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'Raza carried India in his heart'

Last updated on: August 11, 2016 10:03 IST

'... and all of the symbolism, history, the colours of his motherland, the earth, the sky, all of that is there and it always remains with him.'

IMAGE: S H Raza's interest in the form and subtext that dictated much of his later work did not wane with age. Photograph: Sheela Bhatt

It was Hugo Weihe who triumphantly slammed down the auctioneer hammer June 10, 2010, in Christie's South Kensington auction house, London, declaring Syed Haider Raza's Saurashtra sold for a whopping Rs 16.42 crore (then $3,486,965)!

That made it the most precious Indian painting to have been be sold by the firm in the British capital, in the nearly 300 years it had been in business since the French Revolution.

Weihe's triumph should have been all the more sweet, then, because a visit to Gorbio, southern France, just a few years earlier, had already shown to this Christie's expert on Indian and southeast Asian art that the work of S H Raza had a rare sincerity and vitality that would capture global attention.

Six years later, as Rediff.com's Vaihayasi Pande Daniel sat down to discuss Raza's legacy at Saffronart's central Mumbai showroom, where Weihe is now the chief executive, it feels like the artist is very much in the room.

By a strange coincidence, one of his works, a 15.75 in x 11.75 in acrylic on canvas titled Naga and Bindu -- which goes on to sell a few hours later for $31,800 (around Rs 21 lakh/Rs 2.1 million) -- hangs in the gallery, its 'primordial symbol of energy, the still centre, or the seed (Raza's words)' reminding us that life renews and reinvents itself eternally.

Weihe, in the colourful, passionate manner in which he describes the Babaria, Madhya Pradesh-born master, virtually invites Raza into our presence, so little is the distance perhaps between imagination and augmented reality.

The visit to the Cote d'Azur village, a skip-hop-and-jump from Italy, was not the first time Weihe met Raza. The two had met "many, many times" before, Weihe thinks once in Paris and once in India, at least, for sure.

Gorbio though was easily the most memorable meeting where Weihe had an opportunity to view the artist at work in his vast, breezy studio, the sunny outdoors of the French Riviera, even as the simple, cherished colours of his native Mandla roamed perpetually in his mind's eye.

Weihe, who trained in art under his artist grandfather, but decided to make a career in "appreciating it" instead, going on to do a PhD in art history from the University of Zurich, writing, researching, advising on Asian art before becoming the head of South Asian art at Christie's, vigorously believes that the Padma Vibushan and Legion d'Honneur-awarded Raza is one of India's most significant art heroes and the man who helped Indian modernism reach a wider recognition, worldwide.

He says Raza is an icon, not just for his work, but for his pioneering role.

Certainly like the ancient Gupta scholar who gave mathematical birth to the dot-decimal, Raza, living some 2,500 years later, has loaded an immeasurable artistic significance and invested life onto the same dot Bindu, which he affectionately referred to as his 'lodestar,' making certain that whenever you see a full stop-bindu-dot-period you remember the gentle world soul from the forests of central India.

A two-part interview.

IMAGE: Hugo Weihe with one of Raza's abstract helical works. Photograph: Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/Rediff.com

Raza said in a 2011 interview to the seniors magazine Harmony India (external link): 'What we leave behind of ourselves through work is most important.'
What do you think he has left behind? What is his legacy?

It has been an extraordinary journey for him, starting out with his colleagues forming the Progressive Group. It was for him an extraordinary situation to meet Henri Cartier Bresson, the great French photographer, who was in India in the 1940s, who encouraged him to study French. (He said) 'Come to France. That will an enormous step for you.'

Raza embraced that: He studied French (laughs), passed the exam, and was given the grant by the government of France. From the 1950s onwards it was a huge eye-opener for him to be in Paris, study all the Western art, and absorb all of that (Raza studied at the E'cole nationale superieure des Beaux-Arts).

After (Indian) Independence it was a new beginning, artistically for everyone. All the artists -- and he was one of the leaders then -- to absorb all the possibilities, to find a new modernism, a new path forward for Indian art.

