others, was registered as a gentleman artist in our minds.

 

Finding a home in Paris

I went to France for the first time in 1997. Raza had invited me, rather his wife Janine had. I was returning from America. I was invited by the Tawson University in Maryland for three months. I was to speak about contemporary Indian art and to curate an exhibition of Indian artists for them. Frankly, I was not very excited about this France visit after being disenchanted by the tiresome false shine of America. I wanted to reach home at the earliest. That I would get a window to spend 10 days with Raza sahab was the only attraction I had, which was taking me in a cab after landing at the Paris airport to his home. After getting down at Rue de Charonne, I looked at that old building. I could see him smiling and waving a hand from the window. I was surprised that he was up and ready so early in the morning and was waiting for me. The building he lived in was used as a stopover lodge for the Christian nuns in the 16th century.

It used to have separate rooms for residents, where nuns used to stay. Raza sahab used to live on first floor. It had seen repairs many times, without much altering of the original shape and form. The vintage feel was spread all over the stairs and walls and windows. The wooden stairs used to creak while stepping on them.

Just after opening the doors, he hugged me. I wished him and we entered the house. Janine was inside. My happiness knew no bounds when I saw my painting hanging on the opposite wall. I remember Raza sahab bought this painting from a Delhi exhibition. He also bought two more works which were on paper. The air of formality had suddenly disappeared. The heaviness I was carrying from America had gone. Janine made some coffee for us and called us in. We sat across the table by the window in their bedroom, which was attached to kitchen. Janine brought the coffee on table. She sat on the bed resting on pillows. We began having coffee, while Raza was briefly inquiring about my America trip. Then he took me to a nearby house, where my stay was arranged. Raza told me that he brought one room first, then the second, then the third, and turned it into home. It has a bedroom and kitchen. Then there is a middle room, where the dining table is placed. The third is a guest room, which is also Raza’s studio. In between, there is a house of two rooms, which was for Janine’s parents. After they died, Janine uses it as her studio. Her etching machine was kept there. On one wall, there were many paintings resting. Most of them were bought by Raza, mostly of Indian artists. Some were his own works and Janine’s, too. Raza was excited to show me those works. In that lot, there were works of Rajendra Dhawan, Prabhakar Kolte, Satish Panchal, Yogendra Tripathi, two of mine, Seema Guraiya, Jogen Choudhury, Taiyab Mehta, Zarina Hashmi, Krishna Reddy and some unknown ones. Raza had also forgotten their names.

Raza showed me his complete house. Showed me my bed. The bed cover was a sheet of Bagh print. Raza said Janine made up this room especially for you. This was her father’s bedroom. One window of the room opened to the roadside. The book rack was full of titles in French language. Then he showed me the kitchen and bath and asked me to get ready and come to them by noon. Then Raza left me in the room and I began to open my suitcases.

 

Mitti from Mandla and other memorabilia

When I reached back, Raza was working in his studio and Janine was in kitchen. I sat down and kept watching him work. I kept inspecting the studio. There were two big racks full of books. Underneath there was an open space with many prints kept there. Opposite that there was an almirah, without covers. There were many small and tiny statuettes kept there. Ganesha, Bal-Gopal, Krishna, Shiv ling, Jesus Christ on the cross, a kalash, a picture of his guru Mohan Kulkarni, a picture of Jesus, fresh flowers, two coconuts, different types of partially burnt candles, a small carved wood structure of Mary and child Jesus, books of Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Geeta Pravachan, Bible, Quran, Ram Charit Manas, an anthology of Tulsidas’s dohas (couplets), some pens, some more books, some old papers, an old picture in a small frame, and some catalogues were all placed there. There were small bottles which had earth (Mitti) from different places (Mandla, Wardha, Damoh, Shanti Niketan), a picture of his mother, another of his teacher, one big conch shell, a statuette of Hanuman, some very small statuettes, many rosaries hanging from the shelf.

This almirah was full of memorabilia, from the time and places he lived, and he had very delicately collected and kept them there. The wall next to this shelf had a wooden statue hanging on it. One the left hand side door, there was this picture of Amrita Sher-Gil in a poster of Indian exhibition in Paris. Next to that was a beautifully framed page of miniature work. Below that was a collage of Janine. And a small painting of Raza. The studio was full of pictorial delights and tastefully arranged. Resting on the wall was a freshly made big painting by Raza. Raza was absorbed in his work. I was looking at the pictures in the studio. One rack on the side was full of papers, files, fax machine, film cassettes, film rolls, camera, tripod, lamps and loads of other stuff, which couldn’t clearly be identified. Just then Janine came and whispered something to Raza. He washed the brush he was holding in the utensil and got up from his easel. Then he said, let us go, the driver is here.

