Conversations with Raza at eighty
June 16, 2008
(click on the small image for full screen image with captions.)
"Kuch nahi to kam se kam, (If nothing else, at least) I've seen the city of my dreams. I've looked at the nature of life itself, where I had not seen it before." This grand young man of Indian art sat surrounded by New York's glitterati and chatterati. He continued, "Why do journalists concentrate on the least important part of my life's work. The price? Yes, that is great but …."
Saffron Art has arranged an astonishingly replete retrospective of Sayed Haider Raza's work in New York. The paintings, many procured with great effort, cover 60 years of his evolution as an artist. Raza himself exclaimed that he was amazed and overwhelmed by their efforts. "Memories, forgotten work, more innumerable memories. How did they do it?" he said. They have shown tremendous effort and great skill in procuring these paintings." Deeply touched by this cooperative effort, he said they had picked the right ones, "Those which show my evolution as an artist. I myself am surprised that all this painting was possible in one lifetime, such a short period. This is a body of love." He added, "Sujata Bajaj and Saffronart have assisted so beautifully. Thanks, thanks."
"The themes of my work are nature, prakriti, the elements of nature which interact with each other. We have to understand, not like Renaissance work or Abstract Expressionism, we have to see it with the viewpoint of the 21st century. I have been working very hard for decades to understand these elements. Those five elements (ether, sky, fire, water, earth) are all present in my paintings."
"The world is small, it takes only 8 hours from Paris to New York. Everyone knows what is happening in this city or that, and whatever is happening anywhere affects all of us. And this is affecting human nature itself. Indian contemporary art is at a very great height and evolution for painters of very great quality are emerging and recognized by many everywhere."
Raza said his favorite paintings were 'Maha Bharat', (2 separate words meaning 'Great India', not the epic), and 'Shanti' a somber, gentle painting of circles showing the black hole where all matter ends, and the white light portal from which everything is born again. The symbols are, one and all, from orthodox Tantric Hinduism. The Panch Tatwas, the Time and Space continuum, Shakti and Shiv, Purush and Prakriti are all there. "I studied with Brahmin priests of the highest caliber", he said reverently. "My teachers said, whatever is important, go there, go to that essence. This aspect in Souza, Gaitonde is very important. They go to the essence of things. There is nothing superficial."
"In France my stay of 30 years, from '50 to '80 was vital. I learned the vital elements of lines, shapes, forms, color and their orchestration. Without this understanding, one can't be a painter. I loved France. I tried to bring Indian concepts to my work, to put these two together. One sum of my experience is where color is understood. Blue and red, do they sit together in a particular spatial relationship? Or I can see if it does not work. A painter knows where to place a line, where to place black." He laughingly remembered Descartes and added it is not 'I am because I can buy', it is because I can think and feel. "My worth was recognized. Yet, in the darkness of the night and the light of day, I was asked and I too asked Raza, where is Indian culture, the great thoughts of the past four thousand years in your work? Where is insight, antar jyoti? I tried to do my best and now you have to see. In '78, I studied Indian ethnography, Jain miniatures, Nagas, Maha Bharat to understand the pictorial element, the artist's personal vision, relevant to the great country I come from."
"The Panch Tatwas" he said pointing to this painting. "All the colors show the five elements. Bhav is feeling, not just the external appearance of things as they are perceived by the eye. Feeling is important, sort of the color of life, of what is beyond appearance. For without this, you cannot perceive the world, the earth, landscapes, color and structure." Raza then studied ancient sculpture, musical components and geometrical forms, came up against certain disciplines and finally, he said, out came the bindu, a very dynamic idea. "We can look at bindu for months and then we know. A sense of Indian landscapes as seen by the mind's eye. I read Krishnamurthy and other philosophers and enclosed myself in work. I was dominated by forms and geometry and this became knowledge."
Walking past his early paintings, he said, "These works have reminded me of how I started. I didn't believe my eyes, I had to recognize my own work as a third person. I was overwhelmed. Abstract, figurative, a single nude. After many long years, I brought in India."
Looking like a third person at his own work, he smiled, "Did I do it? No, it happened. I was immensely happy with what I had done in this short span called human life. Yes, we may all know these symbols but few had mastered them."
"In France I studied what is a line, what is color, for thirty years and tried to bring Indian iconography into my work. It is not with the eye but antar dnyan, (inner knowledge), independent of understanding the pictorial element. I understood Shanti, Kundalini, Nag, I am happy I am from India and have my nationality. My country has given me strength both in my life and in my work. For France, I am grateful for savoir faire. And though there are people who look at my work in terms of price and are prejudiced accordingly, it is an act of love."
