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Mathew T George
Mathew T George


Farewell, #RazaBindu

  • A file photo of Syed Haider Raza | Janak Bhat
  • Syed Haider Raza died in Delhi on Saturday after a prolonged, age-related illness | Janak Bhat
  • RAZA 6
    [File] S.H. Raza during the launch of his painting book in Mumbai | Janak Bhat
  • “An artist's job is to paint, and it is a bonus if the work sells at a good price. But, it is not the only affirmation he should be looking for.”

Artist finds fakes at art show, screamed headlines on January 19, 2009. S.H. Raza had arrived at the Dhoomimal Art Gallery in New Delhi to inaugurate a show of his works, and spotted the fakes. “India’s oldest gallery” immediately shut down the show and said only two of the 30 paintings came from the gallery’s collection. The rest had been loaned from Z.H. Zafri, Raza’s nephew, the gallery representative said.

News of the Raza fakes shook the art world. And, why not? On, Raza’s La Terre is listed as the fifth most expensive Indian painting to go under the hammer. Raza created the 74” x 74” acrylic on canvas in 1973. In 2014, Christie’s auctioned it for Rs 18.61 crore. In June 2010, Christie's had sold his Saurashtra for Rs 16.42 crore. So, it made news when Sotheby’s failed to sell the ‘Rockefeller Raza’ in 2012. Village with Church, a 1958 oil-on-canvas, was put up for auction by the estate of John D. Rockefeller III, hence the moniker. The asking price was Rs 12.5 crore. Raza's comment to a newspaper, on the hoo-ha over pricing, was telling: “An artist's job is to paint, and it is a bonus if the work sells at a good price. But, it is not the only affirmation he should be looking for.”

In fact, the list of 25 most expensive Indian paintings is dominated by four names: V.S. Gaitonde, F.N. Souza, Tyeb Mehta, Amrita Sher-Gil and Raza. Souza and Raza were among the six who founded the Progressive Artists’ Group in Bombay in 1947. Mehta was closely associated with PAG.

Syed Haider Raza died in Delhi at 11:00 am on July 23, after a prolonged, age-related illness. The 94-year-old had been in hospital for the past two months, and spent his last days in intensive care. His wife, artist and sculptor Janine Mongillat, died of cancer in 2002.

Dr Rajeev Lochan, former director, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, told THE WEEK: “Raza is one of those unique Indian artists who dealt with the Indian philosophical spirit with immense ease, transforming it into brilliant abstractions absolutely derived and arrived through his artistic journey. The desire to remain rooted to the motherland ever remained predominant in his pursuits and creative efforts.”

Lochan’s reference was to the hot colours and geometric shapes that dominated Raza’s work. And, especially, the bindu, a “dark circular focal point”. Raza called it the wellspring of energy and creativity. In multiple interviews, he thanked his schoolteacher in Jharia, Jharkhand, for introducing him to the bindu. To help his student concentrate, the teacher drew a bindu on the blackboard, asked him to focus on it and left. The teacher came back to see the little boy lost in the bindu.

Another person he had remained grateful to was photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who told him that he liked his landscapes, but that they were slightly vague and not precise. “It lacks construction,” Cartier-Bresson reportedly told him. When Raza wondered what construction was, Cartier-Bresson told him, “That’s the base of architecture.” The photographer then asked him to study Paul Cézanne, the Post-Impressionist French painter.

Raza was born in Mandla, Madhya Pradesh, on February 22, 1922. His father was a forest ranger, and, hence, Raza was deeply influenced by the jungles of central India. He studied at the Government Chitrakala Mahavidyalay, Nagpur; the Sir J.J. School of Art, Mumbai; and, in 1950, won a French government scholarship to the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Paris. In 1956, he was awarded the Prix de la Critique in Paris—the first non-French artist to be honoured thus.

He married Mongillat in 1959, and spent the next six decades in France. Mongillat was an only child, and her parents wanted her to live close by. Raza obliged, but never gave up his Indian passport. On December 29, 2010, he moved back to New Delhi and set up his easel in a three-storey studio-residence in the Safdarjung Development Area.

Those who knew Raza closely say he did not set store by the prices his paintings fetched. He told the media earlier this year: “What matters is value, not price.” While moving back from France, he gave his apartments in Paris and studio in Gorbio, in the south of France, to his Mauritian adopted daughter.

He set up the Raza Foundation in 2004 to support young artists. Poet Ashok Vajpeyi chairs the foundation. Bhopal-based senior artist Akhilesh, a trustee of the foundation, told THE WEEK: “Raza was concerned about the future generations. That's why he set up five annual awards for young artists—two for painting and one each for poetry, music and dance. The foundation also helps with publishing, organising seminars and workshops. He bequeathed his entire estate to the foundation. I feel, in that way, he continues to live.” Akhilesh spoke to THE WEEK en route to Mandla, 500km from Bhopal, where the last rites will be held.

In a recent interview, Raza said that he was yet to tire of the bindu. Earlier, he had told a news agency: “You have to concentrate on one idea. I usually offer one [piece of] advice to young men, concentrate on one woman. One woman gives everything. One idea is sufficient for an artist. For me, the 'bindu' has been a vast subject with its variations throughout my life.”

Raza was the last artist of the PAG to go. The “razabindu” has taken with it its creator.

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