Syed Haider Raza | A pilgrim’s progress

He holds the record for the most expensive Indian artwork ever sold, but Raza’s artistic journey has been a long and solitary one

Paul Cézanne—who both Matisse and Picasso referred to as “the father of us all"—painted the Sainte-Victoire mountain from the window of his house in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France over 60 times. Cézanne had stated his aim to organize nature according to geometric forms: He was painting the Sainte-Victoire in long-views, side-views and close-ups.

With each painting, Cézanne was getting closer to the mountain.

“You must think of the mountain when you’re painting the mountain. Not the trees and the elephants and the horses," says the 89-year-old artist Syed Haider Raza, now wheelchair-bound, recalling how he’d sailed from Mumbai to Paris in 1950, at the age of 28, with a single-minded mission—“to see the works of Cézanne".

A founding member of the Progressive Artists’ Group in the late 1940s—which became synonymous with Modern art in India—Raza is the only one left among his peers: F.N. Souza, K.H. Ara, H.A. Gade, S.K. Bakre and M.F. Husain. He is arguably also the most commercially successful: His Saurashtra, a magnificent 7ft painting in terracotta hues, sold at a Christie’s auction in London in June 2010 for Rs16.3 crore. It holds the record for the most expensive Indian artwork ever sold.

Having returned to India only a year ago, in his studio at a two-floor apartment in New Delhi’s Safdarjung Development Area, Raza is labouring away at a canvas with two entwined snakes. It belongs to the Naga series—a series he started in the early 1990s. Propped against the wall is another painting, one that he’s recently finished—and which has already been bought by a Delhi-based art collector. Black, yellows and blues leap out of the canvas. Titled Vriksh Bija(The Seed), it is one of his iconic Bindus, those flaming whorls of colour that have come to be recognized as the master artist’s leitmotif.

There are several other canvases around the room, including some in bubble wrap. A few of these will go to a large exhibition planned in Mumbai’s Jehangir Art Gallery in March, or to another one this summer at the Grosvenor Vadehra Gallery in London. “But when I paint, I don’t paint for a show; I do it for the necessity of painting," says Raza, wheeling himself closer to his latest bindu, so that it frames his face like a halo.

And so it is. Frail, having to stop to catch his breath every now and then, Raza wakes up every morning and asks to be wheeled into his studio to paint—at least whenever his health allows it.

Elsewhere in the room are paintings by his wife, the French artist Janine Mongillat, who died in 2002. But the most prominent one is by Manish Pushkale, a young abstractionist whose work Raza has taken to.

The seed: Raza in his studio in New Delhi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Every morning, before Raza starts work, he still prays—invariably a few lines of Rilke in French translation, “to catch the continuous message which emanates from silence". And sometimes, a wish: “Let God take away everything but not this fever of the soul."

Raza’s fevers, first his determination to get to Paris, then his dogged pursuit of the bindu, were spawned by a comment by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Although Arun Vadehra, Raza’s gallerist for the last 25 years, calls him “the most brilliant colourist India has ever produced", the artist values construction above all else—and this he owes to Cartier-Bresson.

After commending the young Raza for his works in a group show in Kashmir in 1948, Cartier-Bresson told him his paintings were wishy-washy, lacking in construction. “He told me that I would benefit from a study of Cézanne," recalls Raza.

Born in the forest village of Babaria in Madhya Pradesh, where his father was a forest ranger in British-ruled India, Raza attended art school in Nagpur, and arrived in Mumbai in 1943 with a scholarship to attend the Sir JJ School of Art. It was during this time that he met Souza and the others who went on to form the Progressive Artists’ Group. “Some were older, some like (Akbar) Padamsee and Krishen Khanna were younger, but it was a healthy climate of critique," says Raza, who was deeply influenced by his years in his first big city. After the encounter with Cartier-Bresson, though, he became obsessed with the idea of travelling to Paris. “All I wanted was to see the works of Cézanne and van Gogh in the museums...," he says. He started studying French at the Alliance Francaise and was awarded a three-year scholarship by the French government to attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Raza confesses that he “loved Paris at first sight", staying at the heart of the art district of Montparnasse. “He went to the opera, the ballet, read Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, fell in love with the poetry of Rilke," says Vajpeyi. “He was sucked into the French way of living." He was the first non-French artist to receive the prestigious Prix de la Critique in 1956, which afforded him both international recognition and the financial freedom to travel throughout his adopted homeland. In 1959, Raza married his fellow art student Mongillat, whom he would first come to respect, and then love.

