Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Mission Delhi – Syed Haider Raza, Hauz Khas Enclave

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Mission Delhi – Syed Haider Raza, Hauz Khas Enclave

One of the one per cent in 13 million.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

On February 22nd, 2009, a few hours before his 88th birthday celebration, to be held in The Lalit hotel, Syed Haider Raza is struggling alone in a basement room in Hauz Khas Enclave. Despite painting for 60 years, he is unsure of how his new creation will appear on completion. Staring hard at the mostly blank canvas, he says, “I’m trying to give a feel of Rajasthan.”

Born in central India and living in France since 1950, Mr Raza is visiting Delhi to attend a special show in which private collectors will mark his birth anniversary by exhibiting his paintings, which are in high demand internationally. In 2008, La Terre fetched £1.3 million at Christie's London.

But fame and fortune is not helping. “My sight has grown weaker; so has my memory,” Mr Raza says. “Standing up is difficult. I’m afraid I’ll fall down, not sure of my legs holding my body.” Picking the red colour from his palette, he says, “Once I start walking, I gain confidence. It’s the first movement that’s difficult.”

Mr Raza who intends to permanently move to Delhi last came to the Capital in January, 2009, to inaugurate an exhibition of his works in Dhoomimal Gallery, Connaught Place. He walked from one painting to the next before informing the organisers that most were fakes. “I was sorry, hurt and angry,” he says. “Instead of finding their own way, some artists made fakes and scribbled my name on their works. It’s like stealing somebody’s cheque-book and signing it off”. The organisers immediately canceled the exhibition.

Mr Raza had his first solo show in 1946 in Bombay. He later moved to France, a land that shaped him as an artist. “You have galleries with centuries of art on display. You have Cezanne, Van Gogh. You have the impressionists. You have museums that show Indian art. The country has a wonderful climate for a young artist to work and evolve,” he says. “Whereas in the India of 30s and 40s, artists like me were hobbling in the dark.”

Those were the decades when contemporary Indian art was guided by English sensibilities, which focused on realism and emphasised at a world as seen through the eyes. “But the retina-view was never the Indian way,” says Mr Raza. “We see through the third eye.” Pointing to his canvas, he says, “I want to show a Rajasthan the essence of which is seen as much by the eyes as it is by the mind and heart.”

For 20 years, Mr Raza has been annual trips to India. He rarely puts up in a hotel. Friends in Delhi, Bombay and Chennai offer him a space to work. To find ideas, he travels to places such as Jaipur and Travancore, and he always finds time for art galleries. He does not envisage an understanding of contemporary Indian painting without studying the works of Amrita Shergil, Jamini Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, Francis Newton Souza, MF Husain and Tyab Mehta. “People should not be influenced by mediocrity.”

That’s tough in a world that takes more notice of painters whose worth is measured by what their works fetch in auction markets. “You should not be taken in by prices,” says the man whose painting Tapovan was sold for $1.5 million at Sotheby's New York in 2006. “I do not underestimate economics,” says Mr Raza. “The prices that my paintings command help me in having a decent living.”

In Paris, Mr Raza lives in an old convent that was home to nuns in the 17th century. It has 30 apartments and he owns two. One he gifted to his artist wife, Janine Mongillat. She was the reason why he stayed back in France. “Being the only daughter, Janine’s mother was unwilling for her to move to India.” The wife painted in her studio, Mr Raza in his. They would meet for lunch. “Once the day ended, she would return to my apartment.”

In 2002, Jannine died of breast cancer. “It has been a very sad life since,” says Mr Raza. The couple had no children “I told myself that the Lord called her and has let me live. And as long as I live, I must be happy. So I started taking care of my health and kept working regularly.”

In his apartment, Mr Raza has a maid for housework and an assistant helps him with medical appointments. But no one touches his canvas. “My health is not good,” he says. “But an artist never stops.”

[This is the 13th portrait of the Mission Delhi project]

Getting up is tough

Mission Delhi – Syed Haider Raza, Hauz Khas Enclave

Working on Rajasthan

Mission Delhi – Syed Haider Raza, Hauz Khas Enclave

Alone now

Mission Delhi – Syed Haider Raza, Hauz Khas Enclave

Ready for the birthday bash

Mission Delhi – Syed Haider Raza, Hauz Khas Enclave

Turning 88

Mission Delhi – Syed Haider Raza, Hauz Khas Enclave

Here's the cake

Mission Delhi – Syed Haider Raza, Hauz Khas Enclave

The birthday boy

Mission Delhi – Syed Haider Raza, Hauz Khas Enclave

Burgundy or Bordeaux?

Mission Delhi – Syed Haider Raza, Hauz Khas Enclave

Mr Raza's admirer

Mission Delhi – Syed Haider Raza, Hauz Khas Enclave

Mr Raza's admirers

Mission Delhi – Syed Haider Raza, Hauz Khas Enclave

Mr Raza's admirers

Mission Delhi – Syed Haider Raza, Hauz Khas Enclave

In Mr Raza's honour

Mission Delhi – Syed Haider Raza, Hauz Khas Enclave

In Mr Raza's honour

Mission Delhi – Syed Haider Raza, Hauz Khas Enclave

In Mr Raza's honour

Mission Delhi – Syed Haider Raza, Hauz Khas Enclave

In Mr Raza's honour

Mission Delhi – Syed Haider Raza, Hauz Khas Enclave

In Mr Raza's honour

Mission Delhi – Syed Haider Raza, Hauz Khas Enclave

The artist never stops

Mission Delhi – Syed Haider Raza, Hauz Khas Enclave

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