A Retrospective at Piramal Museum Sheds New Light on Raza’s Life and Themes

A little over two years ago, as I headed towards Safdarjung Enclave, an upscale New Delhi neighborhood, to meet Modern Indian art’s then living legend, Sayed Haider Raza, in what would become my last interview with him, a quotable quote I had read long ago kept bobbing up in mind, almost as if setting the theme for the interview. It was: “Life can only be understood backwards… but it must be lived forwards,” a nugget that I later discovered was attributed to the 19th-century Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard.

Having been fortunate enough to have interviewed Raza many times, especially since his relocation to Delhi after a six-decade-stay in Paris, in 2010, I especially enjoyed listening to his stories of his growing up years, and how he would find connections in his current situations with those of his long gone childhood. This time round too, I wanted to listen to more, and hoped he would yet again underscore that moment that decided that the young boy from an unknown village in the heart of India would go on to become one of India’s most respected and valuable artists.

I asked, and the 94-year-old Raza, repeated what he had been sharing for so long. “It was important that as a teenager, I went out to explore the world,” he said. “The urge took me from my village in Madhya Pradesh to Nagpur, Bombay and eventually to Paris. I look back and I know that was one of the most defining moments of my life — to be able to have a wish to move beyond, to explore the world. The exposure changed me as a person and shaped me as an artist. It’s easier to travel the world today, creative people should go out and explore.” 

Looking backwards, Raza had understood what had pushed him into becoming what he did. Looking backwards, Raza had done just what needed to be done — he had lived forwards. He had made Paris his home when he wasn’t yet 30, because that was the most right thing to do then. Yet, he relocated to New Delhi after 60 years in Paris, because as he had shared before with me and many others, “At this stage of my life, it’s important that I come back to where I belong.”

By coming back, he gave a fantastic opportunity to an entire generation of serious practitioners of art in any form to experience first-hand, the apogee of glory that the Progressive Artists’ Group of 1947, of which Raza was a founding member, was achieving since the last decade of the last millennium. 

It was with this background in mind that I approached my interview with Ashvin Rajagopalan, director of the Piramal Museum of Art, Mumbai, who has co-curated the ongoing Raza retrospective at the museum with Vaishnavi Ramanathan, titled “S.H. Raza: Traversing Terrains.” Coming two years after his death in July 2016, it has assumed greater significance. 

On view through November 15, the retrospective throws light on the entire breadth of Raza’s career, not just through his seminal art works but also through anecdotal stories, archive images, diary extracts outlining his early life in Bombay, his relationship with Henri Cartier-Bresson (who persuaded him to go to Paris), his travels across France, the influence of the French landscape, his time spent in the US and his interactions with artists such as Mark Rothko. The show has featured collaborations with Alliance Francaise, Bombay Drawing Room and the Raza Foundation.

So, when I asked Rajagopalan, “Why Raza?” he modified the question to “Why now?” 

It made sense because this country will never need an excuse to do a Raza show. Raza is to India what Picasso is to Spain, what van Gogh is to the Netherlands, what Monet is to France. There is always a new line of enquiry that one can pursue with the great output of these masters. Raza, with a prolific and a long artistic career, has left behind enough to endlessly explore his oeuvre, as well as the development of the idiom of Modern art in India with which his career was inextricably linked. 

“The museum is three years old but we had not done a retrospective,” Rajagopalan said. “We did a solo on Raja Ravi Varma works two years ago but never on a modern Indian master. The time seemed right to do one. As to ‘why Raza’ — that’s because the Piramal collection has one of the largest volumes of his work, backed by a phenomenally large volume of archival material. The theme is not just a Raza retrospective but is based on the idea of the land that he inhabited or occupied at a point of time. You see, Raza was constantly on the move but one thing that centered him was ‘the land,’ and that’s how the show is curated.” 

Rajagopalan then pointed out that most of the titles of Raza’s paintings have something to do with land. For instance, his most expensive work ever sold at auction, which is the sixth most expensive Indian painting — is titled “La Terre” (the land). It’s a 1973 acrylic on canvas that sold for $3,105,000 (approx. Rs 18.61 crore) at a Christie’s auction in 2014. 

Rajagopalan turned the conversation back to the teenager Raza, and his leaving from his native Mandla in Madhya Pradesh in central India. Said Rajagopalan, “He once told of the impression Gandhi left on him — Gandhi had come to a village close to Mandla when Raza was about eight years old. So, when the country was partitioned and a part of Raza’s family left for Pakistan, he didn’t want to go because of Gandhi. Instead, he goes to Bombay, learns French and then proceeds to Paris. He is there in college — he studied at Ecole National Superieure des Beaux-Arts — and struggles in his initial days, even wants to come back. But then, he wins the Prix de la Critique award in Paris in 1956 and stays on. Between 1956 and 1971, he creates about 1,000 paintings and due to his French training, catalogues his own works meticulously right ’til 1980s. In 1981, he creates one of his seminal ‘La Terre’ paintings, which has now been acquired by the Piramal museum.”

Looking at Raza’s career through ‘the land’ that he inhabited is a brilliant new inquiry into the topic and should open up more layers to the complex art and personality of the artist who had such a rich output — the importance of ‘the land’ in his works also reflects firmly in one of his most famous series of works, “The Bindu.” The dot — the literal meaning of the word — is a masterly exposition of the ‘nothingness’ or ‘illusion’ that encompasses the crux of existence as dealt with exhaustively in ancient Hindu scriptures. It found its way into Raza’s repertoire only because despite living in Paris and absorbing global artistic influences, he had not severed any of his connection with the land that he came from.

The retrospective at the Piramal Museum allows a viewer to see the gradual, linear development of Raza’s repertoire over the years. Rajagopalan said, “This is a good opportunity for an average Indian who doesn’t have an active life with art. The show is easy to understand, and any one with even just a passing knowledge about art can easily come on board.” The way it is structured, the show is not forbidding for those who get intimidated by the heavy lexicon inevitably associated with many retrospectives. 

That’s another aspect of museum practice in India that the private ventures like the Piramal Museum in Mumbai, or the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi are trying actively to address — to draw in the lay audience so as to broad base culture that is not possible with passive state museums. Otherwise, the whole purpose of focused collecting that the private museums have promoted in the country — especially after the opening up of the economy in early 1990s — would be lost if the great art produced by the country’s best gets locked up inside a museum’s vaults. 

“This is a very young field in India,” said Rajagopalan, “and private museums, though doing a great job, can only go as far. After all, it is not possible for a private entity to keep pumping crores [tens of millions] into a museum every year. Often, with a private vision, things stop with an individual. We all have to go beyond that. In India, the field is still in an educational stage and we hope to do our bit through shows such as this.”

That’s precisely why the museum has made the Raza retrospective free to all. That’s a treasure chest for any student, art aficionado, or even a layman with no interest in art, to get acquainted with the best that the country has produced, through a display that is of the highest standard, and that comes without a price. Raza’s oeuvre, especially, is a capsule introduction to all the trends — Indian and foreign — that affected and shaped modern Indian art. 

— “S.H. Raza: Traversing Terrains,” is on view at Piramal Museum of Art, Piramal Tower, Lower Parel West, Mumbai, through November 15.

Founder: Louise Blouin

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