Rajesh Mehra painted and showcased alongside the most well known artists of the country. Why did he then stop painting almost around 40 years ago and has remained largely unknown?
Rajesh Mehra puts a lock on the gate of his flat on the inside. He is a man who has made few compromises in life, yet remains vulnerable to its unexpected narratives. In a corner of the drawing room of his flat in Sarita Vihar, an old television plays the evening bulletin of the now primitive Doordashan news. "We [His Wife] usually go away from the city during the summers. But the times are so bad now, that I can't leave the house. Not for a minute", he says when asked about the lock. "Nothing is too much. I get calls almost every other day from insurance agents. When I tell them I'm 84 they drop the call. Who would want to insure a man who could die any minute? That is how the world is now," he adds.
Mehra, born in 1932, spent most of his foster years growing up in Karolbagh, Delhi. By the 1950s, his imagination had begun to overarch the paraplegic sense of his middle-class existence. "I never wanted to be a painter at first. I wanted to become a writer, because I loved to weave words. But it just happened," he says. In 1950 Mehra, enrolled into the Delhi Polytechnic College (later renamed the Delhi College of Art). During the time, the course was a marathon five years followed by a year of mandatory practical experience. "Unlike today, where courses are thin, we had to learn everything from cooking, to art to literature. It was exhausting at times but I loved it," he says.
It was during his time at the Polytechnic College, that Mehra's ideas began to trade in swatches of colour. The revered painter and founder of the Delhi Shilpi Chakra, BC Sanyal was the then college prinicpal. "There was an open space in college where students could just put up their artworks, sculptures, paintings and so on. I did not want to put my name on what I had started painted so I put up a few paintings anonymously," he says. From building frames to cutting glass to cover his paintings with, Mehra did everything himself.
The anonymous show of his work in 1953 earned him a reputation, most effectively with Sanyal, who invited Mehra to join Shilpi Chakra. But a reputation wouldn’t pay for the money required for canvases and paints. "I had the fire in me, but I did not have money to buy expensive paints or canvases. So I started looking for odd-jobs in the space of commercial art. In 53’, the Railways held their centenary celebrations with carriages being displayed all over Delhi. I painted many of those carriages which earned me some money and helped me continue my work," he says. Mehra would pack his equipment, and leave on his bicycle every morning to paint in different locations of the city before going to college.
During the mid-fifties, MF Husain’s oeuvre had already spread within the national conscience and like most aspiring painters perhaps, he was Mehra’s role-model as well. "I desperately wanted to meet Husain. So in 1956 I heard talk about Husain being assigned a mural by one of the education departments in the capital. Out of sheer luck Husain was about to visit a photography studio run by my friend Narendra Pal Singh. I got to know from there that Husain stayed in Delhi at the house of critic M Krishnan, near Ganga Ram hospital. I decided I would meet him at any cost," Mehra says. The day Husain was to arrive in the city, Mehra turned up at Krishnan's house but was driven away. Resolute in his fancy for meeting Husain, Mehra returned the next morning, and quietly entered the house.
"Husain saab was reading namaaz and I can remember he was a little startled. But he came out and talked to me very casually. I told him how much I wanted to paint. He asked me to come to the department's office — I can't remember the name — in Connaught Place and meet him. So I did," he says. But Husain did not turn up for a couple of days. When he eventually did, Mehra, to his utter surprise was asked to assist, and not just as a token of privilege. "I was paid Rs 500 for assisting Husain saab. And it those times it was close to a fortune. It was an absolute joy working on the mural with him. He was impressed by my work," he says. After their duet on a wall in Connaught Place, Mehra and Husain grew close, but Husain's roots in Mumbai kept him at a distance from the very Delhi sentimentality of Mehra, who bubbling with ideas and energy, was still struggling to find his own style and sensibility.
On one such day, Mehra says, when Husain was sitting on a cot in his house in Delhi, "I walked up to him and said, 'I just want to be a painter, but I don't know where to start. Mujhe nahi ptaa kahan se shuru karun." Husain, Mehra says, had just four words in reply, the gravity of which he could not grasp but remained with him throughout his life. "Husain ji said 'apne aapse shuru karo'. I couldn't fully understand at that time what he meant. But it eventually grew on me and in my work I think," he says.