One of the most significant works from Raza’s early Paris years, Village with Church (1958), previously owned by the art collectors John and his wife Blanchette Rockefeller, will be up for auction in March by Sotheby’s in New York. The auction house pegs its estimated price conservatively at a gargantuan $1.5-2.5 million (around 7.8-13 crore), and it may well cross the artist’s existing record with Saurashtra. “Village with Church exudes a dynamic, tempestuous energy so characteristic of the artist... and the vibrancy and direct colour treatment of a Rajput miniature. It stands out as an enduring legacy of one of the pioneers of Indian Modern art," says Maithili Parekh, director, Sotheby’s.

Germination (1995), which his biographer Geeti Sen believes encapsulates all that Raza has done so far. ‘A painting grows gradually, organically. The bija, the seed, is the beginning of human life,’ writes Sen in Bindu: Space and Time in Raza’s Vision. Photo: courtesy Delhi Art Gallery

Raza is no newcomer to commercial juggernauts: His works have crossed the $1 million mark several times. Kiran Nadar, art collector and chairperson of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi, who made headlines when she bid for Saurashtra at Christie’s in London, felt compelled to do so because its “vibrancy epitomizes Raza’s colour palette... it is the perfect balance between his trademark, early abstract works and his geometric works." Only months later, in September 2010, La Terre, sold for around Rs8.8 crore in another auction by Christie’s in New York.

But Raza speaks of how his bindus weren’t always lauded; in fact, they were barely understood when he started working on them in the 1980s. After tasting success in France—as a landscape artist known for his thick, impasto strokes—Raza recalls having asked himself, “Where is the India in your work?"

It was then that he launched into an exploration of Indian heritage and started research on the bindu and the mandala (a circular diagram symbolizing the universe). He started visiting India every year, and reading, among other things, the Bhagavad Gita. The idea of Swadharm interested him in particular. “The idea of concentrating on one thing at one time...You need to focus your energies. That’s what the bindu is about," he says, gesturing at the painting behind him.

Raza modestly credits his schoolteacher, Nandlal Jharia, for his pursuit of the bindu. Jharia had drawn a point on the wall for an eight-year-old Raza to concentrate on, and it was this that transformed his vision.

Sometimes criticized for flogging a pet theme—as Husain was for his horses—Raza has a tempered response.

In religion, he explains, repetition is all important: “You say ‘Ram Ram Ram’ to rest your mind… It is how you arrive at the truth." Punaraagman(Homecoming), Raza’s first solo exhibition since he returned, at the Lalit Kala Akademi and at Vadehra Art Gallery in November, overstated this. The exhibition had four long banners, each containing an un-apology. “I have no apology for my repetition of the form of the bindu. With repetition you can gain energy and intensity—as it is gained through the japmal, or the repetition of the word or a syllable, until you achieve a state of elevated consciousness," read one.

Does he consider each bindu a development of the last? He smiles. “I’d like to think it grows. Each is a different story."

“I have people saying your bindus are getting feeble as you are getting older, we can make a better bindu... Ab kya bataye unhe (Now, what should I tell them)?"

An untitled 1979 painting shows the beginnings of Raza’s bindu — as it emerges and unfolds out of blackness. Photo: courtesy Delhi Art Gallery

Not only are Raza’s works in prestigious museum and private collections, his work is often the starting point for new collectors. Back in the 1940s, he was a favourite of European patrons such as Emanuel Schlesinger, Walter Langhammer, Rudy von Leyden and the Rockefellers. In that sense, patronage for Raza’s paintings has been universal over the decades.

In January 2009, Raza’s annual homecoming was marred in a way he could hardly have expected. He was invited to inaugurate a show of his early works at the Dhoomimal Gallery in Delhi and was shocked to find that, barring a few, all the works were fakes. “It was a sad incident," he recalls. The promoters were nephews and the gallery had not bothered with the usual verifications.

