The other members of the Progressive Artists’ Group wrote to him often and among them Souza’s letters were the most frequent. There were playful discussions about women and domesticity.
“This one French girl we were so keen to meet and take lessons from happened to be with false eyes and what not. We had idealised her all the two days we spent in contacting her and we had in mind besides learning the language, many other sweet dreams. After the first meeting and consecutive disappointment we worried about getting rid of this beauty queen. It came easy as that evening she was with some friends too busy to bother about us and after half an hour’s waiting we left, even without a usual ‘Au Revoir’. We haven’t met her again and I hope we don’t.”
Souza would even joke about Akbar’s flings in the letters. “I hope Padamsee will start work with renewed vitality and energy. In a way, I was glad to hear from him that his Venus had vanished, before the little cupids came flying about all over Paris, and before complications ensued because he is still a youngster. As for you dear fellow, you are the luckier. As far as I have read some biographies of famous men, most of them seduced other men’s wives, and troubles evolved, but ultimately, everyone went on happily. Therefore in a way I envy you. You are however taking it all too seriously. It is nothing at all, old boy. It is part of life, and if you get the chance again, I would advise most wholeheartedly to do it again. You say your experiences with women have ended in tragedies. Not at all, Raza. Your wife is a magnificent looking woman and I know she made you happy often, you told me so. Women are delightful creatures; they are like frivolous toys, and man plays with them when not at work, as a recreation.”
Despite his seeming indifference to the woman’s individuality, Souza was overjoyed when their first child, a baby girl, was born in London in May 1951. His tenderness and concern for his wife Maria and daughter are shared in a moving letter to Raza.
“I thought she would be asleep, like the rest, who were all in the seventh heaven, dreaming of angels. But my baby was wide awake looking around at the world though she can’t see anything just yet. She gave a pretty hard time to Maria. She was to arrive on the 23rd in fact, but the little thing thought she will not budge. ‘Miserable world, I shall not get out from here where it’s nice and warm and comfortable.’ Poor Maria went through it all quite splendidly...”
While thanking him for sending him ten pounds for his own use he also mentions that “I have sent the 10 pounds to your wife. But you rascal, you never sent me her name and address. Instead you sent me her uncle’s or someone’s name!” The exchange of letters between Souza and Raza acquired a frequency as the artists decided to have a joint show along with Akbar Padamsee. In the preparations for the exhibition, letters would fly to and fro.
Souza pointed out, “Your development is miraculous, marvellous, though it had its humorous side. Today you are worried about a drop of water spoiling your delicate fragile landscapes. In the old days you used to paint in the heavy monsoon and keep them landscapes out in the rain (at least it looked like it) to get the beautiful-dirty monsoon effect and the messy yellow hammer look.”
There would be animated discussions about his art and finally about the show for which all three – Akbar, Raza and Souza – were busy preparing. There was a proposition that MF Husain also join them for the show. “I am beginning to turn over in my head the ‘Idea’ of having an exhibition in Paris – a last fling so to speak, along with you. Having Husain in is wonderful – ‘Quatre Peintres Indiens’. We are not really concerned what the other artists will think or say about taking in Husain in our Paris show. Neither is the fact that Husain happens (to my mind not accidentally) a Muslim. We could kick the breath out of any bastard who says ours is a communal partnership. What worried me is what explanation we should give the French public about the addition. Between the two of us, the public understood the presence of Baby Akbar – but now Husain – and between the three of us – complete with beard and all – well; we will have to ask Rostand the biologist to give some explanation for the new arrival.”
Their first exhibition, however, for reasons which are not known did not have Husain. Held at Galerie Saint-Placide in 1952, it aroused both interest and curiosity because it could not be placed in any known category and yet had marked painterly qualities. The thirteen odd paintings on display were sold and went to important collections.
Significantly enough, larger galleries began to take notice, and Galerie La France, which had promoted painters like Soulage, Menessier and Zao Wou-Ki, invited Raza to show his work. Following this, the three painters were invited to another group show at Galerie Creuz in 1953. This show too went off well and many of the works displayed were sold.
Raza was in his element and decided to do a tour of Italy to look at the famed Renaissance painters.
Tall, slim and handsome, he attracted women almost instantly and it might be said that he was also drawn to them. In a letter to Akbar written from Venice, “There is so much to see and so much to do that I have been running like a mad man all these days. We went to Ravenna, Fervera, Padova and now for almost a week we are in Venice. This place is remarkable. I have chosen for work the dirtiest of streets and the oldest of houses, where no one, it appears, has painted since they discovered that houses can make a painting...Lydia’s presence has done me a lot of good and it has changed her completely. When she arrived she was pale and almost lifeless and now she is in perfect form, full of laughter and gaiety. Naturally, this is a nuisance, being together with a girl, I am obliged to waste a lot of time, and so I would have worked well only alone. But I do not regret it. On the contrary I am back to health...”
Raza’s first exposure to Italy seems to have been fantastic. “I have begun to love Italy. I was terribly disappointed with whatever I saw in Florence and the parts of the country I saw from the train on our way. Of course I saw a lot in Florence, including the Masaccio, but it was only in Ravenna of the 6th century mosaiques that I was really thrilled. Padova with Giotto was another treat, but I agree with you, without seeing yet Assisi that his later work tells so much. I loved the town, made several sketches here in Venice, I haven’t gone to a single museum I am working.” His money running out, he had to cut his visit short from Rome and fly back directly to Paris.
There was no further mention of Lydia in his letters after this point, for Raza was being drawn like a magnet to someone, almost without his knowledge. His warm intimacy with his fellow student Janine Mongillat had begun to change its hues to passionate tones. His feelings brimmed over when he met her, and he could hardly contain himself. In this heightened state, he felt he had at last found the woman who would answer all his prayers.
Little did he realise that it would be much more and for all time. Perhaps the Paris he was looking for was symbolised best by this lovely girl who was a talented artist as well.
Despite a measure of success in his work, however, Raza seems to have been strained for money. He wrote to Akbar, “I have had plenty of worries during the year, but somehow I have managed my affairs. At the moment I am at a crossroad and really there are things I just cannot manage alone. I must have a place to live in here. There is a chance at hand and two rooms are available from January for a rent of 1,500 francs a month for both of them. They are on Rue Grenita near Rue St Denis. But there is a reprise to be paid and the sum is 100,000 frs. It’s a bargain and I must secure this amount somehow, as an opportunity of this kind will not come again. Here I hope to arrange 50,000 frs Perhaps some more, as the house is to be furnished at least with a bed. But the rest I must secure. Give this matter a very serious consideration. You know the house problem in Paris. It is almost impossible to get a room for less than 8,000 frs a month. Here I shall have two rooms. To do serigraphie one must have an atelier. Perhaps I could even give you one of them and maybe both if living for one becomes an impossibility in Paris. In fact I am determined to stay on longer and find my way out here and I shall do all I can to make it possible.”
He was to resort to offering his works cheaply, “Would you be able to help me out. Talk to Solange, Nuruddin, Shahbibi. Maybe you could talk to Alkazi and Roshan, Husain and Peerbhoy. I could give six paintings at Rs 100 each. Could they buy and pay in advance?”
If Paris was a city where his meagre means made it difficult for him to live comfortably, it was also the city that provided an opening panorama of possibilities to Raza. For the moment he felt blessed that he was there and the struggle to survive made him feel more alive than ever. These early years by the Seine would be embalmed in his memory.
Excerpted with permission from Sayed Haider Raza: The Journey of an Iconic Artist, Yashodhara Dalmia, HarperCollins India.
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