"Can you say yes, it means something to me or not?" he asks.
Raza has his own private collection of beautiful, ancient and historical artwork, whatever he felt most affinity with, a part of his evolution. He gave some of it to a French museum. What one sees here is this evolution of a man who gave utmost importance to quality. "I hope the exhibition brings happiness. I am amazed at what happened in 60 years."
"You have paintings which are full of color", said someone.
"The blue painting is about the great importance given to women and their happiness in Indian scriptures", he said. He quoted Sanskrit shlokes about Purush and Prakriti. Everything is here, including space, circles, women, grace and bindu for this first among modern artists has brought it all together. There is no random placement of accents or color but concentration on the universe with its bindu, where all divergence is united and this can be seen with the third eye's insight. The energetic colors are primary, the colors of clarity.
"What inspires you today?" I ask.
"Women, champagne and nature! All other Indian art inspires me, especially Indian music. Let us not take our life lightly. Eliminate anything not vital." I did not get to talk with him about flow, about kundalini, about Shaktipath, the guru principle, but perhaps it was unnecessary as he reiterated the need to eliminate anything not essential, anything which came in the way.
"No Islamic symbols?" I asked.
"I value Islam, I have got a lot from it but I do not care for certain aspects. I took the best and discarded the rest. Islam is not agreeable to images. Today I am dreaming of huge canvases, showing everything, bindu, shakti, surya, every element. I'm in good form, almost like a young man."
Someone asked if youngsters buy his paintings more than the elderly. "I know children like my paintings", he laughs.
With his total involvement in Kundalini, Shaktipath, Panch Tatwas, he represents the secular dream with which modern India was created where every religion was viewed as important and essentially equal, steps on the spiritual path, with allegiance to one, some or none.
"My evolution is not simple. It is hard work of a lifetime. I was a bad student, the black sheep, with an academically brilliant brother who was head of everything. The teachers said to eliminate and concentrate on what was most essential. This has been very effective. I wanted to learn what is painting, I wanted to paint. Early work was only landscapes. I remember the day I was not satisfied in the eighties and questioned: Where is your country with its great civilization? I started visiting India for learning Indian poetry, thought and studied Sanskrit. I did a detailed study of sculpture and saw whatever was the most important in Indian art. I collected Jain miniatures." With great certainty he adds, "Only in silence can you create and then bindu emerges. Extraordinary ideas have come from India. Centuries ago, they penetrated every fact of human existence, every aspect of thought."
"I've constantly studied Sanskrit shlokes, even in Paris So important, both in my life and in my work, their profound values." Turning to a bright painting, "That ecstatic color you see in the markets of Rajasthan, the villages and," he laughs, "on the women."
Langenheimer, an early patron in India told him to paint less but 'to work like mad'. "I did not sell in the early years. Today," he said, "Sometimes I don't paint for 2 or 3 days and then suddenly something happens…."
Raza spoke of studying art and mentioned his high school affectionately. He spoke of the years before independence when Indian art was so devalued that Roger Fry, the well known British art historian, said he saw nothing of any value in Indian art (see note below). This perhaps represents the uneasiness of those who conquer and loot, it justifies their actions. The educational system was entirely geared to British colonial requirements. Today the predatory colonizers are viewed as a mere, although destructive, blip in a civilization of centuries.
Raza reminisced about being a young artist in Mumbai. "I should know what is life, what is art. We wanted to take our destiny in our own hands. No importance was given to Indian painting in school. Bendre, Hebbar, Gaitonde were good. Most important was the lovely Amrita Sher Gill. Very beautiful she was, we were young and naturally, most interested in her! Not a single painting was sold when she had her solo exhibition. She inspired me. I respected the resurgence of Indian art with people like Tagore, Haldar, Nandlal Bose. It was important to open our eyes and light our own light."
"Some of my paintings sold at one time. Sorry to talk shop but it was so useful! Schlesinger bought two on the spot. My self respect did not permit me to ask for help from others."
"You don't have to work, you have to paint", Schlesinger insisted, "Leave your shop, you are a painter."
