Syed Haider Raza, one of India’s foremost post-independence painters, was recently in Delhi, visiting from Paris, where he has lived since 1950. In an extended conversation, the 88-year-old artist spoke about his love of Hindi, the fact that it was in France that he really learnt painting and why the French philosopher Descartes was only partially right. Edited excerpts:
You went for the opening of the Bireswar Sen show on 19 February?
I believe that a painting has to be seen in silence, without talking. But on the other hand, (from time to time) we artists have to explain why we are doing what we are doing. (For instance,) I am interested in Rajasthan and am trying to do a painting in relation to the colours of Rajasthan. I am inspired by the colours of the market, the people, the women. So why not tell the people that this painting is not only abstract; it reflects the colours of Rajasthan. Today, we are seeing (things) not just with our eyes but our mind’s eye. In Indian thought (this) is called mansa pratyakshta. This is the difference between European realism and the Indian concept of art. We have to go towards roop adhyatm—the spiritual form.
You are using these Indian words and concepts even though you have lived in Paris since 1950?
My language is Hindi. I was taught by teachers in Madhya Pradesh who were Hindi speaking and they have given me love for the Hindi language.
You were exposed to these concepts in your childhood and youth?
There were three important stages in the evolution of my thought—(the first) was the preparatory period in Madhya Pradesh, Bombay and, to a certain extent, Paris. It is in Paris that I (learnt) what the important things in painting are—construction of a canvas, colour variation, strong colour lines on a canvas. I needed 30 years to understand what painting is—this was the second period. And the third period has lasted from about 1975-80, till now—I have tried to include Indian ethnography and vital ideas of Indian thought and literature in my work.
You co-founded the Progressive Artists Group (PAG). Insofar as it sought to move away from Western influences and bring forth an indigenous ethos, how successful was it?
In 1948, India was a free, independent republic—not based on communism or capitalism. The influence of the British was (strong) in the field of art. We thought we had to strike and find out something of our own. Between 1945-50, we were all busy trying to find out this reality in our own way—I and (Francis Newton) Souza were together; and there were others like S.K. Bakre and V.S. Gaitonde.
We discussed with each other (how) we should (move beyond) this concept of realism—i.e. painting the world (as) looked at by the eyes alone. We wanted to add some imagination to it. At that time, between 1948 and 1950, there were people (supporting) us and there were others who said, “This is madness!” PAG is remembered even now, 60 years later, because it influenced other artists. And some of us were carrying (on) our research in our own way—Gaitonde, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee, Krishen Khanna. It is (a matter) of great satisfaction to us all that Indian contemporary paintings are now recognized the world over as something important.
After Partition, some members of your family migrated to Pakistan, but you chose to stay back. Why?
It was a sad thing that India was divided. I told myself I will stay in India. This is my country; I love Hindu culture. I don’t leave my religion, but I am at home with Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Christians and all those who are here. It is the older Hindu heritage of India that you have sought and been influenced by, but there is also the very rich Islamic tradition of painting in India.
Hindu culture does not ask you not to make figures of human beings. (In the Islamic tradition) they always made decorative things—flowers, birds. To my mind the beauty of nature is everywhere, including in human beings—men, women and children. So to me the idea that there should be no figures in art was not acceptable. I think at the time I painted portraits and nudes; and then later I moved to landscapes and abstract art, but with a metaphysical, spiritual concern.
You lived in France all these years but your source of inspiration has been India. Creatively how has this affiliation with both the East and the West helped you?
I have lived in France for 60 years and I am still an Indian citizen. Indian culture has helped me greatly. My education in the Hindi language has helped me greatly. Of course I have imbibed the art of painting from France, and (then) I associated it with Indian culture. I am now trying to come back to India, but I have a great sense of gratitude to France (where) I have learnt the art of painting. The spiritual side, the important values I have taken from India.
It is my privilege that my parents were extraordinary, and my teachers were Brahmins and Pandits of a very high culture. They gave me understating of Indian thought and the Hindu mind. I feel that I made the best out of it in my life and, since 1980, in my painting too.
You were quoted recently saying that you have been influenced by Descartes.
Descartes said, “Je pense donc je suis”, or I think, therefore I am. He is right but only thinking is not enough—hamaare yahaan buddhi to hridyay ki daasi hai (Here intelligence is a slave to the heart). We have developed ideas further and said you have to go beyond that. In Urdu, there is a saying—chalaa jaa akl key aagey/ ki yeh noor chirage-e-rah hai, manzil nahin hai—go beyond intelligence because this is the light that shows you the way, it is not the destination.
Has the commercial art boom of the last decade or so been a good development?
I don’t underestimate the logic of finance. I think money is necessary to be able to live. Only, money should not be the end for a creative man. He should work and money comes automatically, provided there is quality in his poetry or painting. I was very happy when my paintings went for a good price and my studio prices went up. But I kept my studio prices reasonable, and I was quite wise to do that. Even in this depression, people are buying my paintings.