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Ninety years lived for the love of art

Syed Haider Raza rules the Indian art firmament as the priciest Indian painter ever.
Women observe Syed Haider Raza's Saurashtra at Christie's in London. Carl Court / AFP
Women observe Syed Haider Raza's Saurashtra at Christie's in London. Carl Court / AFP

After decades away from Calcutta, which, of course, was never his home, the Paris-based Syed Haider Raza paid a visit to India's cultural hub and its well-known Akar Prakar Gallery, to put up his first solo exhibit in the venue. We catch up with the famed 90-year-old Indian painter - but only after being told the artist was late because he couldn't tear himself away from his paint brush.

Raza belongs to an elite club of Indian Modernist artists, comprising FN Souza, MF Husain, KH Ara, HA Gade, Sadanand K Bakre, Akbar Padamsee and Krishen Khanna, who were the core architects of the pathbreaking Progressive Artists Group (PAG) in the wake of India's independence in 1947.

The PAG was aimed at and ushered in the Indian avant garde movement. Many in this prize clutch of artists spearheaded the Indian art boom that began around 2004, and touched dizzy price levels never before seen in Indian art, globally or on the domestic front. In fact, Raza rules the Indian art firmament as the priciest Indian painter ever.

On June 10, 2010, his abstract work, Saurashtra, fetched £2.1 million (£2.4m including buyers' premium) translating to Dh12.9m, at the South Asian Modern & Contemporary Art auction by Christie's London. This was a world record for Indian modern and contemporary art across the board. As an artist, Raza has come a long way from painting expressionistic landscapes to abstract ones. In 1950, Raza left for France, armed with a two-year scholarship to study at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. However, he decided to stay on in France.

To him, French art was the most fascinating 20th century contemporary art. Paris was an eye-opener, allowing him a congenial ambience to work and study painting. The indomitable Indian painter, however, underscores that he is intensely attached to Indian culture and visits his home country every year.

Were you immersed in painting before our meeting?

If something interesting crosses my mind, I take to colours even when I'm travelling. I try and create something at the slightest possibility. I'm passionate about painting. Drawings and paintings do not speak. They are a silent interlude. Music and dance are different, in that sense. But, you watch a painting in silence. France, where I have lived for six decades, is the land of [the philosopher] Descartes who is very important to me.

You were born in the village of Babaria (in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh). Did your initial studies begin there?

Yes, that's right. I come from from a very modest family background and lived initially in Madhya Pradesh. In time, I moved to Bombay [Mumbai] and took admission in the JJ School of Art. During my stay in Bombay, I began learning French. So, when the French government announced scholarships to study art, I applied for it and was called for an interview. I was the only applicant who could speak French. As a result, instead of a one-year scholarship, I was offered a two-year one. This took me to France in 1950.

Since you continued living there, which European painters were you drawn to most?

I had time to come face-to-face with the paintings of Picasso, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Soutine, Cezanne and others and understand the work that they did in France. It was a very enriching experience.

Am I right that the early part of your artistic life was influenced by western art?

My creativity has gone through two or three important periods. Indeed, from 1950 to the 1970s, it was influenced by western, or more specifically, French art. From around 1975, I tried to incorporate Indian ethnography, themes and symbolisms like the Bindu [Sanskrit word for "dot", signifying universal energy] and Mandala [meaning "circle" in Sanskrit].

Since then, the Bindu has become an integral component of your art, hasn't it?

Yes. And, just think, millions of Hindu women wear it everyday. All the five major colours - blue, red, orange, yellow and white - emerge from the black Bindu.

What is your observation of the Indian art boom of the last eight to nine years?

It did not actually happen suddenly. For this, artists of our generation have worked for decades. Money was never our aim as painters. It was the creation of art that mattered. Truth always prevails.

A few top-selling lots of SH Raza at auction, other than the record-breaking Saurashtra:

* La Terre sold for £1,273,250 at the Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, at Christie's London, on June 30, 2008.

* Earlier, the master's Tapovan took £743,830 at the Sotheby's auction in New York on March 29, 2006. In Step, another work from the La Terre series went under the hammer for £625,000.

* The recent sale by the leading Indian online auction house Saffronart, between June 19 and June 20 this year, saw Raza's painting Encountre go for US$585,000.


* Around 55 solo shows in India and worldwide.

* Around 190 group, joint and participatory shows across the world.

Updated: August 2, 2012 04:00 AM

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