EXHIBITION - S. H. Raza (Sep 21-Oct 31, 2007) :

S.H. Raza in conversation with Susan S. Bean, Ph.D., curator of South Asian and Korean Art and Culture, Peabody Essex Museum

Susan Bean: Mr. Raza the first thing I have to say is that it is an amazing honor to be sitting here with you, and speaking to you and for all of these people to join in and listen to the conversation and learn more about your more than sixty year career – a pioneering career as an Indian and French and World artist.

I had briefly visited the Saffron Gallery earlier in the week and saw how they had managed to pull together an amazing selection of Raza's work over a sixty-year period – more than sixty years – and hang it chronologically so that you can see the progression and evolution of his work.

I thought, now that you have seen the work displayed chronologically, that we would begin our discussion somewhere in the middle around the early 1980s when things were really happening for you in your art. You have, I believe, sometimes said that it was a time of rebirth for you, that a lot of the projects of art practice that you have been working on in France were coming to fruition and coming together and coalescing with your Indian roots. So perhaps you could start to talk about the work of the 1980s.

S. H. Raza: Well, my friends, it is an overwhelming experience to be in New York and to find myself with you all in this exhibition, a retrospective, which brings to my mind innumerable memories.

My evolution has not been simple. It has been hard work of a lifetime. But I have the happiness of having the parents that I had and the teachers I had in Mandla, Central India, who had given me the idea of swadharma. I was a very bad student, very poor, the black sheep of the school and my eldest brother was the most brilliant gem of the school, but my teachers kindly gave me the idea of swadharma, which is a very important concept in Indian philosophy. Eliminate, eliminate and concentrate on what is most important to you. I tell you today, all my life I have been doing that, and it has been very effective…

I remember the days when I was not really very satisfied in the '80s. I used to tell myself in my solitude, but where is your country, Raza, in your work? Where is the great civilization that is the Indian tradition in your work? And I started revisiting India, and Indian philosophy, Indian poetry, Indian art. I must say that my language is Indian - matrabhasha Hindi hain. I speak Hindi, and I have also been studying Sanskrit to the best of my ability. After 1980 I went to India regularly for three months and studied Indian sculpture, painting, visiting Ajanta and Ellora, Elephanta, Kutchh Rann, Gujarat, Bengal and trying to study what is most important in Indian art. I collected Indian miniatures and Jain miniatures, and many other things which I and my wife Janine, we have collected for years and years together…

Now things are easy to understand that somebody gives in 30 years of his life to know what is painting, what is the length, what is the color, what is the orchestration on the canvas and he can devote himself for 30 years and then for 15 to 20 years he is trying to build an Indian ethnography, Indian concept, Indian idea into his work. A very simple thing, but people do not always realize that it is not with the eyes or retina alone that you see detail. You see only some aspect of reality with the retina of the eyes. We have the concept in India of antar jyot, antar gyan and the third eye. You have to unite human prakriti, intuition, art, everything on a superior plane to reach the truth – whether it is poetry, philosophy, dance or painting…

To me today, looking at this retrospective, I am grateful to the organizers who have done it with passion and with great know-how. I can tell you that this is perhaps the most important exhibition that I have myself seen, united in one important area today.

Susan Bean: When you were a student at the Sir J.J. School, it was a very European academic institution. Can you tell us about those days?

S. H. Raza: Yes, we had Roman and Greek statues from which we had to copy. You see, the importance was given to a realism, and it was said – and I'm telling you the exact sentence about Indian sculpture that a great and well know British critic said about Indian sculpture – "the unctuous sinuosity of its form is repugnant to my aesthetic taste”. Can you believe that? He didn't just say that, "I do not agree with it”, he thought it was repugnant to his taste!

Now this created confusion. We were young, not knowing what could be done. India was not yet independent, and I should say, as you rightly mentioned before this, during the struggle for and just after Indian independence, we wanted to take destiny in our hands, we were full of enthusiasm. We wanted to see everything, not only life – my brother went into social work, but I said no, I will not go to Calcutta and work with you. He joined an organization and started working, but I said no, I should know what is life and I should know what is art – swadharma, my basic idea of concentrating on what was most important. Swadharma, which is a very important keynote in the Bhagvad Gita – eliminate, eliminate, and concentrate.