He did it by going to what he deemed was the most important centre then, Paris still, representing Western art. He was able to see everything. Then he met Janine (Monggillat, fellow art student and later well-known sculptor, who he married and who died in 2002) who was very, very important to him. He always felt that she was certainly on equal footing with him as an artist.

They had the house there in the south of France. It was her house in Gorbio, in which I visited him. It was an extraordinary place -- with the beautiful azure blue of the Mediterranean and the rocks, the colour of the stone there. He was sitting outside his house.

(I visited him around) the time when the museum opened there and showed a retrospective of his work. There was a former castle or a church, an old fortification, in which they gave him the space to show a little retrospective there.

(When I met him) he was sitting outside of his house, the canvas leaning against the stone wall of his house and painting with the colours that were inspired (in him) by the south of France, just as much as Madhya Pradesh, in a sense. He blended the two together. It was very, very moving -- an impressive moment for me.

He expanded his thoughts... It is very interesting (that he) pursued the path from the realist paintings in the 40s, through the abstract landscapes of the 50s and 60s and then moved towards the Bindu and symbolism behind all of that.

It is a logical trajectory for him. Once he had achieved it; that was the final achievement. I find the journey he took the most remarkable and rewarding to examine.

Then, of course, he wanted to come back to India at some point. That was kind of inevitable.

While he carried India in his heart -- and all of the symbolism, history, the colours of his motherland, the earth, the sky, all of that is there and it always remains with him -- it was inevitable that he would return to India. That closed the loop.

What else do you remember of that meeting? What was memorable? Why were you there?

I wanted to visit.

It was a natural rapport that one immediately felt with him. Always. He was very warm. And very open.

I have always appreciated talking to artists and he was one of those who were extraordinarily gracious and extraordinarily open. And you felt right (away) that you connected on that level and could understand what he is doing, what he (was) looking to do and it was just immediately clear.

You were working at Christie's then and running their department of South Asian art. Is that why you sought him out?

We were looking at all of the Indian modernist and contemporary (work). I made it a point to meet all the artists. Of course, you want to have a bigger understanding.

Above all, I always appreciated -- and that's the great thing with any contemporary artist situation -- the work is there, but the master is there too.

You can connect the two, compare the two and have the privilege to talk to the person who created the work, which is not the case with an antiquity. Or for something (work of an artist) that is further back, where the work, over time, must stand for itself. And speak for itself.

I find it a fascinating thing to have the chance to speak to the artist and see how it all matches up.

We are here because S H Raza has died at the age of 90 on July 23. But in a sense an artist never dies. Death is just an event in the trajectory of his art. And art doesn't die at all.

Beautifully put. Yes, art never dies. And it is forever young.

It is there. And therefore he is also there?

That's what he left behind. And it is totally pure of thought, of conception and of execution. And it is something that is amazing. It is clear: That will never go away.

Every artist then also stands for a whole culture behind him. That's what we remember. That's the achievement of the time.

IMAGE: S H Raza's studio is a poignant reminder of the artist's passion for the abstract. Photograph: Sheela Bhatt

Do you remember when you first saw a painting of his? What impact did it make on you?

I was really struck by his large canvases of the late 50s. The first one was Saurashtra that set a world record for Indian modernism and it stood for many, many years.

I had the privilege of auctioneering that. I won't forget that moment and the stir it created. It was very clear to all of us that that painting was an extraordinary achievement; the whole physicality, the size of it, the impact it had, it was clearly an icon of Indian modernism.

Raza was the one who had created it. We were very happy and gratified to see that it achieved that sort of level.

It is now in a very important Indian institution (the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi) and one of their key works.

I was connected to those milestones (of his). We had late 50s big works, there was one famous one in the Rockefeller Collection of that type, which I also thought was very, very powerful, the way you can see again -- back to my earlier point -- how his work evolves, how there is a natural progression.

Those were powerful moments too in the 50s that he achieved -- with thick oil and pastel and bright colors looking at the landscape of southern France, with the churches, the sea behind the rocks, the rocky cliffs.

It's very compelling. I think every step along the way he changed his style

So, he had a proper artistic journey?

He had a proper journey. And every time he succeeded in achieving a milestone.

Vaihayasi Pande Daniel / Rediff.com