Just listening to Raza saab talk or to look at him paint was a learning experience. As a young artist, I really looked up to him. He was approachable, took keen interest in and guided young talent, and visit their studios during his India trips, sometimes even buy their work. It was extremely encouraging.
As a student at Mumbai’s Sir JJ School of Art, we thought of SH Raza as our own, as he too studied there. I remember an early work of his in the school’s main hall, the vibrant work — a small vertical painting, festive with red, orange and blue — stood out among the rest on display. We enjoyed the impasto treatment.
I first met him at his solo show at Mumbai’s Chemould Gallery in 1979-80. Generally, students are not invited for the opening, but Raza and gallerist Kekoo Gandhy were generous enough to invite us. We were thrilled to attend a ‘Raza Opening’! Though many wanted to meet and talk with him, Raza would spend a lot of his time talking to us in detail about a specific painting. He would often put his hand on my shoulder and explain how a colour behaves when juxtaposed with another. In 1981, we invited him to Sir JJ School of Art to talk to the students. He came ahead of time and walked around the building, touching stones and the trees on the campus. He wanted to be on his own for some time. Once he entered the class, he spoke at length about creativity and the challenges he faced as an Indian artist in France. He told us, “Humey mazdoor ki tarah kaam karna hai (We need to work like labourers)”. I understood how important it was to be connected to one’s roots and there is no substitute for hard work.
In 1989, Raza, Akbar Padamsee and Ram Kumar were the commissariats who awarded me a scholarship to study at Paris’ École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. Raza wrote to me from Gorbio in south of France, asking me to meet Pierre Carron, the French figurative painter, who was then taking students for an atelier semester at the École des Beaux-Arts. I followed his advice. When Raza and his wife Janine returned to Paris from Gorbio, he often invited me and (my wife) Anju for dinner. One day, on seeing me in a thin jacket, he gifted me an overcoat to protect from Paris’ harsh winter. We discussed the Vedas, the Upanishads, and man’s relationship with the cosmos. He spoke in chaste Hindi and I in Bambaiyya Hindi. During our interactions, I would carefully observe him. He had a rather unusual method of painting. Like a ritual, he’d always apply his colours from top of the canvas to the bottom. Seeing him with his brush was like watching a dance mudra (pose). His works were a celebration of life, the vibrant colours represented India.
He followed my work and would visit my exhibitions after his return to India in 2010, including my show at Vadehra Art Gallery in Okhla in New Delhi in 2010 and at the National Gallery of Modern Art in 2013. He was very happy with the series I did on Mahatma Gandhi in 1999. He had great respect for the Mahatma.
I have a small 1984 painting by Raza that I bought and enjoy seeing every day. It’s a brown, umber painting in oil, thinly rendered. It’s very close to my heart.
(As told to Vandana Kalra)
(Atul Dodiya is a Mumbai-based contemporary artist)