The point of life

The point of life

mystic world One of Raza’s paintings.

SH Raza started visiting a neighbourhood temple in his hometown in Madhya Pradesh at age 11, his irate uncle called him a kafir. But that did not deter Raza from striking a friendship with the priest and dabbling in Hindu religious texts even at that young age. The 88-year-old artist who has made Paris his home since 1950 still calls himself  “a son of the five elements” rather than a Muslim and retains his interest in Hindu philosophy.

When I arrive for my appointment with the painter during his recent visit to Kolkata, he is immersed in work. The brush is eloquent in his long fingers, filling up the white canvas with vivacious colours born in his mind. I glance at his palette and note with wonder the array of hues he has created with the basic red, blue, white, yellow and black he is using.
Oblivious to my curious gaze, Raza works with the deepest concentration, head of wispy white hair bent meditatively upon his canvas.

His adopted daughter Bina, his travel companion on this tour as in many others, motions me to wait. Disturbing him would delay his work. (“When I’m on the easel, I’m not very polite,” he is to tell me later with a smile). Raza has a series of shows coming up in India (Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi is hosting a show of his large format works in an exhibition that began on March 3 followed by Aakar Prakar’s small format painting shows in Jaipur, Ahmedabad and Kolkata through March, April and May) and is yet to finish his work.

Satisfied with his morning’s effort, Raza finally raises himself from his position, accepts the glass of red wine offered to him and settles down to a conversation that reveals, among other things, his profound humility and gentle nature, his commitment to art and his deeply secular world view. “I don’t want to provoke polemics but for me all religions are the same. I’ve been trying to understand the Koran, the Gita and the Bible over many years now. I have realised that human compassion cannot be replaced by anything else,” says the master of the abstract whose work is an expression of his private history even if the vocabulary is steeped in icons from Indian cosmology and Tantric philosophy.  

Although Raza has been living in Paris since 1950 (and was married to French artist Janine Mongillat till she died in 2002), he is deeply attached to the country of his birth and draws constant inspiration from its culture, philosophy and epics. “Ours is an extraordinary 26-centuries-old culture. We have to read our ancient texts over and over again and go back to what our parents and teachers have taught us,” says Raza, who retains his Indian passport — not to speak of his roots — even after 60 years in Europe. And it is in the last four of these six decades that he has come closest to the pursuit of an Indian vision in his art.

“The bindu is the centre of my life. Though I learnt a lot from my training as an artist in France, I was unhappy and restless with my work through the 50s and 60s. After all, I hadn’t gone to France to become a European painter. It was only when I began to incorporate the ideas of bindu, mandala, prakriti-purusha and panchatatva into my paintings that I finally found the harmony and authenticity that I had been seeking,” says Raza, whose gentle voice, though barely discernible, belies the force of his conviction and his determined pursuit of a dynamic Indian vision. It was this resolute quest for an identity in art that saw him develop a powerful individual language and culminated in his rebirth as a master of geometric abstraction.

Though acutely aware of the recession in the art market in recent times, Raza remains committed to the quality of his expression. His painting ‘Climate’ may have fetched US $1.4 million at a Saffronart auction of modern Indian art in December 2006, but the commodification of art fills him with anguish. “Though the economic reality is important and it affects everyone, one should not write or paint for money. Art is a fundamental research within oneself for quality and expression. More than labour it is thought that goes into a work of art. I have always worked to communicate my ideas through form and colour and it has got me wonderful rewards,” he says.

It must have been these rewards that prompted Raza to express his gratitude to France. “France offers a wonderful climate to artists and I felt the need to give something back to the country that had taught me so much. I have a wonderful relationship with the simple people of Gorbio in the south of France where I spend the summer. I decided to donate my collection of 60 pieces of art to be showcased at an 11th century chateau there owned by my late father-in-law,” he says. And in 2007, he started the Raza Foundation which awards talented young Indian artists in addition to promoting art among the youth.  

His connection with India, a country he has visited often in the last six decades, has only deepened with the years. And it is yoga, he says, that has helped him attain a mental stage that is conducive to creation. “I see it as the meeting of the individual with God,” he says.

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