Both of us came down. The car was parked there. Raza nodded to get inside. Raza said something to the driver and it started moving. Raza told me, ‘Since you have come here for the first time, let me show you some bits of the city. Let us see some parts. Then you will get to know.’ That day first we drove to École des Beaux-Arts (National School of Arts), where he was a student. Then we went to museums of Louvre and Musée d’Orsay, then to street of  Champs-Élysées and then to hill and art district of Montmartre. I was watching the city as the car kept moving. Raza Sahab kept telling me about each place. You must come here, we will come here tomorrow, look at that sculpture of Rodin. We remained in the moving car. We didn’t stop anywhere, or got down to see anything and Raza kept talking about coming tomorrow or later. He wanted me to get a sense and feel of the city so that I do not have to feel like an outsider here. Finally, at a restaurant in Montmartre we got down, when he said let us eat something here. ‘I used to live here earlier,’ he said. This is where Picasso, Chagall and many other great painters had their studios. We sat down around a table outside restaurant. I found it strange in Paris that everyone sitting outside the restaurants was facing the street. Raza sahab asked me, ‘Would you like to sit outside or inside?’ I was liking the air outside, so we kept sitting there. In a while, a waiter came and placed two beers before us. He was very busy and had no time to listen to us. He came to take the order much later. Raza sahab offered me a cigarette and lit one for himself. Raza sahab kept talking. He kept telling me about things and I kept asking while listening to him. We were at ease and there was no hurry to finish eating food and then rushing to see more things. We kept smoking our cigarettes and sipping our beer. Then the food was served. We had food and then slightly high, sat in the car. Raza said something to the driver and the car started moving. Through the day we saw all the important places in Paris, that included the Notre Dame, the Pompidou Centre, the Palace of Versailles, Picasso Museum, Dali Museum, Paris Museum of Modern Art, Palais de Tokyo, Grand Palace, the Moulin Rouge, Rue de Rivoli and the Opéra Bastille. We returned home in the evening around 7 pm.

I went to my room. Raza sahab had asked me to come at 9 pm. I kept turning the pages of the books lying there. Most of them were in French. Some books were of literature, some architecture, some fine arts, history, about various countries along with some catalogues were there. I lost sense of time and then suddenly I heard someone knocking at the door. I heard Raza Sahab calling my name and the doorbell rang. I opened the door. He looked worried and asked with concern, “Did you go to sleep? It is almost 10 pm, I got worried since you didn’t come.’

 

The painter reads his favourite poem

I was confused. I couldn’t make out how it had gotten this late. Outside it was still not dark — in fact it was like evening. We went to his house. Janine welcomed me of the dining table. Raza sahab took out a new bottle of wine and filled three glasses. There was a new table cloth spread over it. The cutlery and fork and knives were all laid. Raza sahab said Janine has made special dishes for me. French dinner is famous for its fairly prolonged sequence. I was to experience that on that evening. Janine kept bringing one dish after another. Raza sahab and I kept talking. Janine used to join us in between and we kept sipping wine, talking and eating food. Then suddenly, Raza said he wants to read a poem and then he recited this poem of Hindi poet Agyey, which he knew by heart. In between, he went to studio and brought his diary “Dhai Akhar” (two-and-a-half letters), where he had noted this poem, but didn’t need to open it. When he was reading it, his eyes were playful and intense. He then translated the poem to Janine, and since he had done it many a times before, Janine kept correcting his rendition at several places. This is how the poem in English sounds like:

 

When the day arrives where

The body extinguishes or splinters,

Let your eyes continue

With their laughter

These hands committed many a transgression

These feet travelled to destinations right and wrong

The mind, too, nurtured

False goals

The speech, knowingly-unknowingly,

Uttered a hundred lies

Yet, the eyes saw

Defeat

Suffering

Departures and

The dark shadows of death

With disarming clarity

 

The original in Hindi reads like this:

 

