Raza and Me

Ahead of SH Raza’s first death anniversary on July 23, we ask his close associates to recall the relationship they shared with the veteran artist.

Written by Vandana Kalra | Updated: July 21, 2017 2:01:00 am
s h raza, painter, artist, raza foundation, death anniversary, indian artist, paris, indian express A file photo of SH Raza at his residence in Delhi

Atul Dodiya, Mumbai-based artist

SH Raza was not just a fine painter but a great mind. I still remember the day I first met him. I was a student at the Sir JJ School of Art in the early ’80s and Raza had been invited to speak to students in the college. He used to have an exhibition in Mumbai almost every year back then. He came sharp on time, and seemed emotional walking around the campus that was also his alma mater. After this I got in touch with him years later, when I was in France on a scholarship to the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He was very encouraging to young artists and gave a lot of suggestions on artwork to see, places to visit, and often invited Anju and I to his place for meals.

I was ill-equipped for winter in Paris, and when he realised that, he immediately gifted me a warm coat. He spoke and wrote in pure Hindi, and we only spoke to each other in the language, discussing the Vedas and Upanishads. He learnt a lot from the French Masters, but remained rooted in India. The Hindu philosophy, relationship between the self and the cosmos… all these philosophical concepts were a part of his thinking and reflected in his work. I could spend hours just watching him paint. I have a small painting by him, which is very dear to me.

Krishen Khanna, veteran artist and member of the Progressive Artists’ Group
We shared a long association and a friendship that began years ago. I first saw Raza sitting in a corner at Warden Road in Mumbai, painting the city. Both of us were members of the Progressive Artists’ Group, and exhibited together in Mumbai, before he left for Paris. All of us parted ways over the years but we remained close, exchanging letters and meeting each other whenever we could. We even painted a canvas together when I was visiting Paris in 1954. Raza began it and then left to meet his fiancé. He asked me if I would like to amuse myself and complete it, and I did.

When I quit my job at Grindlays Bank in 1961 to pursue art full-time, Raza had thrown a dinner party in Paris to celebrate, while we were celebrating in Mumbai. I stayed with him whenever I visited Paris, even when he had a modest apartment, with one room for him and his wife. I remember there was no couch, he used a very old church pew instead. He was a man of fine taste. Of course, he was a very fine painter from whom there was a lot to learn.
In 1959, when I went to London for my first exhibition, he shared a list of people whom he thought I should interact with. He took me on his scooter and introduced me to people.

He was doing well for himself in Paris by then but when he had arrived in Paris I remember initially he had to make ends meet by giving tuition in Hindi and designing book covers. He got recognition for his art soon, and was even awarded the Prix de la critique when he was very young. He lived in France for decades, even paid taxes there, but he never surrendered his Indian nationality; that is being loyal to one’s country. Not shouting out that one is nationalist.

Sujata Bajaj, Paris-based artist
I am grateful that I shared such a deep and uncompromised friendship with Raza sahib. We were best friends for over two decades (1984 to 2008) and like family to each other. The last time I met him was in Delhi in February 2016, he was in the hospital and unconscious. I paid my regards and left.

Our first meeting was in 1984, when I was interviewing renowned artists of India for my PhD on Indian tribal art. I was at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai, when he walked in. He immediately agreed for an interview. During our discussion, he asked what else I did and when I told him I was an artist, he insisted on seeing my work. To my surprise, we immediately took a cab for Pune where my studio was, and on seeing my work, he assured me that I had a bright future and that I should try to come to Paris. I applied for the French Government scholarship, which I obtained. Thanks to the scholarship, I could follow his and my dream of going to Paris.

I will never forget seeing Raza sahib at the station. He had come to receive me. He helped me with everything, from how to use the phone card to travelling by metro and where to buy art material and so on. It was as if I had a family member in Paris. I met my husband in Paris and it was natural that he became witness to our marriage. We used to visit each other several times a week. I used to cook Indian food for him and we could talk about art for hours. I have over 100 handwritten letters by him, sent over a period of 25 years.

Raza sahib was especially encouraging to young artists. We even exhibited together in several places, including New York, Paris, London and Mumbai. What I probably remember the most was the attention he provided to every detail in his life — whether it was packing a painting or purchasing flowers, which he loved. He used to listen to old Hindi film songs and ghazals, and was equally proficient in Hindi, Urdu, French and English. When I got the news of his demise, I was in Paris. I went to the church with my husband and daughters and we lit a candle for him knowing this is what he would have liked the most.

Ashok Vajpeyi, poet and trustee of Raza Foundation

We became close because he was very interested in Hindi poetry and I was interested in art. In 1978, I invited him on behalf of the government of Madhya Pradesh to exhibit his works in Bhopal. This was his first exhibition in his home state, and was a sell-out. He declined to take the money, and we used the funds to institute the Raza Award. His care for young artists was very deep-rooted. I had only written one book till then, Shahar Ab Bhi Sambhavana Hai, and gifted that to him.

In early 1980, he called and said he wanted to use a line from one of my poems, Ma Laut Kar Jab Aunga. That work was jointly bought by MF Husain and Bal Chhabra for Rs 19,000, and was later auctioned for Rs 2.5 crore. It is now in the personal collection of Amrita Jhaveri. We discussed all kinds of things — from the state of the arts to what is happening in Madhya Pradesh. Later, he started coming to India often. After I retired from the Indian Administrative Service in 2001, he insisted that I should travel to France twice a year, and we spent summer in his village Gorbio, south of France. In the last 35 years of his life, all his paintings were titled in Hindi. He often inscribed lines in Devanagari on the canvas itself. He often said. ‘India told me what to paint and France made me see how to paint’.

After I retired from the Indian Administrative Service in 2001, he insisted that I should travel to France twice a year, and we spent summer in his village Gorbio, south of France. In the last 35 years of his life, all his paintings were titled in Hindi. He often inscribed lines in Devanagari on the canvas itself. He often said. ‘India told me what to paint and France made me see how to paint’.

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