Millennium Post

Remembering Raza

(February 22, 1922 – July 23, 2016) 

“Maa laut kar jab aaonga, to kya laaonga?”... Is a line drawn out of poet Ashok Vajpei’s poem, written on Raza’s recent paintings. It hangs, ironically, on the walls outside his studio-cum-room at Safdarjung Development Area where, now, his cadaver waits to be buried at Mandala, his native village in Madhya Pradesh.

The renowned artist and poet, a music and dance aficionado breathed his last this past Saturday at 94. Ironically, the stairs to his room glares at you his last series of painting titled Aarambh, meaning the beginning! 

Visitors including artists, poets and gallerists are slowly pouring in: Sudip Roy, Paramjit Singh, Gopi Ganjwani, Om Thanvi, the Vadehra and the Pallate Art Gallery, to pay their last respects. 

“Generous to a fault” as Vajpei puts it, Raza, who instantly gave away a lakh to a cancer patient after author Namita Gokhle shared his plight with Vajepei. Raza overheard the conversation and made peace with himself and with the life he lived depending upon a group of creative/commercial fraternity including poets, authors, gallerist, art researchers and an aide who looked after him and lived with him 24x7. To the uninitiated, S H Raza was the son of a forest officer, Sayed Muhammed Razi, in Madhya Pradesh. “He would often run away from studies” and “draw trees and birds endlessly”. So his father appointed a teacher - Nandlal Haria ji, who drew a shoonya (zero), called it a “bindu” and commanded, “Isse dekho aur chiriya, jungle sab bhool jao”. Little did Raza know at the age of 12, that this bindu would become his hallmark; so much so that its spiritual elements as embedded in his works, would fetch him Rs 2.47 crores at Sotheby auction and nearly 17 crores at Christies’ towards the wee end of his life!

A regular at temples and churches for his “family was liberal”, reader of Bhagvad Geeta, Ramayana, Upnishads, Kabir and Tulsidas, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Kedarnath Singh, a devout Bharatnatyam and Kathakali watcher and Dagar Brother listener, Raza combined them all in his works, with choice of colours that earned him the title of “master colourist” globally. No wonder, he earned almost all possible awards from the Indian and French Governments and the art world bestowed upon him from the year 1946 to 2015- Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan, Lalit Kala Fellowship, :Prix de la Critique (he was the first non-French artist to receive the honour) and Commandeur de la Legion d’Honneur (the Legion of Honour) with many more.

No wonder, this “lonely man” – as he reiterated to this writer whenever one interviewed him – was hawked by a group of people who would benefit from his legacy worth thousands of crores, A Raza Foundation, however, was made to fool the gullible. It though gives away awards and scholarships to the new artistic talent in art every year. Allegedly, a huge chunk of monetary benefits are channalised towards this foundation, morphing it (apparently) into a noble cause venture! 

This founder of India’s revolutionary Progressive Arts Group (PAG) in 1947, found himself utterly forlorn after he came back to India, post his wife Janine Monglillat’s death due to cancer in 2002.  “I married twice,” he told this writer. My first wife was a nice woman, but she didn’t understand my art. Our differences grew and we parted ways. We were in our late 20s then. After I moved to Paris (1950), I met artist Janine Monglillat. She changed my whole world. She opened my views to French art history, aesthetics, cuisines, values and a lot more. She was my best critique. After she has gone, I feel so lonely. I feel the need of a female companion. They are much more compassionate than men aides. Life is so difficult without a woman’s support. In Paris a woman comes and cooks my food twice or thrice a week. I eat refrigerated food half of the week and I don’t like it, I feel so lonely, alone,” he shared with this writer last year, before mounting his new show aarambh in Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery. 

His face – filled with gloomn – barely saw a heartfelt smile of late. And yet he painted; painted to keep himself engaged and perhaps keep those happy who took care of the rich and generous man in him. In the words of Vajpei, “Since 2010, after he shifted to SDA, he created nearly 400 paintings, During this period, the distance between painting and time had vanished. He painted to live, and lived to paint!”

The loner’s legacy lives on...
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