His coincidental acquaintance with Husain aside, Mehra lived in the centre of Delhi, in Karolbagh, residents of which would later be some of the most well known names in Indian art. In 1957, Mehra met Ram Kumar, and his younger brother the Hindi novelist Nirmal Verma and career politician and painter Jagdish Swaminathan, who would eventually become his closest friends.
The friendship between the three was what defined the next decade of Mehra's life. The first half of the 1960s saw him be part of Swaminathan's brainchild, Group 1890, a movement that at one point promised to accede the country’s artistic royalty, with a fresh perspective, but whimpered to an early exit. Verma and Swaminathan were both born and raised in the hill town of Shimla, and through them Mehra found a love for the mountains he never knew existed in him. "I loved Himachal. My closest friends were from Himachal and I along with Nirmal and Swami took countless treks and hiking trips through the mountains,” he says.
By 1964, after the first exhibition of Group 1890 had taken place, Mehra gained not only prominence but critical acclaim. In the same year he left for London on a fellowship and during his travels through Europe, where he also met Verma in Prague, Mehra was acquainted with a new aesthetic of the Arts.
"The culture in Europe was completely different from what existed in India at that time. There was a general, more collective approach towards supporting art. In India, on the other hand, most of these people were more than happy to step on each other's foot. I think it was one of the reasons, why I started feeling out of place on coming back to the country," he says. Upon his return to India, the Group 1890 movement fell apart. Mehra, for want of a part-time job that would pay his bills joined the College of Art as a professor. But his own personal powers were already on the wane and he attributes this to the politics at the centre of India's cultural machinery. "When I came back from London, I wasn't exactly welcome and soon learned that I had been demoted. Although jobs didn't really matter as much to me, but it was still a blow to my reputation." he says.
At the turn of the 70s Mehra's touch was losing its sheen. In 1972, he along with his family shifted out of his house in Karolbagh. That, according to him, was a turning point that would change him forever. "I did most of my illustrations in my room, in the attic, in Karolbagh. Although I'm not much of a secluded painter, I think I had a connection with that room that I could never develop in our new home in Jangpura," he says.
Mehra tried to reinvigorate himself by travelling to the mountains. "In 1975 I went to Ranikhet and lived for about two months in a cottage owned by a British Woman by the name of Mrs Clarke, who had not returned to England after India's independence. Nirmal visited me there and was intrigued by the story of this woman and the countless letters her family used to send from England. He spent two days just reading those letters again and again," he says. Mehra might not know but the said incident should in all likelihood be the inspiration behind Verma's last novel Antim Aranya (translated as The Last Wilderness by Pratik Kanjilal). Such are the stories, hidden in the recesses of the 84-year-old’s mind. Stories that he often forgets or knows not the value of, but when he tells them, he does without fumbling over a single word.
By the end of the 70s, with Mehra struggling to revisit the easel, both his parents started to fall ill. "My father almost turned completely blind by the end of the 70s and my mother was suffering from a serious ailment. I think I lost the peace in me. My mind could never find that space again," he says. In 1978, Mehra held his last exhibition at the Lala Kala Akademi. But unlike all his exhibits from before, he did not invite a single critic. "I wanted to make a statement. I did not know that it would be my last exhibition but I wanted to send a message to the colluded world of artists and critics that I could, as an artist, exist outside of their manners and means of approach, "he says.
But why, despite the fable of his exploits during the 50s and 60s did he remain an untapped entity? That is mostly down to Mehra as well. Countless men and women, curators and galleries, he says, have approached him for his paintings. That the likes of Gaitonde (who visited many of Mehra's exhibitions along with Husain) are selling for millions doesn't affect him the least bit. "I want to keep them for the time that I'm alive. God knows what will happen to them once I'm dead," he says.
A room in Mehra's flat looks like a warehouse for canvases that recline on each other, gathering dust, unbidden and untouched by the inquiry for genius, that he might have once been in possession of. But Rajesh Mehra would not have it any other way.