The last of a generation of doyens of Indian art, Sayed Haider Raza , 94, passed away in New Delhi on Saturday.
A founding member of the iconic Progressive Artists Group in 1947 – along with MF Husain, KH Ara, HA Gade, SK Bakre and Francis Newton Souza – Raza was perceived as one of the most important painters in the country.
In 2010, Saurashtra, one of Raza’s paintings, was sold for a staggering Rs 16.42 crore ($34,86,965) at a Christie’s auction.
The artist had been ailing for the last 45 days and was on life support at Max Hospital Saket, said a family friend. The last rites will be conducted in Mandala in Madhya Pradesh, according to his wishes.
Noted art critic S. Kalidas says Raza Saheb’s commitment to his craft is the stuff of legend. “One of the grand old masters of Indian art, he was passionate about it. Well into his 90s, Raza Saheb continued to paint at his studio, even on a wheelchair,” he recalls.
“After his marriage to French artist and sculptor Janine Mongillat, he was staying in France for many decades, but Raza Saheb never really went away. He kept his ties with India intact,” adds Kalidas.
Gallerist Arun Vadehra of Vadehra Art Gallery, which had been exhibiting his work since the 1970s and also hosted Nirantar, his last exhibition, says the bindu was the leitmotif of Raza’s paintings. “He believed that the bindu or the seed was the aarambh (beginning) of everything, the very basis of life. It was from the seed a tree or a flower or a plant evolves.”
With the credo that everything emanated from it, Raza Saab often described the bindu as: “The seed, the germ, the core, it gives birth to the fecundity of the world.”
Born in Madhya Pradesh, Raza began drawing early, at the age of twelve. He studied at the Nagpur School of Art (1939-43), followed by the JJ School of Art in Mumbai (1943-1947).
In 1950, he moved to Paris for higher studies and exhibited extensively in France, where he continued to live for more than six decades.
Raza has left an enormous legacy behind, avers Krishen Khanna, 91, his friend and contemporary. His signature was to always look forward and keep evolving. “One cannot pedal on one pedal for your entire life. Unlike say a Jamini Roy, who kept repeating himself, Raza always kept reinventing. Every painting he created was a breath of fresh air,” says Khanna.
In 1956, when Raza was awarded the Prix de la Critique in France, it was a big moment for young artists in India, recalls Khanna. “I was present at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Bombay, when Sir Cowasji Jehangir made the announcement and we clapped our hands off. He was one of us. It was a moment of tremendous pride.”
Although the celebrated artist was conferred with the highest French civilian honour, the Commandeur de la Legion d’Honneur (the Legion of Honour), he took pride in his roots in Madhya Pradesh and never gave up his Indian passport. For some time, to support himself, Raza taught Hindi in France.
He returned to India in 2010 from France and had been exhibiting regularly every year.
An artist who believed in the idea of a composite Indian culture, Raza used to visit every place of worship including mosques, churches and temples. “He was a believer in the power of faith. Raza Saheb used to say, ‘Maano toh Shankar, na maano to kankar.’ (If you have faith then it is God, otherwise it is just a stone),” recalls Arun Vadehra.
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