But the realisation now dawns, and one remembers that Raza is never coming back. He breathed his last on 23 July 2016, and now looking at his untouched studio, more than a year after his death, makes one think of reflect on his exemplary life and his unparalleled art.
In the studio, there is also a sense of the artist’s personal space, making the visitor feel like a trespasser. Raza’s personal belongings are here, such as books, the photographs of his gurus, things he brought from France after spending six decades of his life there. Just behind that unfinished canvas, there is a photograph of the artist with these possessions. He is looking at the things he cherished all his life.
Today, people still remember Raza. But how long can the memory live on, in a culture where “looking forward” and “moving on” are considered great virtues? Yet there is a group of Raza’s friends and admirers making constant efforts to preserve and sustain his legacy. The Raza Foundation is one such collective.
Founded in 2001, the Raza Foundation also works towards helping young artists further develop their oeuvre. It supports artists, poets and others pursuing different forms of art, through regular scholarships, programmes and workshops. To commemorate the first death anniversary of Raza, the foundation organised a participatory workshop in Mandla, Madhya Pradesh, where the artist was born and is now buried, next to his father.
In this week-long programme, hosted on the banks of the river Narmada, young artistic talents from the Mandla district gathered in large numbers to pay homage to, and commemorate the Padma Vibhushan Raza Saheb, who had a deep association with this region, and with this river. Here, a concert of nirgun music was also organised, along with other events.
The foundation, in the year 2022, will observe the Raza centennial. For this purpose, it is planning a grand celebration on art, culture and poetry, with a series of exhibitions and cultural festivals scheduled to be held both in India and abroad.
Shruti Issac, Manager at Raza Archives and Library, is now working on the centennial programme. She also spent a good amount of time trying to understand Raza, the man and his art. She talks about the artist’s years in France, and how it influenced his colour palette. She says, “There, in France, he was looking at the artworks by Mark Rothko, Kandinsky and many others, which led him to start experimenting with different colours.”
Raza’s also built a huge collection of Indian art at his home in France, which was always open to amateur and scholarly visitors. Issac says, “Anyone who wanted to read about the different eras on Indian art in France, went to Raza’s home to get themselves acquainted with Indian art and artists.”
“The iconic painting was bought by M.F. Husain and Bal Chhabra for Rs 19,000. And it is now in the private collection of the collector Amrita Jhaveri. It was bought after an auction at some two-and-a-half crores. Later, it became my job to carry a stack of Hindi poetry books for Raza on my visits to him in Paris.”
Sanjiv Choube, Secretary at Raza Foundation, says that Raza took a keen interest in meeting practitioners of various art forms. He says, “He paid a lot of attention to themes concerning Indian culture. He enjoyed talking to artists about their work and always welcomed artists at his home.”
Choube adds, “Despite having only one good eye, Raza was very much interested in working.”
“He painted till January 2016,” says Raza’s close friend and leading Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi. “He was fed orally for the last two years of his life and was suffering with the usual problems of old age, but even after crossing the age of 90 he painted for around four hours daily. In his case, the distance between painting and living was completely demolished. He lived to paint and painted to live.”
We see his last painting, titled Swasti, in his room—a painting which he completed in 2016.In his art, Raza often took inspiration from poetry, which he started developing a taste for in his childhood, because of his father, who loved Urdu poetry.
Vajpeyi got to know the artist’s fondness for poetry in 1979, during Raza’s first ever exhibition in his home state Madhya Pradesh. “It was a multicultural arts festival in Bhopal where along with his show, there was also a poetry reading session,” Vajpeyi says. “Raza sat through the entire three-hour session and noted several lines from the poems he liked. I gave the copy of my first poetry book to him, and received a call from him later that he wanted to use one of the lines from my poem. The line was: Maa laut kar jab aaunga, kya launga. It showcases the love for his country, India.”
Vajpeyi adds: “The iconic painting was bought by M.F. Husain and Bal Chhabra for Rs 19,000. And it is now in the private collection of the collector Amrita Jhaveri. It was bought after an auction at some two-and-a-half crores. Later, it became my job to carry a stack of Hindi poetry books for Raza on my visits to him in Paris.”
There are a number of canvases where Raza has inscribed couplets from Hindi, Urdu and Sanskrit poems. Vajpeyi says, “In a way, Raza has revived the Indian miniature tradition. The use of poetry and bandishes in the paintings was a regular feature for artists back then.”
When Raza was in France, he felt the constant need to be in touch with his roots. In an undated piece of writing by the artist, his love for India is displayed. It reads: “I am constantly concerned with all that is happening at home. I am keen to reach the sources which have nourished me as a child, the ideals and concepts that have grown in my mind, during the years.”
His friends and associates call him a very generous man. Arun Vadehra, who started the Vadehra Art Gallery, was among the close associates of Raza. “He always supported young artists, as he had gone through a struggling period himself, where he didn’t have the money to even buy a canvas,” says Vadehra. “He was a master of colour. Which colour to use where came naturally to him. Painting was like a prayer to him.”
Another of Raza’s friends, and his fellow in the Progressive Artists’ Group, Krishen Khanna, too,has many stories to tell about the late painter. “Raza and I shared a warm relationship,” he says. “Yes, there were disagreements at certain points, but there was nothing which couldn’t be sorted between the two of us. Usually, it is seen that with less understanding friendships get broken but despite arguments we understood each other’s viewpoints. We were never enemies.”
Raza went to France in October 1958 at the age of 28 and returned to India in 2011. Once he wrote (in another undated piece of writing collected in the book Seeing Beyond, published by the Vadehra Art Gallery): “I came to France of my own free will, as one would do to an ashram in the Himalayas.” Possibly, he meant that he was looking for tranquility in the company of fellow artists or fellow saints as one would find in the Himalayas; and this would mean that his work was a form of meditation to him. Raza truly lived to paint, as Ashok Vajpeyi said. And when he could paint no longer, he ceased to live.