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Kishore Singh  |  New Delhi 

He’s been faked, pilloried, praised — and now hoarded. Is Raza the new Husain?

S H RazaIf all goes according to plan then France’s greatest living artist, the India-born S H Raza, should begin winding up his operations to return to the country of his birth. That will be some time soon after this year has tolled out, which is when he will clear his taxes and any dues to the French government. And he will bring with him what collectors hope will be the spoils of his studio — the works yet unseen by them, unsold, incomplete even.

Raza’s return is being anticipated with not a little excitement. His paintings have been setting record prices in the new millennium, and in auctions he has been next only to when it comes to grabbing headlines: his La Terre last year beat Tyeb Mehta’s price tag, and was only just behind Souza’s Birth. La Terre was auctioned in June for Rs 10-crore-plus.

As the market begins its recovery from the consequences of a global economic meltdown, the prices are recovering fastest for India’s top masters that include, besides these three, and Although they have yet to cross last year’s benchmark prices, their outlook continues to be bullish, especially since Souza, Gaitonde and Mehta are dead. Though new works by Husain and Raza continue to come into the market, Husain is currently occupied in painting a series for West Asian sheikhs, leaving Raza to rule the roast.

The story of 87-year-old Raza is by now only too well-known to bear repeating. Born and brought up in the heart of Madhya Pradesh in what he refers to as a syncretic Indian culture, his early interest in art took him to Bhopal and then Bombay, where he was soon part of the group that formed the Progressives, at the heart of the debate on what constituted Indianness in art — even wrote an essay for the newly launched Seminar on this ticklish topic. Raza was offered the opportunity to study art in Paris, where with some mentorship under Souza, and love and marriage, he settled down to paint with some degree of success.

It is interesting, however, that where critics and collectors laud, for instance, Husain’s, or Ram Kumar’s, early works, both Mehta and Raza flowered only in the late middle age — in the eighties, in fact, well into their sixth decade. Sentiment or a holistic view of Raza aside, few collectors would want to add an early Raza to their collection, as auction prices of art from that period have shown. Raza found his oeuvre when he launched his Bindu and Mandala series, which can best be described as geometric interpretations of Hindu astrology and tantra. There was a dizzying depth to these works, to which he began the exercise of adding chants or mantras, their colours were bright in their “Indianness”, and Raza the artist was now on his way to becoming Raza the sage, the keeper of all secrets of Indian culture, the very fount of human civilization.

All of this is well known, but the market has a new secret. On the surface, Raza’s works continue to come up for auction — he might not be anywhere as prolific as Husain or even Souza, but Raza’s brush has not been idle — but under the surface, a lot of frenetic activity has been on in this last year as investors rather than collectors are sponging up the market. The reasons are only too human, if a little mawkish: old and ailing, Raza doesn’t have too many years on him, and prices after his death are likely to soar past his predecessors.

In a sense, investors are anticipating trends. In a currently weak market, they are buying up as much as they can at low prices (though Raza can hardly be bracketed in that camp, even with a 20-30 per cent overall decrease in value) — few canvases would sell under a half-crore rupees, and average prices are closer to a crore-plus, with significant works all in the Rs 5-crore-plus range, and this is in direct sales — in the hope that these prices will multiply as demand for his works increases in the coming years. They must also hope that value will increase even in the short-term, if they are to justify their investments. At least one art fund is basing a very large percentage of its forthcoming mega-fund on Raza, which alone, if it succeeds, could skew the balance in prices for the artist.

Is this interest in his work justified? While other artists have grumbled about his lack of experimentation, collectors have latched on to the recognition factor of his work as a significant reason to collect him: everyone at least recognises a Raza without having to be prodded. But there are two factors that are significant as far as creating value is concerned. Because he lived all his painterly life outside India, Raza has been collected institutionally as well as individually by non-Indians as well, which gives him a global platform and recognition. This will always have a bearing on his prices.

But most importantly, the bulk of his collectors are Indian who wish to consolidate their Indianness, and in the rising tide of Hindutva even their Hinduness, through works of art. It is a space that Husain occupied with great elan till the recent controversy (over “nude” goddesses) made him a pariah, at least publicly. It is a space that Mehta has also enjoyed, but Mehta did not paint across the great pantheon of Indian civilisation, choosing instead the pitched wars between great powers (you could interpret this simply between evil and good) instead. Souza’s works are considered prurient even decades later, and Gaitonde, in any case, is an abstractionist. Later artists like Manjit Bawa fill the gap somewhat, but it will be a long, long time before someone fills Raza’s shoes. No wonder investors are in a frenzy already.

First Published: Wed, October 28 2009. 00:34 IST