By Harihar Swarup
“I didn’t become a French painter or a European one. I remained an Indian painter through the years. That was always in my heart and I am very glad that I was able to come back here again”.
The opening of the late Indian modernist painter Sayed Haidar Raza’s retrospective last month at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, was a homecoming for the celebrated artist. Raza is the only Indian artist whose work has been shown at this prestigious venue. Born in Babaria, Madhya Pradesh, in 1922, Raza returned home to die and be buried alongside his father in Mandla, in 2016, months before his 94th birthday.
The retrospective at the Centre Pomdidou comprised 91 paintings and 86 documents; the vast expanse of Raza’s oeuvre was experienced. The exhibition began with the water colours at the J J College of Arts, Mumbai, in 2016 to the works executed in Paris—from 1950 to 2010, and finally the work done on his return to his beloved home land—from 2010 to his death in 2016.
Raza never gave up his Indian nationality, and for 60 years of his life that he spent living in Paris, his links with the country of his birth, his love for spirituality and the deep connection he felt, never faltered.
Raza said he learnt how to paint from France but what to paint from India. His early works in France were large cityscapes and later, in Paris, he started inscapes. A man of faith, Raza was a devout Muslim. After his marriage to artist Janine Mongillat he went regularly to the church, Rue de Charonne, where Mongillat was baptized. Raza was accepted as a painter of the Parisian school, and that gave him recognition, audience and buyers. The creative companionship of his wife gave more confidence to Raza and many elements of the Parisian school were absorbed bythe renowned artist.
But Raza was constantly drawn to the landscapes of his homeland, particularly Rajasthan, which he loved. The names of the artworks acquired specific Indian names— from Zameen to Saurashtra, Ankuram, Tarpanand Shanti Bindu, to name a few.
On July 14, 2015, Raza was bestowed with the Order nationale de La Legiond’honneur, the highest French order of merit. “Though I was born in India and now happy to be back here, I have spent two-thirds of my life in France. France gave me for six decades a home, heart and sustenance ….. France provided me with an evocative ambiance, inspiring confidence, in creativity imagination, openness to ideas and innovation”, said Raza then.
His friend for many years, and now the managing trustee of The Raza Foundation, Ashok Vajpeyi, the man behind the exhibition ‘Raza in Paris’, in his catalogue essay refers to the painting ‘Maa’ carrying a line: ‘Motherland living far away in self-chosen exile’. The Hindi and Sanskrit words used in some of his paintings are gentle reminders the artist being rooted in the soil of his motherland.
As Raza’s close friend of 40 years, Vajpeyi said, “This is a homage to my friend. I did my first exhibition at Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal and first major retrospective in his karmabhoomi, Paris”. (IPA Service)