Like a lot of art students, I encountered SH Raza first through his work. I was at the JJ School of Art in Bombay. We were familiar with the modern artists, Souza, Ara, Gaitonde, Tyeb Mehta and Akbar Padamsee. An early work of Raza’s used to hang in the gallery of the school’s main hall, and we thought of him as one of our own because he’d studied there.
I recollect vividly the time we asked him to come to the school for a discussion. He arrived at 10am and to our surprise, spent the first five minutes, quite a bit of time just touching, caressing almost, the stones of the college. This man, such a big name in France, was emotional at returning to the place where he’d studied. That’s the first thing I learned from him: to be connected to one’s roots. He also told us something that few artists do: “Humey mazdoor ki tarah kaam karna hai (We need to work like labourers)”. In him we saw a man for whom art was not just inspiration and instinct, but hard work. Creating through the sweat of one’s brow.
My first trip abroad was on a scholarship to the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the early 1990s, where Raza had been a student four decades earlier. He was so supportive, introducing me to a professor who was a figurative painter just like me. We spent many happy evenings together, discussing the Vedas, the Upanishads, man’s relationship with the cosmos – him in chaste Hindi, me in Bambaiyya – while he’d sip Ballantine’s whisky. Often I’d stay for a dinner put together by his wife Janine, as Vava, their fat white cat, skulked around.
His geometric abstraction came out of a spectacularly messy studio. And yet, watching him lift the paint and apply a brush stroke was like watching a dance mudra. He had the most calligraphy-like application. And even in the studio, the works shone with the sheer celebration of life, the vivid reds, blues and yellows echoing the India we knew.
Raza’s support for young artists is well known through his foundation. But he’s helped in so many little ways, stressing to young artists (many of us weren’t very good with English) the importance of being articulate. “The art books are all in English,” he’d say. “Explain your work. You don’t have to convince anyone about your art but you have to communicate clearly.”
When I close my eyes and think of Raza, I think of his large horizontal canvas, Ma Laut Ke Aunga Toh Kya Launga? (Mother, What Shall I Bring When I Return?), and how it filled Mumbai’s tiny Chemould gallery with light and colour when it was shown there.
India will miss a painter with such a sophisticated approach to art. I for one will miss his commitment. We were once discussing the merging of different disciplines and he simply said, “You’re a painter, your job is to paint. It should start with painting and end with painting”. And for him, it did.
(Atul Dodiya is a contemporary artist based in Mumbai)
(As told to Rachel Lopez)