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Sunday, March 07, 2021

The Classic Modernist

SH Raza reminisces about his student days in Mumbai, being an uncomfortable Parisian painter and lets out why age can’t slow him down.

Written by AMRUTA LAKHE | Mumbai |
Updated: March 8, 2015 4:42:50 am
SH raza, persian painter, SH Raza exhibition SH Raza reminisces about his student days in Mumbai, being an uncomfortable Parisian painter and lets out why age can’t slow him down

You turned 93 this year, and continue to paint as actively as ever. What has changed with age?

As an artist, not much has changed. If you are devoted to your art, age cannot slow you down. I’m completely at home when I paint, which I do in the late mornings and afternoons every day. Perhaps the distance between life and art, in my case, has reduced. I feel closer to my art now.

Tell us about your latest show, “Aarambh”.

In paintings shown here, the bindu is a mere icon, sacred in its symbolism. I paint with and without it. I have also discovered shapes, words and letters with symbolic hieroglyphs, which I haven’t worked with before. Colour takes a precedence again. More partial to warmer colours, this time I’ve used hues of blues and greens that I previously stayed away from.

RAZA-paintings In his latest exhibition, he has deviated from his usual palette of warm colours and experimented with hues of blue and green. One such painting from his exhibition.

Your school teacher once drew a black dot on a wall that helped you calm down. That dot has been your motif for more than three decades. Has your relationship with the bindu changed?

The bindu is a vital and inexhaustible concept. It is the centre of energy, concentration, and the source of my spirituality. I continue to explore it and it reveals itself to me in many different ways.

You studied at JJ School of Arts, Mumbai, in the ’40s. How was the atmosphere then?

I began my career as a struggling artist in Bombay. I fell in love with its cityscapes, colours and its friendly ethos. It acquainted me with artists such as Rudy Von Leyden, E Schlinesinger and Walter Langhammer and helped me find life long friends in MF Husain, FN Souza, Akbar Padamsee and VS Gaitonde. It was a thrilling place for a semi-urban boy from far-off Madhya Pradesh to be in. The independence struggle and its aftermath brought a new hope to thousands of Indians. We artists were given a chance to carve out our own modern path.

Was this the idea behind forming the Progressive Artists Group in 1947?

We (KH Ara, Souza and Raza) wanted to have a plural vision of art. Away from the British academia that dominated art education in India, we began thinking afresh — both about Indian modernism and with our traditions. We set out to create modern art that addressed the needs and anxieties, hopes and visions of a free India.

French photographer Henri Cartier Bresson once said that your works lacked construction. How did that affect you?

It was one of the most critical pieces of advice I ever got. It goaded me to learn French, apply for a scholarship at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, and to study artist Paul Cezanne’s works. It, more or less, changed the course of my life and art.

Was Paris a dream come true?

Paris was both a dream and reality. But after the scholarship was over, the real struggle began. The decision to become a professional artist in Paris was a difficult one. My friend, and later wife, Janine Mongillat’s support and companionship helped me enormously. When I won the Prix de la Critique award in 1956, things improved. In any case, I stayed on in Paris for close to 60 years, the longest ever in a city.

In the ‘70s, painting the Parisian cityscape from your studio, you had a revelation that temporarily brought you back to India.

Yes. I became uncomfortable being a Parisian painter. I yearned for a more individual identity, which linked me back to India. I travelled across India — Benaras, Gujarat and Rajasthan — to learn more about its art and history. I painted a lot during my Indian sojourn.

The exhibition, Aarambh@93, is on at Art Musings, Colaba, till April 15

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