The Last of the Masters

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Raza, who still paints at the age of 91, talks about the debilitating effects of age on a painter

For a weekday afternoon, an unusually large number of individuals have gathered outside one of Jehangir Art Gallery’s exhibition rooms. However, with a heavyset man not allowing anyone to enter, the gathering makes do by pointing fingers through the glass door, asking each other the question, ‘Do you see him?’ even though almost everyone can. He is the only individual in the room, frail and old, sitting in front of a camera answering a journalist’s questions.

The journalist herself has taken two days to conduct this interview. On an earlier scheduled date, he proved too tired to speak. So, having sesolved to bear no disturbance or noise, in a room emptied of all people, with a microphone amplified to the maximum to catch his faint and weak voice, she sits interviewing one of the last Indian master painters, SH Raza.

When the interview is over, and the guard allows people inside, a few beseech him to sign their notepads and books, while others simply gawk at him. He smiles at a few, and kisses the hands of ladies in greeting (which in all probability, along with his famed two glasses of wine, one at noon and the other at sundown, is a habit from his life in Paris), but he looks tremendously old and frail. He is mostly bound to his wheelchair. When he holds a pen, his hand trembles, and even the smallest movement, like walking from a chair to the wheelchair, requires the help of two men. Next year, he will turn 91. It appears surprising that he can still paint, but the master painter is in Mumbai exhibiting his latest works, 35 paintings in all, completed in the past two years since his return from Paris to New Delhi.

When asked if age bestows upon a painter any gift, Raza, who in France is often referred to as ‘the most expensive living artist’ (his Saurashtra sold for Rs 16.3 crore at an auction in London), betrays a sense of irritation. “Nothing, absolutely nothing,” he says, “All it does is make you weak and tired. I suppose one is more mature and knows what one is doing. But physically and mentally, painting becomes exhausting. Even speaking becomes tiresome. But if I didn’t paint, I wouldn’t know what to do with my time.” So, he wheels into his studio in his New Delhi apartment every morning to paint for two hours. He lies down and rests for much of the remaining day, and returns with his brush in the evenings to paint for another three hours. Sometimes, however, he gets so tired that he doesn’t go beyond two hours. During both sessions, one at its start and the other after the end of the day’s work, Raza prays, thanking God for giving him another day of painting.

Syed Haider Raza was born and lived in a small town in Madhya Pradesh before moving to Nagpur and later Bombay to become an artist. A co-founder of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group that played a pioneering role in modern Indian art, he is one of its few surviving members. Other contemporaries like MF Husain, FN Souza, HA Gade, SK Bakre and KH Ara have passed away. Unlike his peers, he spent most of his time away from India, in France, where he lived till two years ago. But throughout those years he continued to share strong ties with the country, often visiting and showcasing his works here.

“I travelled to France because of my meeting with [Henri Cartier-] Bresson,” he says. “He told me that my works were good but lacked construction. And that I would benefit immensely from studying Paul Cézanne’s works.” Obsessed with the idea of travelling to Paris and viewing the works of great painters, Raza then started studying French at Alliance Francaise. He was eventually awarded a three-year scholarship to attend Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris by the French government. Still in his late twenties, he travelled to the city where he met the French artist Janine Mongillat, married her and made Paris his home. Two years ago, at the twilight of his life and career, he returned to India.

“I’ll tell you why I left Paris. Because it was never my home,” he says. “The only reason I lived there is that my wife’s mother asked me to not take her only daughter away.” When his wife died in 2002, Raza’s reasons for living in the French city also vanished. He spent a few more years in the city to, as he claims, wrap up his life and ship it to India. After almost eight decades, he was back in India for good.

Among the paintings being exhibited, a large number of them are continuations of his Bindu, the now famous symbol that he has been painting since the 1980s. They are almost everywhere, in paintings of varied geometric shapes to swirls of a variety of colours. According to the curator of the exhibition, Sangeeta Chopra, whose gallery Art Musings will showcase the current exhibition next, Raza has spent the past several decades exploring metaphysical concepts, and his quest, as evident from his evolving Bindu, is growing deeper and more intense. “Artists try various things. Great artists pursue one theme, each time bringing a new way of looking at it,” she says.

According to Raza, there came a moment in his life in France, when he was already a successful landscape artist, when he found himself looking at his works and asking the question, ‘Where is India in my works?’ It was a personal question, he says, and to seek its answer, he started travelling to India more extensively. “I would come here every year, going to various parts, from the Ajanta and Ellora caves to Benaras, all the while observing paintings and sculptures and reading more about the country’s culture.” He attributes his fixation with the Bindu, that point of concentrated focus and source of energy, to those personal and spiritual journeys. Chopra believes that perhaps at his farthest point from his country, he felt its strongest tug.

Raza often stops conversations midway to remind the person he is in a conversation with that he cannot hear too well. When he himself speaks, his voice is faint and delicate; and he often requires long pauses to catch his breath. But when he speaks, one can’t help but notice that his mind remains as sharp and access to his repository of memories as clear. Connecting the origin of the Bindu to his curiosity of India, he says, “But perhaps even that isn’t it. When I was a young student, around six or seven years of age, I wasn’t paying attention in class one day. The teacher, named Nandlal Jharia, asked me to stay back after class. I thought he would thrash me, but he drew a small dot on the blackboard and asked me to focus on it. I did, and I think that episode in my life stuck with me,” he says.

Through the remainder of his stay at the gallery that day, a number of visitors continue to troop in. Towards the end, Nationalist Congress Party minister Chhagan Bhujbal also comes visiting, accompanied by a large coterie of individuals. Whoever is speaking with Raza is quickly dispensed with, and Bhujbal sits beside him. A few pleasantries are exchanged, and two members of the minister’s coterie plant their heads in that small space between Raza’s and Bhujbal’s mouths. The two listen attentively, lest either of the two famous personalities is unable to hear the other and has to suffer the ignominy of asking something to be repeated. However, with little words being exchanged, the two lackeys turn photographers. A few pictures of the painter and the minister are taken, and after shaking hands, Bhujbal leaves. Raza seems tired, and soon his secretary takes him away too. A few wish him goodbye. But Raza only smiles, too feeble to wave a hand.