We were studying under different teachers. There was a European section and an Indian section in the school of art in 1947-48. But we got together, some of us – Ara, Bakre, Gade, Souza, Husain and myself and we founded the Progressive Artists' Group and it was an extremely important development. It was important for us to know what is life? What is art? What could be achieved through painting? I will remind you that in the 40s Indian dance and music were considered very highly. Nobody gave any attention to Indian painting. Even during my first years in Paris, when there were several Indian painters there, they were only having programs of Indian music and dance. We had to start from the beginning, but before we started, we had to know what is what.

Susan Bean: I wanted to ask you more about the importance of Rudy von Leyden, Langhammer and Schlesinger. Perhaps you can tell us how you got to know them, and what they provided for you and your friends?

S. H. Raza: Unfortunately you know the incidents in the 1930s and 40s – there was a camp of concentration where these people from the Jewish community were put in Germany. By the grace of God, one day the allied forces rescued about 10 or 15 of them. They flew up in the sky and they were asked, where do you want to go? They decided to come to India. They did not know me then, but they came to India. Schlesinger had always been a deep admirer of art. They were all very competent people. Walter Langhammer became the art adviser to the Times of India. Schlesinger started a pharmaceutical company with his partner. India needs medicine they thought, and it worked out very well. In two, three, four years time, they were at the top. They were doing very well and it was a help to me. Later I met J.R.D. Tata and Jehangir Nicholson whom of course you know. Through all of them I was introduced to the work of other artists and it expanded my horizons. Later other people came…

I showed a couple of works at an exhibition in Bombay, and those two paintings were immediately sold, because they were appreciated by Rudolf von Leyden the art critic who later came to the designers office where I was working to make a living, to pay for my stay in the city. He said, look, I would like to see your work. I showed him the work and he immediately bought two or three and was buying one or two every month. His partners also bought my paintings, and they all said "leave your job, you are wasting your time. You are in the wrong profession, you are a painter.” I was not very sure of that myself and ultimately I left the job as they were buying regularly. I was showing all over India and it started that way.

You see it is incredible that these things happened suddenly without my knowing and I had a sense of self-respect. I never asked any help from other people, I never wept in misery but things came to me – dil maange nahi mile, na maange mile wohi [When the heart demands something it will not get it, but when it doesn't, everything will be at its disposal].

You see, I have always referred to ideas that come from my country [referring to the couplet above]. And this I tell you is so important that you realize that values in life, values in art, values in every domain – extraordinary ideas have been given by India, which at times even in India we do not understand. To give you an example, we say in India, yatra naryast pujyante, ramantra tatva devata – in a home where a woman is respected, God dwells. What could be of greater happiness to an Indian home than to find the presence of God in their house? Jahan nari puja hoti hai – where the woman is respected and loved. And this is ancient India – taking every aspect of human life in account from the lowest everyday plane to the highest steeple!

Susan Bean: Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like once you were in Paris for your art practice? What was it that you were trying to do to develop your art practice in the early years in Paris?

S. H. Raza: You see when I started painting my first thoughts were of nature in Madhya Pradesh in the early mornings – mountains, forests, tigers, birds – which I loved. I didn't like the school there but I loved the place! So I wanted to bring them onto a piece of paper with colours. This beginning has remained very important in Bombay and Paris.

When I came to Paris, I travelled all over to look at museums and paintings. When I me Cartier-Bresson in '48, he liked my work and called me. He said, look, you are talented, but I am very doubtful about talented painters. You have a good sense of colour and composition, but your paintings lack structure. I didn't understand at that time, in 1948. I said, what do you mean? He said, look, a painting is constructed like a building – with a foundation, with walls, beams and a roof. If you don't give the painting a foundation, walls, beams and roof, like a house it cannot stand on its own. Your painting is wishy-washy. Try to understand what is construction in painting. And before he left he said, I would advise you to study Cézanne. I met him again in Bombay and in Paris. It was God's grace, with Schlesinger and him and others – I always met the right people at the right time.

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