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Wednesday, March 03, 2021

‘Only he knew the magic of colour’: Krishen Khanna

As SH Raza’s birth centenary celebrations begin, a friend walks down memory lane

Written by Vandana Kalra | New Delhi |
February 21, 2021 6:03:23 am
The progressives: SH Raza at his Paris studio in the 1970s

SH Raza was one of my dearest friends. We all grew old together — MF Husain, Bal Chhabda, VS Gaitonde, Ram Kumar, Akbar Padamsee — and now everyone is gone. I’m the only one left, like the Ancient Mariner, here to tell their tales. Several of our letters to each other have been published but we shared so much more over long nights, as we smoked, drank and talked about what was happening in art in Paris, Bombay and London. All of us, in different parts of the world later, knew we were there for each other.

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The first time I saw Raza, he was at a corner on Mumbai’s Warden Road, drawing or painting. We were all brought up to appreciate nature, observe everything. He was painting houses and cities. From looking at houses and the so-called reality, we went deeper. Art is not stationary, you grow into it. Artists move towards finality, but finality is never reached. I would paint but didn’t think it would make ends meet, so I worked at Grindlays Bank. Raza and I never really introduced ourselves, just waved at each other at shows. The friendship grew slowly but lasted a lifetime.

The Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) already existed when I came to Mumbai in 1948. I came to know its members FN Souza, Husain, KH Ara, SK Bakre, HA Gade and Raza better after SB Palsikar displayed a small canvas of mine, News of Gandhiji’s Death (1948), at the Bombay Art Society’s Diamond Jubilee Exhibition that year. He placed it right at the centre, surrounded by the works of celebrities — Souza, Husain, Gaitonde. Soon after, I got a call from Husain, suggesting we meet. He inducted me into the group the next year, and I opened his first bank account at Grindlays. Raza, by then, had received the French government scholarship to study at Paris’ École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. Before he left, he exhibited in Mumbai the watercolours and gouache he had done in Kashmir. They had signs of what was to happen later.

Bal Chhabda (from left), Tyeb Mehta, Krishen Khanna, SH Raza, and MF Husain in Mumbai

The jaadu (magic) of a painting lies in the feeling behind it and how that has been transferred on to paper/canvas. Raza had a strict trajectory which could be traced. I can’t think of any other Indian painter with such a wide colour philosophy — an entire lifetime is spent learning those spiritual and experiential properties. His drawing was weak but he was a born colourist. The bindu (dot) appeared early on in his work in the form of a circle, the sun or moon. During this phase, I asked him, “Are you a Tantric painter?” He said, “No, I’m not in the category of Tantric painters.” Later, Raza admitted to being influenced by the Tantra philosophy, with the bindu becoming a major force in his work. The geometry was very important to him and only he knew the magic of colour. I wish I could paint like that.

In 1952, when I went to Europe, Raza, the only person I knew in Paris, was extremely welcoming. In 1954, I took leave from the bank in my seventh year and toured Europe with my wife Renu, visiting Rome, Arezzo, Assisi, Paris and London. Renu returned to India, while I joined Raza in Paris. He was living at the Cité Universitaire and had arranged for a room for me there. We’d spend the whole day together and go out on his motorbike. He introduced me to artists. That is also when I first met Janine (Mongillat), whom he married later. We even worked on a canvas — he left something unfinished as he had to meet Janine and I completed it when he was away. We gave it to our dear friend (medical researcher) Pran Talwar, who was also at the university then. I also bought a work by Raza on this trip. He needed money for his brother, whom he supported, to travel from London to India. When I offered to pay, he thought it to be more decent if I bought a canvas. It’s a Parisian landscape with fine geometric forms — my daughter really liked it and I gave it to her.

He loved India. In spite of staying in France for so many years, he didn’t give up his Indian citizenship. Well-versed in Hindi and Sanskrit, he’d recite shlokas and turn to epics, classical texts, Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, and the writings of Mahatma Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave. When his scholarship ran out, he gave Hindi lessons and designed book covers to survive.
In 1958, Chhabda opened Gallery 59 in Mumbai. He and I went to receive Raza, who was returning after having been awarded Paris’ prestigious Prix de la Critique in 1956. His works had changed a great deal. When he told us he wanted to price his watercolours at Rs 1,000 each, we were all surprised. But because of that, our prices almost doubled suddenly. We had a great party at Chhabda’s Malabar Hill house that night. I recall Raza’s words: “Ay hai! Aaj kya ho gaya, paisa khota ho gaya, lota ulta ho gaya….” We all laughed.

We were painting differently because we were all different people, which was nice. We looked at each other’s work in terms of what the person was doing, not what we’d have liked him to make. Your ability to look at other things on a wider scale was crucial. There was no envy. For my first exhibition in 1959 in London, Raza shared with me a list of people I should interact with. He did the same when I showed up there in 1960 and 1962. When I quit my bank job in 1961 to pursue art full-time, he threw a dinner party in Paris as we celebrated in Mumbai at The Coronation Durbar, where Husain would often take us. It was heartening to know there’s a fraternity-like that, friends who cared. In recent work, In Memoriam (2019), I painted all of us, Husain, Raza, Chhabda, Kumar, Gaitonde and I, sipping tea.

The last time I met Raza was a few months before his demise in July 2016. We were both getting an award (India Today Art Awards). He was frail and nervous and wanted to go home, but was comforted by my presence. As I have been in his words, which I consider the great truth about painting: “When you’re almost done with your painting, look at it and if you feel the goddess breathe into it, you will witness a vision different from what you know. It will be bigger than your own knowledge and experience of painting, and that is proof that there is greatness in what you’re making.”

As told to Vandana Kalra

Krishen Khanna is a Gurugram-based artist and a member of PAG

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