Dharam Singh Netam remembers the day Sayed Haider Raza came to his college. The celebrated artist was visiting the Indira Kala Sangeet Vishwavidyalaya at Khairagarh in Chhattisgarh to receive an honorary doctorate three years ago. “It was an extraordinary day. I was excited to meet the famous artist who was born in the same place where I was born,” says Netam, a resident of Mandla town in Madhya Pradesh, who was a final-year bachelor of fine arts student when Raza visited his college, situated 200 km from Mandla. Raza, who had suffered a fall a few weeks before, came to the college in a wheelchair. “He still posed for pictures with us,” recalls Netam, who was among the 40 fine arts students from Madhya Pradesh invited to attend a workshop in Mandla last week to mark the first anniversary of Raza’s death on July 23.
Organised on the banks of the Narmada river, the workshop was a preparation for the future for its young participating artists, but a throwback to the childhood of Raza, who learned his first art lessons in Mandla. “At the age of 10-12, I sketched Narmada in Mandla,” Raza wrote in Passion: Life and Art of Raza, an autobiographical work he co-authored with poet Ashok Vajpeyi before he passed away at the age of 94 years last year. It was at a government middle school in Kakaiya, a village on the fringes of the Kanha National Park, that the young Raza was introduced to the world of art. Raza, whose father Mohammed Razi was a deputy forest ranger, had joined the school as a class IV student in 1931. Worried about the wandering nature of his student, Nand Lal Jharia, the headmaster, summoned Raza one day. “Forget about study, forget about play. Forget about anything that I or someone else might have told you. Just concentrate on this dot,” the headmaster told the boy, pointing to a dot he had drawn on a piece of paper. That dot went on to follow him for the rest of his life, becoming an integral part of his works.
Tribute to teachers
“Raza used to mention his teachers on a daily basis,” recalls Vajpeyi, the managing trustee of the Raza Foundation, which organised the workshop for young art students in Mandla. Eight years before his death, Raza visited his school in Kakaiya to inaugurate its new building. “He was a humble person. He came to our school several times,” says Narendra Kumar Patel, the headmaster-incharge. During his last visit, Raza wrote in the school diary about the dot that inspired him nearly eight decades ago: “Mool Mantra—Bindu” (basic teaching—dot) and added that the dot held “infinite possibilities”.
It certainly did. A few years later, in his high school in Damoh, near Mandla, Raza’s arts teacher Daryah Singh Rathore discovered his drawing abilities. If Raza drew sketches of the Narmada river in Mandla, he began to take painting seriously, doing flowers, sun and the nature in Damoh. Those days, Nagpur was the capital of the Central Province, which became Madhya Pradesh after independence. Raza went on to study drawing at the Nagpur School of Arts in 1939, where he was guided by his teacher Bapu Rao Athawale. He soon earned a scholarship to the JJ School of Arts in Bombay. In the 1940s, Raza sold his first painting for `40, which was much more than a month’s salary at the block-making factory where he worked. Many years later, he would become the highest paid Indian artist when his 1983 work, Saurashtra, was sold for $10 million.
Meeting the Mahatma
During Partition, Raza’s family left for Pakistan, while he chose to stay back. “He told me years later that he would have betrayed a man he saw at the age of eight in Mandla if he had gone to Pakistan,” says Vajpeyi. The man Raza mentioned was Mahatma Gandhi, who came to Mandla when Raza was a school boy. “I went on foot (from his village) to see Gandhi, who was addressing a meeting in Mandla,” Raza later wrote. “It was the only time I saw and heard him.” Raza’s three brothers and a sister were among those who went to Pakistan, leaving their sibling and their mother behind. Raza’s father had died a year before.
Raza left India three years later to study painting in Paris. Before he left for France, Raza, however, had become part of the Progressive Artists Group with his friends MF Husain and FN Souza to transform Indian art. “It was an important phase in the history of the nation and these young artists wanted to do something different,” says Vajpeyi. Raza’s departure for France was triggered by a chance meeting with famous French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson in Srinagar. “You are talented, but I am sceptical about young talented painters,” Cartier-Bresson told Raza
after watching his art show in Srinagar. “There is emotion in your works, but they lack construction. I will advise you to study Cezanne.”
Carrying home abroad
Once back in Bombay, Raza decided to heed Cartier-Bresson’s advice. He realised that the best way to study Cezanne was to go to France. In 1950, he went to study at the School of Fine Arts in Paris on a scholarship. It was the same school where Indian artists like Amrita Sher-Gil and
Anjolie Ela Menon went. He studied Cezanne, married French artist Janine Mongillat and continued to live in France after completing his studies. “He lived in France for 60 years,” says Vajpeyi. “He always said France taught him how to paint, but what to paint he learned in India.”
“It was an amazing journey from Mandla to France,” says Kathak dancer Prerana Shrimali, a trustee of the Raza Foundation. “It is a pre-requisite for an artist to keep searching. That is what Raza did.” That search would always bring him back to his roots. His paintings of nature were heavily influenced by Mandla. “He was born in a mud house in a forest village,” says poet Udayan Vajpeyi, a trustee of the Raza Foundation. “There he learned to admire the beauty of nature… at the same time, he feared the forest. There were different kinds of silence inside a forest. Imagine a child with such wonderful creativity growing up there,” he adds.
Living abroad for six decades didn’t diminish Raza’s admiration for Mandla. Every time he returned to his village, he would get down from the car and kiss the ground. In his studio in Delhi, where he returned in 2010 after the death of his wife eight years earlier, he kept photographs of his school teachers next to the painting stand. His last wish was to be buried next to his father’s grave in Mandla, where it all began.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer