Tracing S.H. Raza to the French Riviera

What drew the modernist master to Gorbio, a hilltop hamlet near Nice? An admirer drives up to find out.

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The maze-like alleys of Gorbio lead nowhere and everywhere, at once. It was here, in a sleepy little dot on South of France’s map, that S.H. Raza (right) found the mood and quietude to paint. Photos by: Shaikh Ayaz (street), Arun Mishra/Dinodia Photo/Dinodia Photo library (painting), Dinodia Photo/Dinodia Photo Library(S.H. Raza)

As our Tintin-themed aircraft hovers over Nice, a curious eye out from the window proves what I had always imagined. Côte d’Azur is the France of everyone’s dreams, particularly more and more now of the rich, famous and the creative elite. This southeastern wonderland, with the Mediterranean coastline entwined with cliffs that struggle to provide shade to sun-baked beaches, once inspired Picasso, Cézanne, Renoir, Matisse and Jean Cocteau. I see perfectly perched hilltop villages dotted on fragrant fields—a fabled landscape that could have just as easily been conjured up by a post-impressionist painter.

I arrive in Nice at high summer (on a sunny day that Picasso, one imagines, might have spent creating and copulating). In a region hotter than the rest of France, summer days are an unending swathe of sun-dappled reverie. As we drive past the beaches and begin our ascent over the foothills, I think of Henri Matisse who made Nice his home, Picasso’s Antibes and Renoir’s final days in Cagnes-sur-mer. My destination is a 45-minute drive up, to a medieval village called Gorbio, perched atop the town of Menton. Laid-back and sleepy, it’s easy to miss Gorbio on the map. Far harder is to miss this tiny French hamlet’s Indian connection. Best known for the Bindu and other philosophically-minded conceptual and geometric landscapes drawn from his Indian heritage, S.H. Raza made a habit of spending summers in Gorbio after discovering it in the 1950s. His wife Janine Mongillat, whose family belonged to this part of France, is buried in the village cemetery. Raza, on the other hand, returned to India in 2011. A major figure of Indian modern art, he died in 2016 in Delhi, aged 94 and is buried in his native town of Mandla, Madhya Pradesh.

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It is said that to spend a summer in Côte d’Azur you either have to be very rich or famous—or an artist. Photo by: José Fuste Raga/age fotostock/Dinodia Photo Library

Commanding spectacular views of the forested Alpes-Maritimes, Gorbio with its idyllic charm, silence of the valley and friendly inhabitants is a perfect retreat for solitude seekers. I walk past brick-and-stone homes, along cobbled alleys in maze-like formations. In Gorbio, there’s not much else besides two restaurants on Place de la République, the main square, and one grocery store. The hamlet is a silent zone and sometimes the only sound is that of a tourist car whizzing by. The local expression, “In Gorbio, time stops” says it all. For Raza, however, the move was more personal—emblematic of nostalgic childhood memories. “My desire to go to southern France and have a studio in the woods was a sort of rehabilitation of my childhood,” he once said. In Gorbio, the son of a forest ranger from Madhya Pradesh was finally free to relish the “trees, mountains, water, flowers and hills” he had so missed.

Established as early as A.D. 1002, Gorbio was a part of Italy until 1870 and still retains the influence. According to Quentin Bracco, whose father Yvan owns Restaurant Beau Séjour, the Gorbarins speak a distinct patois of French and Italian, and most Gorbarins have Italian surnames. “Even Bracco is Italian,” he says, chuckling.

In the 19th century, Italy gifted Napoleon III parts of Menton for helping them become a republic. So, Italy gave away its most scenic part to France? “Unfortunately for them, yes,” quips Quentin. The village has about 600 residents. The young work in nearby Menton and Monte Carlo, and kids can often be found playing at the Place de la République. Gorbio’s prime landmark is a 300-year-old elm tree, whose birthday is celebrated with much pomp every five years. “Many elm trees died in Europe in the early 20th century because of the Dutch elm disease,” informs Jilly Bennett, an English photographer I bump into at Restaurant Beau Séjour, who moved to Gorbio from Australia. “This one didn’t. It’s a miracle. In fact, the plaque records it as one of France’s most important trees.” The village life pivots around this elm. “Look inside,” she urges, as we near the tree. “It’s completely hollow. Villagers believe that if the tree dies, the village dies.” The plaque near the tree reads: ‘Every man under the elm is a man with his rights.’

