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Raza@100 A gift box of acrylic colours and other surprises

Noted painter Akhilesh talks about how the master artist helped him understand the language of colours.

Editors note: Abir Pothi is excited to bring you book excerpts from Raza: Jaisa Maine Dekha by noted artist Akhilesh, where he has sketched through words about his long association with Syed Haidar Raza from the authors early days to Razas last. We thank Akhilesh for allowing us to use excerpts for Abir readers. This is special because Raza would have entered his 100th year in 2021. It is a very useful book for art lovers and especially young artists as they can look at the journeys of two artists crossing, connecting and sometimes entwining their paths and destinations. We are bringing it in five parts. This is the third of the series. You can read the first part here and the second, here.

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.”

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.

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.

You can read the first part here and the second, here.

Copyrights : Akhilesh | Translation: Nidheesh Tyagi