“You are talented, but I am sceptical about young talented painters,” Henri Cartier-Bresson told the young painter from Mumbai. The famous French photographer was talking to Sayed Haider Raza at an exhibition of his paintings in Srinagar, a year after India became an independent nation. “There is emotion in your works, but they lack construction. I will advise you to study Cezanne,” the Frenchman continued. Many of his friends believed that Raza took Cartier-Bresson’s advice to heart. A year later, Raza was in Paris to study at the School of Fine Arts, the same school where Amrita Sher-Gil and Anjolie Ela Menon went. Raza studied Cezanne, married French artist Janine Mongillat and continued to live in France after completing his studies.
More than 70 years later, the city of Paris is hosting the biggest celebration yet of the life and works of Sayed Haider Raza on the centenary of his birth. Opened on February 15, the Raza retrospective at the Pompidou Centre in Paris is turning out to be a fitting tribute to the master whose life and career criss-crossed continents and cultures. “The retrospective in Paris is the largest-ever show of an Indian modern artist,” says poet Ashok Vajpeyi, managing trustee of the Raza Foundation, launched by the artist in Delhi to support young artists in India. “There have been shows of many Indian artists like FN Souza and MF Husain, but none covered a vast range, period and quantity as this exhibition,” adds Vajpeyi.
More than 90 works from the 1940s to the turn of last century is part of the Raza retrospective, which also has more than 80 documents, including letters written to Raza by his artist-friends and fellow-members of the Progressive Artists’ Group, Husain, Krishen Khanna and VS Gaitonde. Among the nearly 1,200-strong audience at the opening of the retrospective were top Indian gallerists and collectors, who have lent Raza’s works from their collections to the show. Several of the exhibits are on public view for the first time.
Maa, one of Raza’s iconic works from 1981 which is part of the retrospective, carries a curious history. First shown at the 1982 Delhi Triennale, the painting was bought for Rs 19,000 by the artists Bal Chhabra and Husain. They, in turn, sold it for Rs 75 lakh. In 1998, the painting was auctioned for Rs 2.5 crore in London with it coming into the personal possession of gallerist Amrita Jhaveri. More than 50 works of the retrospective are from Europe, with the rest coming from France, Switzerland and the UK. Among the galleries in India that have lent their collections of Raza’s works are the Piramal Museum of Art, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, JJ School of Art, Mumbai, and Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation, Mumbai. Art institutions and private collectors from Europe include the Jane and Kito de Boer Collection, Holyrood Holdings Limited and Amrita Jhaveri, all based in London. Also in Paris, the famous Guimet Museum, one of the biggest museums of Asian art in Europe, is paying tribute to Raza with an exhibition of six of his works in the mandala tradition. Paris-based university Inalco organised a half-day seminar last month on Raza, nature and Indian modernism to coincide with the retrospective.
Born in 1922 in a mud hutment in a tribal forest village in Mandla, Madhya Pradesh, Raza studied in a government school located on the fringes of the Kanha National Park before going to Nagpur to learn drawing and earning a scholarship to the prestigious JJ School of Art in Mumbai. The bindu, the leitmotif in Raza’s works, was introduced to the young school student by his village school headmaster. As a member of the Progressive Artists’ Group in the then Bombay, he became part of the modernist movement built on plurality. A landscape artist in the early part of his long career, Raza helped evolve an alternative modernism resting on tranquility instead of disruption. During the Partition, Raza’s family left for Pakistan, while he chose to stay back. “Raza told me 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. Raza, who returned to India in 2010, died in 2016. He was buried next to his father’s grave in Mandla, fulfilling his wish.
In Delhi, an exhibition at the Dhoomimal Gallery, Raza and His Contemporaries, held during February 7-March 10 to coincide with the Paris retrospective offered a fascinating insight into the contours of India’s artistic landscape. Drawn from the Ravi Jain Collection of modern Indian art, the exhibition had works of Raza and those by the other five founders (Souza, Husain, KH Ara, Hari Ambadas Gade and Sadanand Bakre) of the Progressive Artists’ Group along with its later members Ram Kumar, Khanna, Padamsee and Gaitonde.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer