When the Indian art establishment wasn’t sniggering at his bindus and mandalas, which he’d made his own since at least the eighties, having spent the previous decades still searching for a metaphor he could call his own, they were at least envious of the small town boy who’d made good in the art capital of the world. S H Raza, the poor student from a village in deepest Madhya Pradesh, however had the last laugh when a work by him was auctioned recently in London for an astounding Rs 10.68 crore, writes Kishore Singh.
Money hasn’t made Raza arrogant. He is still vigilant about his finances. On a previous visit to Delhi, when I’d asked him to sign a book on his life and work that was to be released, he’d only agreed after confirming that I hadn’t pinched a complimentary copy from his suite. This time, when I come to take him out for lunch, his suit is a little shabby from many wearings, and he cribs about the French tax authorities when he says that he’s made up his mind “to return to India”, but despite his age — he’s 86 years old and not wearing it lightly — he’ll wait till December because he’s already paid tax in advance for this year. “I want to tell the French government then I no longer want to live or paint or sell in France,” he says.
There are many reasons for him to want to return: His French, artist-wife died some years ago, just before his global fame peaked, in fact — though they had not lived in a state of penury for some while — his health is failing and he has no family in France, Indians are paying huge money to acquire his works, and he has started Ekatar, a permanent centre for art in the most holistic sense of the term, to be built on land close to Delhi, of which his Raza Foundation (which gives annual scholarships to artists, painters, dancers and poets) will be a small part.
At Varq, at the Taj Mahal Hotel, which we’ve picked for lunch because he enjoys Indian food, I ask him what he’d like, and he says, somewhat condescendingly for someone who has lived the greater part of his live overseas, “In India we should accept only the best things we can give to the world”, in this case implying “there is no need to kill animals for food”. I have been looking forward to animals for my food — to come to Varq and not have its signature dishes, the Varqui crab or the martban ka meat, is foolhardiness itself, but Raza sa’ab wants “some dal-sabzi”, and his comely attendant who speaks only French, and some bookish Hindi, but absolutely no English, nods similarly, and our photographer is vegetarian anyway, so, with a heavy heart, I resign myself to ordering four vegetarian samplers. Despite its excellence, this is going to be the worst meal of my entire life.
But even a vegetarian meal is more tolerable than the stage of life Raza finds himself in, with obvious fakes being peddled as his in an audacious attempt to have the painter inaugurate an exhibition of his early works consisting of a record 30 fakes. He has exonerated the gallery and his nephew, but is clearly still in shock. “The problem of fakes is not so serious in France because it’s a punishable offence,” he says, “though I’m told it’s quite common here.”
Ever since Raza took the world by storm in 2003-04 — “Fame came by itself,” he says, “I’m doing the same paintings as before” — letters from collectors keep pouring in, “at least four or five every month, asking for authentication certificates for my works. Often, I give it to them, but when I am doubtful about a work, they show it to me in Paris. But when I think a work is fake, I warn the collector that it is not Raza’s work,” he says in the third person, “then they keep quiet and don’t reply to me.” The whole issue of fakes has come up because Indian artists, till a dozen-odd years ago when their works started selling, kept few, or no records of their paintings. “I have a record of most of my paintings during the last 10-15 years,” he says, clearly relishing his bhatti ka paneer more than I am, “I keep photos of my paintings, the size, date and title, the record of cheque payments because” — oh that dreaded Gallic, money-gobbling Gallic bureaucracy! — “it has to be declared to the French tax officials.”
Even though he paints “two-three hours in the morning”, and “unless I have visitors, two-three hours in the afternoon”, Raza is not getting any younger, so, in Paris, he has asked the author of a book on him (released last weekend in Delhi in English) to carry out the authentication of his work on his behalf, while in Delhi, poet and former bureaucrat Ashok Vajpeyi and artists Manish Pushkale and Akhilesh shoulder that uneasy legacy.
Raza sa’ab, usually a raconteur and an amusing conversationalist who combines philosophy in Hindi with verse in Urdu and arguments in flawless English (and no doubt, French) has been mostly mumbling over the lunch he’d almost cancelled because of an upset stomach, but of which he’s showing no signs now — though I’m reduced to a nostalgia-junkie, remembering the masala sea bass I’d had here only days ago, when faced with what seems like an insurmountable mountain of potatoes in one bowl, pureed spinach in another: Ugh! He will speak his mind, it is clear, but not any more about fakes (“It is a sad incident,” he says with finality), or prices (“I don’t get impressed by that, instead the media should talk about Raza the artist,” he says again in third person), but about a time when he set out to educate himself as an artist.
By now his antecedents are almost as well known as M F Husain’s. His father was a forest range official in Mandla, he grew up watching the tribals and the wildlife there, his first experience of the bindu was as a dot a teacher marked for him to meditate on, like most art students of that time he was schooled in European realism, associated with the artists who went on to form the Progressive Group, gained a scholarship to study in Paris, met and married an art student there, picked up the Prix de la critique or critic’s prize in 1956, but even so “at times there were no sales” at his exhibitions. “In the eighties,” he says now, drinking an infusion of rose petals as accompaniment to a rather delicious apple kheer, “I asked myself where India was in my work, where the inspiration was from our great civilisation?”
It took him some more time before his language of art could be codified. “I did 30 years of fundamental research,” he says now, “I tell my Indian painter friends, don’t be in a hurry, you need at least 15-20 years to understand what you have to do.” And then explains the virtues of patience: “Picasso said it takes 50 years for people to start paying attention to your work,” he pops a small paan into his mouth, “in my case it happened after 60 years.”
He’s looking forward to his return to India “even though I’ve so little time and energy”, but moans that the country has still to develop its art infrastructure. As I pay a humongously steep bill for essentially ghar-ka-khana — but then, again, who said you can get Raza cheap any more? — he laments, “Unfortunately, records here are rare, museums are few, books on contemporary art don’t exist, the officials at our embassies don’t promote art the way the Chinese do. Art,” he explains, “is not a waste, it is another excursion of the mind,” and as a reminder of, finally, financially rewarding times, adds, “And money is not a bad thing.”