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Perched atop olive, oak and pine plantations, just half an hour’s drive upwards of the town of Menton in the French Riviera, Gorbio (top) is both historic and homely; Norwegian couple Nils Petter Berg and wife Mia (bottom left) live in the stone house that Raza sold them in 1994. “I loved this house when I first saw it,” recalls Mia; Raza’s Hinduism-inspired abstract art infuses Château des Lascaris (bottom right), an 11th century fort converted into a museum, with colour and vibrancy. Photos by: Valery Trillaud/age fotostock/Dinodia Photo Library(town), Shaikh Ayaz (couple), Norbert Scanella/age fotostock/Dinodia Photo Library (woman)

Quentin tells me regular tourists don’t come looking for Gorbio. Wedged between rock, sea and clear skies, it’s less glamorous than its tourist-trappy Côte d’Azur cousins Saint-Tropez, Cannes, Monaco and Nice. “Only nature lovers come here for treks and hikes amid the olives, oaks and pines. Not surprisingly, Raza, whose work was a meditation on nature, spirituality and the divine, found himself attracted to this quaint hamlet. The artist, who once declared nature to be “as important as love in human life” quickly became linked with the culture and history of Gorbio. On his passing away, a local newspaper’s headline read, ‘The Indian painter of Gorbio went away.’

“Everyone recognised him here,” reveals Quentin. Razawas a habitué at his restaurant, the home-run French eatery with an artful, romantic setting, serving great ravioli, daube (beef stew braised slowly in wine), and salad with local edible flowers.

Quentin, who helps his father Yvan in the restaurant, says that Raza slept in his grandfather’s place on his first visit to Gorbio in the 1950s. “Just below this restaurant,” he gestures, as he enjoys a smoke break from work. Joining us later, Yvan who spends much of his time in the kitchen, dispels any notion that a brown-skinned Indian like Raza must have been a cultural anomaly back in the day when he first arrived here. “We are used to foreigners,” he says, simply. Jilly adds, “You might think it unimaginable to be accepted in a traditional French village but they just saw that how much I love it here, not as a tourist but as someone who had made it her home.”

The Braccos recall how Raza was fond of European culture. “Beau Séjour offers traditional French cuisine but Raza never demanded anything customised. He lived the way French lived and ate the same food.” One story goes that he used to order the beef stew, though “never swallowing the meat since the cow is considered sacred in the Hindu culture.” Though he lived a secluded life and was physically distant from India, Raza was never a recluse, maintaining a steady correspondence with Indian artists like M.F. Husain, KrishenKhanna and Akbar Padamsee. Gorbio gave him the privacy when he wanted it. But, when not painting, the artist liked to mingle with the locals and could be spotted hosting Indian friends at the street-side cafés. Many in his inner circle, like the town’s mayor Michel Isnard, saw him paint—a sacred luxury that Raza allowed to a select few. “During painting he forgot that I was even there,” Isnard says, when I meet him at the square. Raza’s villa and atelier, now maintained by his daughter Devina, is down a few cobbled blocks from Place de la République. The house resembles a chapel; atop the porch hangs Raza’s trademark Bindu with blue waves, surveying the property like a CCTV camera. Besides the Bindu is a name plate bearing the names ‘Raza Mongillat.’

Mongillat and Raza met in an art school in Paris in the 1950s, at a time when modern influences were blowing through Europe. An equally gifted painter, Mongillat introduced her husband to the magnificence of Southern France. Talking to friends and experts, it becomes quickly evident that Raza didn’t come to the South seeking the light, like his post-impressionist mentors. His Bindus, Mandalas, Prakritis, Surya Namaskars and the many landscapes sharing a close affinity to the Rajput and Mughal miniatures are heavily borrowed from the Hindu philosophy. At first sight, the vibrancy of his work bears no resemblance to Gorbio. But Gorbarins insist on looking deeper for a renewed understanding of the different ways in which Gorbio shaped Raza’s vision. “Gorbio gave him the mood to paint,” says Yvan Bracco. “His art was Indian, though with a highly European expression,” that’s how Mia Berg, an old friend of the artist’s from Gorbio, sums him up.

The next morning, I hike up the narrow cobbled steps leading to Château des Lascaris, past the medieval dwellings guarded by indolent cats. Once the stronghold of an Italian nobleman, the original château was believed to have been built in the 11th century. Its top was destroyed in an earthquake in 1887. The current building, fronted by a small garden, was recently converted into a musuem and a house of culture. In a tribute to Raza, a major retrospective of his work was inaugurated by the mayor in July 2018. Beyond the château lies a typical Gorbio stone bastion perched atop a hill covered in olive trees. It is the Berg’s family house—and once belonged to Raza. The Bergs purchased it from him in 1994. “He needed the money to renovate his Paris apartment,” explains Nils, Mia’s husband. Originally Norwegian, Mia and Nils Petter Berg knew Raza and Mongillat since the 1970s. The couple first met Raza when he was a struggling artist with no money to even get his work transported to Stavanger, Norway for an important exhibition. “He went over to a transport manager in Grenobles and in exchange of transit to Stavanger offered him two paintings,” Nils recalls. “Raza was shocked,” he adds, “when all the paintings were sold in the very first evening.”