"Birds of a feather flock together: MF, Hebbar, Souza, Tyeb, Padamsee, Krishan Khanna. We wanted a better understanding of what art is, could be. We were so different from each other. We got together because we valued each other's work, it interested us. In '48 we wanted to go out of India, not beyond India. I thought art was more vital in France with its Van Gogh and Cezanne. We never saw any originals, only copies, books."
"When you arrived in Paris, what were you trying to do?" asked Susan Bean.
S H Raza said his skill was noticed right away. His school teachers encouraged him to be a painter. At 21, he arrived in Mumbai and the Bombay Art Society quickly accepted his work. This was followed by a silver medal and a solo exhibition. In 1940 he was at the J J School of Art. He and his fellow artists started the legendary Progressive Arts Group. He applied to France for a scholarship and was so keen that he says he studied French day and night! His interview was conducted in French. He won the prestigious Prix de la Critique prize and returned to India after 9 years. He taught for three months in Berkeley but one does not see any influence by American artists. A happy India bestowed the Padma Shri on him. Now, he holds the highest civilian honor, the Padma Bhushan. Today, over 20 museums from America, Europe, Israel and Japan honor and exhibit his paintings.
"My paintings will speak and maybe then I won't have to. I still speak with an Indian accent because that is who I am." He rests his slim fine painter's fingers, supple, with a thin gold band. I point to his tie, a brown tie with concentric circle. "I painted it," he smiles. "Some last major canvases are in me. Buddhi to hriday ki dasi hai, said Gandhi. (The intellect is the heart's servant.) Intelligence should correct the errors of the heart and vice versa. You may think and think but then ultimately you come to a place where intuition takes over. A great intuitive place, a direct perception of this is so important. No path of intellect, but a path of love. Understanding, and not remaining on the surface."
"What do you long for now?"
"I wish I had more time. I still have some great canvasses in me. With my experience of life, of painting, I could still do some large major canvases. It is not for showing them or for someone to buy them, it is intrinsic, my life experience, the higher values of philosophy. In spite of health, in spite of age. We all go. My last ambition is some large canvases. I have not been to an ashram but my life has been my discipline. My childhood had wonderful Brahmin teachers, like Beni Prasad, people of the highest order. I am so grateful to them for teaching me so wonderfully. Where women are respected, God lives". And flawlessly he quotes Sanskrit: "Yatra naryast poojyante ramantra tatva devita. A house where a woman is respected and adored, Gods dwell."
"I feel, did I do this?" He says again with wonder.
Typically Indian, he says, "I pray to Ganeshji and Shiva, I go to a mosque, I go to a synagogue. I feel divine power is extremely important and somehow it creeps in even in my work." But then we were the dream of a secular India where all religions would be viewed as valuable and you were free, free to choose what seemed best, to change and evolve.
Born in Kakiya, a small hamlet of seven houses, in the forest of India's Madhya Pradesh, Artist Sayed Haider Raza has drawn his name on the world's canvas. He says he goes to Dnyaneshwar's shrine in Pune and insists he has never left India. In Marathi, he asks the priests there about the saint and his sayings.
Partition took place, Raza drew Baramulla in flames and deserted towns, and his mother too passed away at the same time. His revolutionary brother, an editor, and other siblings chose to go to Pakistan. The Muslim painters and artists of India have shown us repeatedly their love or at the very least their devotion and involvement with Hindu culture, even praying regularly in Hindu temples. Modern India needs to respond likewise.
"I may not have done much but at least I have had a beautiful morning," he added.
Raza spoke at Saffronart in New York.
Note: The early British view of Indian art follows. The art schools attended by the Progressive Art Group in colonized India were run accordingly. Raza reminded us of the well known Bloomsbury Group art historian Roger Fry's pronouncement:
“The general aspect of almost all Indian works of art is intensely and acutely distasteful to me. It is excessive and redundant, it shows an extravagant and exuberant fancy which seems uncontrolled by any principle of co-ordination and, above all perhaps, the quality of its rhythms displeases me by its nerveless and unctuous sinuosity. In striking contrast to Chinese art, the sensuality of Indian artists is exceedingly erotic--the leitmotiv of much of their sculpture is taken from the more relaxed and abandoned poses of the female figure. A great deal of their art, even their religious art, is definitely pornographic, and although I have no moral prejudices against that form of expression it generally interferes with aesthetic considerations by interposing a strong irrelevant interest which tends to distract both the artist and the spectator from the essential purposes of a work of art. “
(Roger Fry, Last Lectures, “Indian Art”, 1939 New York, Macmillan. P. 150)