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Poet Ashok Vajpeyi has been a close friend and associate of S.H. Raza, who returned to India in 2010 from Paris, where he had been living for 60 years. Raza would phone Vajpeyi to discuss Sanskrit titles for his works in the 1980s, the poet recalled at the preview of Raza’s latest solo exhibition of 44 works, Aarambh, at New Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery, on Saturday.

“He would tell me, ‘This is what the painting is, this (title) is what I am thinking, do you have any suggestions?" says Vajpeyi. There would be some discussion, Raza would refer to his ideas notebook—which he called “Dhai Aakhar", a reference to 15th century poet Kabir’s couplet about love being the most important lesson to make someone truly learned and wise. “He would excerpt lines from the Upanishads in the notebook, as well as lines from his favourite poets like (Rainer Maria) Rilke," says Vajpeyi, who now heads the Raza Foundation in the Capital. “We would talk about it and decide the title. The hard part was, Raza wanted the correct spelling in Sanskrit. Now, how to give the Sanskrit spelling on phone?" laughs Vajpeyi.

S.H. Raza
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S.H. Raza

Raza, a founding member of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, turned 93 on 22 February, which is also when the exhibition opened to the public. In an interview that started on email and carried on in-person, Raza spoke about how “the bindu is growing", and why he continues to paint. Edited excerpts:

You have been in the art world for 70 years. Tell us what keeps you going.

What else can a painter do except keep on painting, whether the circumstances are congenial or adverse, health is good or indifferent? After 70 years of painting, the difference between living and painting has more or else disappeared. I live to paint, I paint to live!

In what way would you say the ‘Aarambh’ exhibition takes forward your explorations of the idea of “construction"?

We cannot go forward all the time in art. Art is an area where it is more important to hold on to your place, your location, as it were. Construction, as evident in the geometric patterns I use, remains an important element. The Aarambh series of paintings, I hope, further explores the notion of both construction and a spiritual vision of beginnings.

How do you see the ‘bindu’?

Bindu for me has been a centre of concentration, a source of energy, an area of radiation, a centre of silence and meditation. Both as a visual entity and a metaphysical concept, the bindu embodies, unfolds, reveals limitless possibilities. The new works, I hope, perhaps express only some of them.

Your paintings have beautiful, and evocative, titles—even in ‘Aarambh’, paintings have names like ‘Tejaswi’, ‘Raktashyam’ and ‘Aabhaas’. Are they designed as a cue to the viewer?

I started giving titles to my works in Hindi decades ago since I deeply love my mother tongue, which is Hindi. My poet-friend Ashok Vajpeyi helps me in finding the right words. A title ideally should offer a cue but hopefully not limit exploration of meaning.

Is it fair to say that you now use more muted shades in your works?

Well, colour is both my preoccupation and perhaps my identity as an artist. I have been exploring the incredible multiple possibilities of colours, their unexpected and surprising combinations, their calls and echoes to each other. A colour could exist in lonesome glory; it could, on the other hand, reveal an antardhwani (inner voice) of another colour or colours. I move from the vibrant and bright to the muted and reluctant. That is my geography of colours.

You have often talked about how India remained close to your heart all those years you lived in Paris.

My friends both in India and France have known how close I’ve been to my homeland in my artistic and spiritual vision, my irrepressible memories, my plastic skills such as they are. Back home after 60 years in France, it does not seem strange; it seems natural and irresistible. I have never been interested in politics, etc. I watch several developments sometimes with hope and at other times with despair. But my attempt is to create an art which goes beyond time and place.

Aarambh is on till 18 March, 11am-7pm (Sundays closed), at Vadehra Art Gallery, D-40, Defence Colony, New Delhi (24622545/24615368). Editions of the exhibition, with different works painted by S.H. Raza in 2014-15, will also be on show from 28 February-15 April, 11am-7pm (till 5.30pm on Saturdays), at Art Musings, Mumbai, and from 4-28 March, 2-7pm (Sundays closed), at Akar Prakar, Kolkata.​

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