जब आवे दिन

तब देह बुझे या टूटे, इन

आँखों को

हँसती रहने देना।

हाथों ने बहुत अनर्थ किये

पग ठौर – कुठौर चले,

मन के

आगे भी खोटे लक्ष्य रहे

वाणी ने (जाने – अनजाने) सौ झूठ कहे पर आँखों ने

हार

दुःख

अवसान

मृत्यु का

अन्धकार भी देखा तो

सच – सच देखा

A newspaper clipping of the Bombay Progressive Artists Group,1948. Front-row (from-left): F.N Souza, K.H Ara, H.A Gade.Seated behind (from left) M.F Husain, S K Bakre and S.H Raza

The evening was getting beautiful and interesting gradually. Raza told me that the next dish we were going to be served, is accompanied by white wine only, so finish this glass. Then he took the glass inside and kept it there. Now, white wine was poured into other glasses. Outside the window, it was still daylight, but the hour was turning to 11 pm. I was unable to realise that it is so late now. After the delicious food, Janine brought cheese on a wooden board. There were many types of cheese arranged on the board and an old knife to cut them, which I assumed must be her parents’. It had an ivory handle and was delicately carved. Janine said this was the most important part of French food and then she gave me a quick primer on various types, ‘This cheese is from Normandy, made from the milk of cows that graze on the hills, 1,200 feet above sea level and not in the plains, and therefore it tastes so delicious.’ Comté is sourced only from East of France. Different parts of France were known for different kinds of cheese. She served us Camembert, Roquefort, Brie and then it ended with Blue cheese, which is made on the borders of France and Switzerland. Not liked by many outsiders, it is more of a living organism because it has bacteria in it. I loved this variety and that made Janine happy. She gave me a second round of helping ending with Blue cheese. This was new for me. I had never ever eaten cheese before. The paneer we get in our country is very different from this as fresh cheese, but that was not prevalent there. Blue cheese is such a delicacy, I found out that evening.

Raza concluded the evening with Cognac and he brought small glasses for that. It was to be had in one go like a shot. This also I did for the first time. And did that twice. Cognac is what we know as ‘one for the road.’ I used to read about Cognac in Nirmal (Verma) ji’s stories. Before that I mispronounced it as Kognak when I read Van Gogh’s book Lust for Life, because of its spelling.

That evening, Raza said one more thing and with the rider that I must remember it. He said, ‘You have come to Paris, you will meet people and they will also invite you for dinners. Please be careful if you are invited at 8 o’clock, reach there on time. If you are getting late, please call them to say you will get there by 8.15. if you reach by 8.30, please offer apologies with reasons for delay. If you are going to be further delayed, then don’t go. Call up next morning and apologise. Many people come here from India and they are not conscious of time. Like you had forgotten to come at 9. You should mean what you say and follow that.’ This was a big lesson for me. I had never thought about this before.

 

After Janine was no more…

2002 was a difficult year for Raza. Janine was detected with cancer and she was treated for long, but it had become so painful that she was admitted in the hospital. Raza sahab could go see her only for an hour in the evenings. Janine was usually under the effect of painkillers, losing her senses and memory. Raza would go everyday and sit there for an hour. There wasn’t much hope. And prayers also didn’t work. He phoned. I was in Hyderabad. He talked to Anu, my wife. He informed her about Janine’s demise, ‘I am sitting alone on a chair in my home, and just now the hospital had called to inform me about her death. I am alone and unable to understand… I called Ashok (Vajpayee) first, but he is also busy, we couldn’t speak. I wanted to speak to Akhilesh, even he is not around. Strange times, people dear to me are not around me.’ Anu called me and told me Raza sahab wants to speak to me.

I immediately called him and talked to him. I could hear the pain and loneliness in his voice. He had started crying while talking to me… and then he kept mumbling something in French, something in English and some in Hindi…And after a while he restrained and excused himself, saying the weather in Paris is changing, his throat is not good, and he is not feeling well. ‘I need to take Janine to Gorbio (her family place in France) and prepare for that.’ I had no words to condole him. My mind had just stopped working. I hadn’t seen or imagined Raza in this state and I said whatever I could come up with. Raza was the one who kept talking. It was a 43-year-long relationship that had just ended. Not just a relationship, but also the backbone of a relationship that freed Raza from many worries, because of her, the strange world of Paris had become his own.

A few months after this development, Raza called me again and said in a very broken voice, “I am feeling very lonely. Ramkumar (the painter) had come for four days and we were together but he had to go yesterday. Would it be possible for you to come to Paris to live with me?”