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Raza Villa (top and bottom right) was the home S.H. Raza shared with his wife, the gifted artist Janine Mongillat (bottom left), who is buried in the village cemetery. Photos by: Shaikh Ayaz

The Berg’s house is for sale, and it is by sheer chance—a misunderstanding if you must—that I got to see it. The Bergs initially confused me for a potential buyer. They showed me around, pointing out the garden where Janine painted. The bedroom that was Raza’s atelier seems frozen in time and largely untouched as the artist had left it. The cramped living room and spiral stone stairway still remind the Bergs of the animal farm that the house once was. “They used to throw the grain for the animals down from here,” Nils says, of the stairway. Raza had personally supervised the restoration. So involved was the artist that “the mason had to send him away on to Italy to fetch a door or something just to get him out of the way!” Raza’s vision for the house is best reflected in the seating area he especially created by the window. Inspired by his favourite bar at the La Colombe d’Or (The Golden Dove), a popular haunt at Saint-Paul de Vence near Antibes that in its heyday hosted Picasso, Braque, Miro and many Hollywood greats, Raza decided replicate it. The Bergs collected both Raza and Mongillat when their works weren’t so expensive. Lesser known of the two, Mongillat’s art is forceful and expressive, making use of ordinary objects like teabags and old windows to create engaging and thought-provoking collages. “She didn’t want to be famous,” Mia testifies. As a couple, they were compatible and inspired each other but Nils is in no doubt who was the boss. “Raza played the role of master of the house,” he says. “In an Indian sort of way,” Mia adds, caustically.

Incidentally, Gorbio is celebrating 2018 as the year of Janine Mongillat. The past year was dedicated to Raza, in an effort to highlight the importance of Gorbio in the artist’s journey. Château des Lascaris remains my favourite discovery of the Raza trail. To look at their work hung side by side at the château is a touching sight, as the lovers, buried continents apart, finally lay here in an artistic embrace. The Château is a must-visit even for those with just a passing interest in art. Besides Mongillat, on view are Raza’s lesser-seen Bindus and his personal collection of Indian art and artefacts. The Bergs have lent some of their Razas and Mongillats to the Château, which today houses a permanent musuem of Raza’s work. Many Gorbarins reiterate that Gorbio was a second home for Raza. Before his death, the adopted son of Gorbio is believed to have donated a large number of paintings and at least a million euros to the village. As his paintings started fetching record prices at auctions, it is rumoured that villagers made a beeline to give their Raza originals to Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Many privately murmer that collectors and auctioneers are retaining a hawk-eyed vigil at the Raza troves said to be hoarded in the village. “He didn’t merely own a property, he belonged here,” reflects Isnard, claiming that 1977 to 1978 was Raza’s best period in which he produced some of his best masterpieces

He says, “It happened right here, in Gorbio, and is a goldmine for collectors and art experts.” Mia puts it best, when she says, “Raza was born in India. But reborn in Gorbio.”

 

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5 Must-Dos In And Around Gorbio

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Clockwise from top left: Ouvrage Sainte-Agnès; Jean Cocteau Museum; Musée Matisse; Monte Carlo. Photos by: Peter Seyfferth/image BROKER/Dinodia Photo Library (Mountain), René van der Meer/Prisma/Dinodia Photo Library(Museum), kasto/Fotosearch LBRF/Dinodia Photo Library (fountain), Sergio Pitamitz/Marka/Dinodia Photo Library (chapel)

1. trek to remember

Surrounded by pristine mountains, Gorbio is a trekker’s paradise. An even more popular hiking trail, just 10 kilometres away, is the picturesque Sainte-Agnès, one of the highest coastal villages in French Riviera. Stop over at the fortification of Ouvrage Sainte-Agnès for panoramic views of the Mediterranean.

 

2. Cocteau’s World

Don’t miss the seaside Jean Cocteau Museum in nearby Menton, a 20-minute drive southeast. Designed by well-known French architect Rudy Ricciotti, the musuem houses excellent works by Cocteau that showcase this man of multiple talents (he was a poet, filmmaker, designer, painter and playwright) at his most whimsical.

 

3. Casino Royale

If Bond-style casinos are your thing, your best excuse could be Monte Carlo, a 30-minute drive south. Monaco’s playground of the rich is an ideal place for soaking in indulgence and luxury. Ensure the dream-like, mid-19th-century Grand Casino is on your itinerary.

 

4. Côte d’Azur’s Rabbit

A beautifully laid-back eatery that specialises in traditional French cuisine, Gorbio’s storied Restaurant Beau Séjour has a lavish menu that the Bracco family has kept largely unchanged for five generations. Sample the rabbit with homemade raviolis. If you ever wondered what Côte d’Azur cuisine is like, this is food as Côte d’Azurian as it can get.

 

5. Matisse in Nice

Constituting a lion’s share of Henri Matisse’s masterpieces, Musée Matisse in Nice is a pilgrimage for modern art connoisseurs. Stop by at The Rosary Chapel that the artist himself regarded as his finest artistic moment. If left with any time, include a stroll around the neighbourhood of Cimiez where Matisse and fellow artist Raoul Dufy are buried.

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

  • Shaikh Ayaz is the kind of writer, who, say if he's in Melbourne will gladly skip the MCG for any art museum. But the problem is there aren't that many great art museums in Melbourne. Also, he's running out of professorial, serious-looking turtlenecks that help him, as he says, fit into the whole arty-farty culture.

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