By Bapu’s values

Artist S H Raza carried the pain of the country’s Partition and the assassination of Gandhiji all his life

Hey Ram!
Highlights: 
Back in India, he set up the Raza Foundation by donating a substantially large sum of money to it, with the sole purpose of encouraging and supporting young Indian visual artists, musicians, writers and performers in their creative pursuits.

In 1947, when the country suffered the pangs of Partition even as it rejoiced its newfound Independence, Sayed Haider Raza (1922 -2016) had a difficult choice to make: whether to continue staying in India or move to the newly formed Pakistan. It must have been quite a troubling period since his kith and kin including his (first) wife had decided to migrate. But Raza stayed back.

Three years later, in 1950, on a French government scholarship, he went to study painting at the prestigious École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. France became his karma bhoomi for the next six decades, and it was there that he not only painted stunning landscapes, but also over time, “evolved certain concepts of form and colour, which I developed and brought to Indology and ideas of Indian philosophy.”


Artist Syed Haider Raza

In 1956, he became the first non-Frenchman to win the prestigious Prix de la critique award. That paved way for his progression as a successful, widely exhibited and much sought-after artist in Europe and outside. Historians and critics have pointed out how at the heart of Raza’s most evocative paintings lay his deep knowledge of Indian history, culture, and philosophy; and how his works celebrating themes like bindu, purush-prakriti, nari, panchatatva, kundalini and others, which made him a household name in India and abroad, had come out of his extensive reading of Indian metaphysical concepts.

After a long stay in France, Raza returned to the country of his birth in 2010. “I never left India in my heart or mind,” he would say. “I am extremely happy that I neither changed my name nor my religion nor my passport in spite of the many years in France.” In any case, he had made it a point to regularly visit India in order to revive contacts and survey the works of Indian artists and their evolution. And when Indian artists went to France, he had been most generous by giving them his time, resources and patronage.

Return to India

Back in India, he set up the Raza Foundation by donating a substantially large sum of money to it, with the sole purpose of encouraging and supporting young Indian visual artists, musicians, writers and performers in their creative pursuits. Says Ashok Vajpeyi, a confidante and Managing Trustee of the foundation: “I have known many artists but none of them could match Raza sahab’s friendship, kindness, and innate humanism. Honours and wealth could never come in the way of the basic nobility of his soul and irrepressible generosity. There are many young artists, poets, musicians, dancers and art writers whom Raza helped mostly at critical junctures of their artistic careers.”

Raza, who received many prestigious honours including the Kalidas Samman (1992-93/Government of Madhya Pradesh), Padma Vibhushan (2013/Government of India), and Commandeur de la Legion d’honneur (2015 / Government of France), passed away on July 23, 2016 in Delhi, aged 94. As decreed by him, his body was taken to Mandla in Madhya Pradesh (where he had spent some years of his early childhood but retained a lifelong emotional attachment) and buried next to his father’s grave, not far from the banks of River Narmada (which he would always address reverentially as Narmada-ji).

Speaking at a condolence meeting in Ahmedabad, noted architect B V Doshi recalled how the eminent artist who had initially painted mostly landscapes, began drawing references from the independence movement. “Raza was influenced by Gandhiji and Kabir… His life exemplified that if one had interest, curiosity and self-confidence, one could find ways to work in an individual way through self-discovery. To discover self, receive from self and exhibit thoughts — that was Raza’s style. He was a true torchbearer.”

Tryst with Gandhi

Gandhiji did play an important role in Raza’s life. He made a great impression on Raza’s young mind when bapu briefly visited Mandla to address a public meeting during the freedom movement. “Gandhiji’s devotion to and concern for the composite culture of India always inspired Raza sahab,” says Vajpeyi. “He kept returning to the Mahatma long after he had been assassinated. He said to me in an interview that Gandhiji’s death was the saddest moment in the country’s history.”

Raza would make it a point to visit Gandhi’s samadhi at Raj Ghat or Sabarmati Ashram or Sevagram every time he came from France. “For him, visiting a Gandhi place was like entering a holy place. Even when he was well above 85 years of age, some of us have watched him kneel down and touch the ground with his forehead in salutation to the Mahatma.”

After a long stay in France, Raza returned to the country of his birth in 2010. “I never left India in my heart or mind,” he would say.

Raza himself would acknowledge that all his life he had been affected by the power of one phrase: ‘Hey Ram’, alluding to Gandhiji’s last words before succumbing to the assassin’s bullet. “After my return to India from France, I started reading Gandhi’s writings on satyagraha and ahimsa once again,” said Raza, who steadfastly believed in the power of all faiths and spiritualism propounded by them.

On almost a daily basis he would recite lines from the Bhagavad Gita and other spiritual texts. He had made it a habit to visit a temple on Tuesdays, a church on Sundays, and a mosque on Fridays.

“In an age with all kinds of fundamentalisms, he was a believer in the true spiritual essence of all religions,” explains Vajpeyi. “He was inspired by Vedas and Upanishads as much as the Bible and the Quran. He was very well read and is possibly the only Indian artist who so often incorporated words, lines and sometimes long texts in Hindi as part of his paintings… In a deeper sense, his art was his ultimate religion. Through his art, he superseded, as it were, time and touched eternity.”

In his autumnal years, Raza undertook a special series of seven paintings on Gandhi that were titled ‘Hey Ram’, ‘Peed Parai’, ‘Sanmati’, ‘Satya’, ‘Shanti’, ‘Swadharma’ and ‘Thoughts of Gandhiji’. It was his touching and heartfelt tribute to the Mahatma and all the noble values he stood for.

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By Bapu’s values

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