Now, well aware of the pitfalls of fakes, Raza obliges collectors who send him letters and pictures asking for authentication certificates. “I have a record of most of my paintings in the last 10-15 years," he explains. A gallery assistant comes in for a quick signature during our meeting and Raza patiently dispenses of his duties, saying later that he signs a dozen such letters every week. “It’s tiring, really. It’s a waste of my time."

While Raza isn’t one for sensational quotes or flamboyant gestures like Souza and Husain were, and although he doesn’t denigrate the others, he has a clear response for Modern Indian painters he thinks are “important": Souza, Tyeb Mehta, Padamsee, Ram Kumar and Krishen Khanna.

“One thing that made him stand out from the Progressives was that he valued the contribution of those artists who came before him. Souza rejected the Bengal School outright, but Raza believed that the evolution of the Indian art idiom began with them," says Ashish Anand, director, Delhi Art Gallery, which held a large retrospective on the Progressives last January, the first-ever group show since the group disbanded in 1950 after Souza left for England and Raza for France.

“Raza has spent his entire life in search for the ‘Modern Indian’—as one of the founders of the revolutionary Progressive Artists’ Group, while exploring abstracts that are influenced by the Rajput miniatures, and later in his study of geometrics in the form of the bindu or the third eye," adds Parekh.

In India, the artist may well be remembered by his bindus; the art produced during his years in France having been obliterated by the local gallery scene.

“I had never left India," Raza insists, who, for all his time abroad, retained his Indian passport. “It just so happened I married Janine Mongillat and in her I had a wonderful partner."

Raza speaks fondly of their partnership, which appears to reflect his favourite poet Rilke’s thoughts on love: “Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other." The two had separate apartment-studios on the same floor. “(In the morning) I was at my studio and she at hers, we met for lunch, and after lunch I went to my studio again. It was a serious organization...we would go to exhibitions together. Of course, there were the evenings and the nights. I was very fortunate," he says, nursing his glass of wineanother thing from France that he has grown to love.

The wine is one of Raza’s disciplines; two glasses of wine—one at 12.30pm and one at 7pm. But there is enough poetry to soften his schedules. “I’m looking at being seduced by a young, beautiful girl," he says, with a gentle smile.

Slow, and steady: In Mumbai, a young Raza contemplates his future. Courtesy La Terre catalogue

“I want to tell young painters that they should not be in a hurry to succeed. You can’t start exhibiting in two or three years. The Gita says, ‘Ritu gan se prabhav se (By the influence of the right climate)’... I am no intellectual but I have achieved what I have by working in one focused directionthe bindu and its infinite possibilities."

For all his talk of persistence, Raza never uses the word “perfection". For if you’re perfect, you’re finished.

“Cézanne kept painting the Sainte-Victoire till he reached it. We’re all reaching the mountain," he says.

*************

The Parisian welcome

The two artists share more than a canon. Their 15-day journey by ship to Paris would change their lives

The ship that left Bombay with Raza aboard her also carried the artist Akbar Padamsee. Raza must have been glad for the company, for he was entering a world very different from the Central Provinces, one that was circumscribed by timings and social mores and something he absorbed, but which must have caused him no little anxiety. They disembarked at Marseille, from there taking a train to Paris where they were received by another Indian artist, Ram Kumar, who had preceded them. On 3 October, 1950, Ram Kumar waited for them at the Gare de Lyon station, and would be their guide and mentor for a while."

—An excerpt from ‘Continuum: The Progressive Artists’ Group’ catalogue,Delhi Art Gallery, January 2010

“I had planned the trip and Akbar, who was three or four years junior, said he would like to come along. In the evenings, on the ship, we used to discuss about our future. We used to tell each other: I want to be second to none. We will be second to none. We were so young!"

—S.H. Raza

“I had studied French as a second language in school so I knew a few words. The first thing that Raza and I did in Paris was go to Le Dôme Café. I told a waiter, ‘Un café s’il vous plait (One coffee please in French).’ So my friend (Raza) said, ‘Okay, yes. You will be able to manage.’"

—Akbar Padamsee

anindita.g@livemint.com

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