After this every year till 2010, I kept visiting Raza sahab in France for some months in summers.

After Janine’s death, Raza was lost in Paris. He was like a child who was not able to relate with the surrounding world. Raza used to feel lonely in Paris. He was trying to forget himself by focusing on his art and also getting distracted as well. There was this Polish woman coming thrice a week to clean the house and cook food. She would take care of all the house work. This was the time when Raza’s attention got centred around the Bindu (dot). He made many paintings with the Bindu. He was focussed on the Bindu now and he made his most talked about works in this phase — ‘Bindu’, ‘Jal-Bindu’, ‘Avartan’ (the rotation), ‘Tiryak’ (slanted line), Satyamev Jayate (truth always wins), ‘Naad Bindu’, ‘Neel-Shyam’, ‘Bindu-Panchtatv’, etc. And he kept making some of them again and again. He kept saying Bindu was the shunya (zero), then it became the sun, then colours were seen in light and this led to beginnings of new life. For Raza, the Bindu had become Prana Bindu (the central dot of life).

 

Art that got lonelier

Raza had begun to like the art world of Paris. Money was in short supply. Sale of his works was in hands of the gallery, Lara Vinchy, and as it happens with all galleries of the world, it was not able to give Raza enough assurance that he could be free from financial worries. Raza found a place where he could teach Hindi. He also occasionally earned some money by doing some design work. His friends helped in that and sometimes he was helped by his peers from his art school, École des Beaux-Arts. Akbar Padamsee had moved into Paris. Ram Kumar was already there. These three friends met once or more in a week and talked about art at Louvre or other museums. Sometimes they met on picnics and at others in Raza’s small studio.

Once Husain came to Paris and he took along Raza and Akbar to buy a very elegant bridal dress and invited both his friends to join him in his marriage. He also bought a Beetle car and the idea was to drive down to Prague, where the bride Maria was waiting for Husain. Husain wanted the three friends to have this car ride and to have them around for the event. Raza liked this plan and he was waiting for Akbar to agree for this. Husain was very excited. He had made up his mind to divorce his wife Fazila, now that Maria was now ready. Akbar expressed his inability to join in. On the other hand, Raza had to excuse himself because Janine’s father was not well and he was to be attended. Now Husain went to Prague on his car alone. However, Maria changed her mind and refused to marry him. Husain returned after gifting her the dress and also the car.

Raza’s work had gradually begun to take shape. Raza’s mind was never out of his childhood and he found himself lonely in Paris. If Janine wasn’t around him, it would have been more difficult for him. Janine kept encouraging, motivating him besides helping him through difficult times and dilemmas. Raza’s paintings had begun to speak more clearly now. While describing nature in his paintings, his relationship with nature was getting into a deeper configuration. He was able to read complex codes of nature and turn them into language of colour and art. This was not just a visual description. Nor a realist depiction. Raza was able to find hints of art in nature, which made his paintings possible. Colours were no more mysterious. There were no complex secrets of design. Intuitive wisdom had become his source.

Raza’s seeing and painting was getting into a rhythm. Raza remembered his days of impoverishment and he was not able to earn much in France. That he could manage his day-to-day expense, scrap his life through, buy canvas and colours was just barely possible then. And in that situation, he used to call his patrons to his studio to help his friend Ram Kumar. This buyer used to buy Raza’s works occasionally. Raza told him about Ram Kumar’s work and insisted that the buyer should check out his (Ram Kumar’s work) and could buy if he liked them. He was hopeful that the buyer would take one or two works of Ram Kumar. When he came, Raza left the studio, so that the buyer doesn’t get distracted from Ram Kumar’s to Raza’s works and change his mind. The buyer liked Ram Kumar’s works and bought some as well.

Meanwhile, Raza’s paintings were becoming lonelier. They were more than landscapes.  His innate ability to paint stillness, emptiness and their glory was also connecting him to his mysterious, strange, unresolved, unnamed issues of childhood.

Paul Gauthier writes about these works, “If you look at them analytically, one can see the basic structure of these paintings. The motive of not differentiating between artistic and physical worlds leads to yet another beginning of monotheism from ancient philosophy. In fact, there is no western challenge to physical and mental, body and soul here. The elements which are here, exist here in their fundamental forms. The origin and the medium are both same.”

