Celebrating Raza through the Dastan-e-Raza
Vadodara, July 26, 2022
In this, the centenary year of the eminent Indian modern painter Sayed Haider Raza, the ever-enthusiastic, out-of-the-box thinker-Chairperson of The Raza Foundation, Ashok Vajpeyi, commissioned dastango Mahmood Farooqui to create a Dastangoi performance on the life and work of the artist, who was born on February 22, 1922 and passed away on July 23, 2016.
The Dastan-e-Raza was presented in Vadodara on July 24 under the aegis of the local Ark Foundation as a special edition of their annual K G Subramanyan Memorial programme. This was the second performance, the first one was in Delhi.
So, who is a dastango and what is a Dastangoi performance like? Dastan, as all of you are aware, means a story; dastango is the storyteller and dastangoi is the popular oral art of Urdu story-telling which is believed to have originated in 13th century Persia, travelled to India, where it was warmly encouraged by Emperor Akbar and became extremely popular in the Lucknow-Delhi belt till the 19th century. It then took a sharp dip during the British era when it was denigrated for its length and multiple story-within-story format, and quickly disappeared until at the turn of this century, when the forgotten performance art form was revived by the Urdu poet, Shamsur Rahman Farooqi, and very soon his nephew and writer-director Mahmood Farooqui, adapted it to the contemporary stage, though retaining its traditional visual elements, in terms of dress and stage presentation.
Since 2005, he has presented hundreds of Dastangoi performances across the globe (I have enjoyed three of them in Vadodara alone!).
While the language of the story-telling remains predominantly Urdu, modern Dastangoi content incorporates Hindustani as well as Sanskrit, wherever necessary (French, too, as in this Dastangoi!). However, that does not mean that all Dastangoi stories are essentially drawn from Persian or Arabic traditional tales. There is a Dastangoi based on Alice in Wonderland as well. And, while a certain command over Urdu language and clear pronunciation is essential, it is not necessary that the dastangos need to always be Muslim; Himanshu Bajpai, and sadly, Ankit Chadha, who is no more, come immediately to the mind.
And so, coming to Sayed Haider Raza. Only someone with an imagination as brilliant and eclectic as that of Ashok Vajpeyi could have thought of the possibility of a Dastangoi on the life of an artist. And while nobody can deny that Raza’s life has enough masala to make it worthy of a Dastangoi, it also needed someone of the talent of Mahmood Farooqui to do the research, pick up the right dramatic elements, and script that story to fit the Dastangoi format.
And it all came together wonderfully in Vadodara on a Sunday evening as the life of Raza gently unfolded on stage while a steady rain drummed away outside and a mesmerized audience sat spellbound. Farooqui evoked word-pictures of the deep and dark forests of Madhya Pradesh where Raza was born and spent his childhood and teenage years and whose memories he always harboured wherever he went, and ultimately when he bought his own home among the woods in the south of France, it was because it reminded him of the forests of his youth.
Farooqui smilingly spoke of how Raza’s primary school teacher, slightly exasperated with the young boy whose attention wandered all the time, quietly drew a large bindu on the wall and asked him to concentrate on it, and how that image became the primary motif around which so many of his paintings and prints centered!
Later, with Independence, came the wounds that Partition inflicted. His extended family was hounded, their homes burnt and while they left for Pakistan (including his wife, Fatima), he alone stayed behind, holding on to his Indian citizenship right till the end, even after he spent half a century in France, his paintings much sought after, and feted with the most prestigious awards.
His deep love for French artist Janine Mongillat who he finally married in 1959 (after divorcing Fatima) could become the content for another Dastangoi; and it was only after her death in 2002 that he finally moved back to India in 2010, bidding a final farewell to France.
It was through the sheer power of words as well as meaningful intonation and gestures that the emotional depth of this narration was brought out engagingly by Farooqui.
But the crux of the Raza story from an art historical point of view was the formation of the Progressive Artists Group (PAG) in 1947 in Mumbai, and Raza’s role in it as one of the six founder members with F N Souza, S K Bakre, M F Husain, K H Ara, H A Gade, and the support of Tyeb Mehta, Ram Kumar and Akbar Padamsee. This is a rather cerebral subject and it is to the credit of Farooqui that he understood its nuances well enough to choose the right incidents (such as Souza’s painting of a male nude in one of the PAG exhibitions that got a lady viewer to froth at the mouth!) to highlight the points that PAG wanted to make, chief amongst which was the debate on the content of the art that artists in a newly independent country should create.
The condition of Raza living in penury in Mumbai where he worked at odd jobs, and painted in his free time, to gather enough money to pay his fees and study at the J J School of Art, was brought out with empathy by Farooqui.
France held a great attraction for Raza, especially the paintings of Cezanne. He wanted to go to France and so started French language classes at the Alliance Francaise. He spoke French before he could even speak English well, and when the Government of France scholarship was sanctioned, he grabbed it and left for Paris in 1950, having got admission in the art school (ENSB-A) there.
After his studies were over he continued to stay in France and exhibited regularly. In 1956 he bagged the prestigious Prix de la Critique Award, becoming the first non-French artist to be honoured thus. The rest, as they say, was history.
Sandhya Bordewekar writes on contemporary art, architecture, heritage, food and life in general.