S H Raza: Odes to Love and Longing From the ‘Bindu’ Artist
By Trisha Mukherjee | PTI
“You made me aware of a feeling that seemed foreign to me, that belonged to others, that I despised. That beautiful feeling of joy, which perhaps could also be mine.”
No, that’s not a romantic author or a poet expressing his deepest thoughts, but the late artist Syed Haider Raza in one of his letters to Janine Mongillat in 1953.
Raza, who died on this day last year at the age of 94, went on to marry the French contemporary artist six years later and lived on in Paris for over half a century.
The letters from the artist, who created works of art with his brush and his words, are scheduled to be published as a book later this year.
The letters of love and longing, now in the custody of the Raza Foundation and made available to PTI, are a far cry from the ‘bindu’, ‘purush-prakriti’ and ‘nari’ concepts in geometric abstract works that propelled him to iconic status.
“You made me aware of, in all its plenitude, a feeling that I do not know how to describe, and which nevertheless shows itself in all my letters without my speaking about it.
“You have also made me aware of the exquisite sweetness of some moments, which I have often neglected or destroyed.
How to write what they have become to me, I, who is consumed by the days and nights as they came, happy or unhappy, without knowing well the existence of this void,” he wrote in one letter.
Raza was born in 1922 in Mandala district of Madhya Pradesh to a forest ranger father. He took up drawing at the early age of 12 and enrolled at the J J School of Art in Mumbai (1943-47), before moving to Paris to study in 1950 on a French government scholarship.
It was in the famed European city of love that he met Janine, a fellow artist.
What followed was an affair to remember.
After Raza’s return to India, the two exchanged as many as 80 letters between 1952-1956 before tying the knot in 1959.
“Raza indulged in poetic passionate exaggeration in romantic hyperbole, all truly deep and genuine. He brings the same kind of passion and fury to his love as he did to his art,” said Ashok Vajpeyi, close friend and managing trustee of the Raza Foundation.
The correspondence with his wife also reveals the artist’s emotions and struggles in his early days in France.
“I am immersed in my dreams. Dreams incessant, sad-if I think, gay-if I abandon myself to the intensity of my pure feelings. I do not search any more, I hope to find. Will there be a new order to my life? I do not know. Consequences-I no longer think of them.
“Janine, I wait for the sweet return of smiles, and the end of the agonizing days.”
Influenced by nature from his early childhood, Raza’s works represent the origins of life and draw on symbols that tribal painters and philosophers have traced, pondered and mulled over for millennia.
Although Raza co-founded the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group together with F N Souza, K H Ara, M F Husain, H A Gade, S K Bakre and others, Vajpeyi said the artist, in a way, created an alternative modernism without ever making such a claim.
“(He created) a trend in which there was celebration, adoration, explanation of life and nature which was rooted in peace and tranquility, in consonance and resonance, in racial memory, in continuum unlike most other forms of the modern which were obsessed with tension, disruption, dissonance, etc.
These works are almost like prayers for grace, for others to nature,” Vajpeyi said.
Much like his letters, for Raza, life was a beautiful and precious gift, that existed at many levels of imagination and expression.
“It is complex but with rich essence,” the poet added.