The nameplate besides the gate to Syed Haider Raza’s home in New Delhi’s upscale Safdarjung Development Area says ‘Raza’ in big, silver capital letters.
Inside his house, on a table in the room where he paints sits a huge basket of red roses, sent by his friend for the painter’s 90th birthday on Wednesday.
The artist, who returned to India about a year ago after spending more than 60 years in France, has also just celebrated the 10th anniversary of his foundation, with a seven-day cultural festival Aviraam, which ended in New Delhi last week.
The Raza foundation promotes young talent, and gives Rs 1 lakh to five promising youngsters from the fine and performing arts who are from economically weak backgrounds. It has helped 30 artists in all.
“I am enjoying my return,” says the stalwart of the highly influential Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, which combined Indian themes with post-Impressionist styles. “Despite my old age and physical infirmities, I have been painting continuously.”
To commemorate his 90th birthday, Sotheby’s will auction his painting, Village with Church on March 17 and 18 in New York. The work, from the collection of John Rockefeller III’s collection, is valued at about $2.5 million. “It’s good to know that one’s art is highly prized, internationally,” says the painter, widely known for his Bindu paintings. “But prices do not necessarily reflect artistic value.”
He’s sitting in a wheelchair, dressed in a pair of grey trousers and a silk jacket whose ochre looks like it has been squeezed out from a tube of oil paint on a nearby table. “India is not just my country; it is a civilization of ideas,” says the painter, who remained an Indian citizen throughout his stay abroad. “Creative work is being done here. Some young artists are very good, such as Seema Ghuraiya, Sujata Bajaj, Manish Pushkale.”
Raza was 12 when his school art teacher in Barbaria village in Madhya Pradesh realised that his young pupil was exceptionally talented. He advised Raza’s father, a forest officer, to let his son study art at the Nagpur College of Art.
Raza did go there, graduating in fine arts in 1943. He then did a Masters in Fine Arts from the JJ College of Art in Mumbai, in 1947.
These six years in Mumbai were tough for Raza, as for his other contemporaries such as MF Husain, VS Gaitonde and Tyeb Mehta. In the late 1940s, modern art had few admirers in Mumbai, so Raza worked as a graphic designer and a school art teacher. He lived on potatoes, says Ashok Vajpeyi, a former chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi.
But these struggles also led to the coalescing of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group. And Raza’s particular artistic contribution lies in his use of miniature painting to portray modern situations, says Vajpeyi.
These struggles are also what led Raza to set up his foundation. He is now looking for a place where the foundation can set up a cultural centre. “He is collecting funds to fulfill this dream,” says Sanjeev Kumar Choube, who manages the foundation.
“I wanted to go to Europe to explore international art,” says Raza. “Now I’ve come back to myself in India.”