“The Bindu as base of all conscious lives is the original source of energy and power and it is where all the five elements (earth, fire, water, sky, wind). Accordingly, to these five elements, there are five sources to light, which are mixed by becoming base colours in the rays of the sun.”

“The inter-relation amongst the re-attainment of eternity of the base circle of creation, its movement and rhythm in a pronounced form and its discipline forms the base of these recurring forms in the paintings. The circular movement is a form of world’s movement, disrupted by the dark shapes of night. But the same black colour becomes threshold of life in its foggy form in his painting Greeshm (Summers). Black colour attracts with its mystery and the artists wants to go to the depth of this mystery and find meanings continuously from there. Thus, black colour is not the last point of these canvas’s movement, but become the mysterious origin source of the cycle. By reaching the ancient source of colours, Raza’s canvas reveal the deepest truth of arts through the ancient form provided by his each brush stroke.”

The Bindu Paul Gauthier was seeing hints of in Raza’s work, had not surfaced yet. I also wanted to remind here, that I had strongly felt this when I spent three days seeing his work in Bhopal, that Raza begins every work of his with black colour.

Husain and Raza

An indelible connection

I was telling Haren and Qadir on the bus on our way back to Indore from Bhopal with excitement and enthusiasm. This was verified when I spent time with him in Paris and saw him working. Raza was excited about my visit there. Raza used to visit India every year and he habitually would offer an invite to any young artist who he felt confident about. This was discontinued after an accident. After many years at the behest of Janine, he invited me and arranged to live in their house. Many years back one Goan artist reached Paris at their invitation. Raza and Janine looked after him. From paying for him to helping him learn French, to his food and lodging arrangement. After every possible help, offering everything they could, they sent him to London for his unreasonable excitement and lack of serious and long art experience.

The sad step he took after returning made Raza and Janine decide that they will not invite any young artist to Paris. Thirty years after this event, at a dinner in Mumbai Janine herself invited me to Paris. I was going to Tawson University for three months to give a lecture and coordinate an exhibition. Janine wanted me to stop over on my return. Raza who hadn’t invited any young artist for all these years, was very happy with Janine’s sudden proposal and left eating to write an invitation letter for the visa process. Thus, when I reached Paris and spent time with him, I also saw him painting in his studio.

 

I felt validated when I saw him starting his paintings with black colour. I had theorised about it before actually seeing or knowing about it. This black colour is his colour of memory, which is also the solitude of a dense jungle. Raza had a particular way of putting the colour on canvas. He will not paint a big black circle with a big brush. He would use a relatively small brush and begin with a small dot and then keep brushing gently agains the canvas over hours like a seasoned practice in deep concentration. Sometimes it may take 2 or 3 days. He will be focussed on it. When he does this, the shape and form doesn’t look superficial and flat, but rather becomes full of electricity, sensitivities and emotions. I specially felt it when I saw him painting that he is conversing with lines, colours, shapes, picture and scene. This conversation of his with lines, colours, shapes, is the interface with nature. This interface is also a conversation with the self, his experiences and unresolved secrets, which are chasing him since childhood.

It was not easy for Raza to relate to the differences existing in colours and his surroundings. He was hard working and could concentrate for long. Being lost was one task for him and, in the process, knowing a bit about himself was the second task. He found his concentration in losing himself in those scenes. As if he is meandering in the jungles of his childhood. The mystique is his attraction. Everything is hidden there. Nothing is revealed. The identity is behind a curtain, and when he removes the curtain, it begins to hide behind another curtain. It was a continuous game of opening and finding. It has the satisfaction of finding, without actually finding it. Satisfaction of opening it, without actually opening it. His childhood memories were so deeply ingrained that it was not possible for Raza to outgrow and come out of them. Nor did he desire to ever come out of them. There was this passion in him, to attain what was driving him. In this new setting, he seemed to settle down in the company of Janine. Raza was resolute and with hard work, was bringing newer meanings to his paintings. They were not just related to the mundane nor were they some spiritual expressions. He was not trying to achieve something, but he wanted to find a release from what was hitherto seen in the painted world. He vaguely sensed how that will happen, but he didn’t know how he would get there. He just kept walking on that strange path, like those walks in the jungle, where everything is hidden in the open. Like a mysterious attraction.

Surya and Naag by S H Raza

 


Copyrights: Akhilesh  | Translated from the Hindi by Nidheesh Tyagi

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