At the age of 87, he walks straight, sits straight and talks straight. Harish Chandra Rai, an adroit user of knife to paint in oil colour, or brush to make scenery in water colour, of fingers and pastel colours to draw human portraits plus all splendour under the sun, is ‘a freak of nature’ as the great artist Asit Kumar Haldhar, grandnephew of Tagore, had described him. His sketches show his genius. Some of the sketches, including that of Swami Sivananda that he did in 1946 as a student, were alive as if breathing. No wonder MR Acharekar, acclaimed for his portraits and art direction with Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt, had once admitted that Harish was better than him.
Bireshwar Sen, who found place in Indian art history for his ultra miniature landscapes with bijou quality, had said: “I have seen many artists doing sketches; Harish is the best”. And Harish bluntly told me that he did not believe in ‘interviews’ because it was always his work that had spoken for him. Knowing that he had declined to accept the National Award for ‘veteran artist’ twice in 1995 and 2001 because, he felt, that the word ‘veteran’ depicted that it was being given to him for his age and not for art. While accepting Kala Puruskar by the State Arts, Language and Culture Academy, he had doubled the award money and returned it to the Chief Minister for relief works.
Rais are originally Kannauj Kaisthas whose names used to start and end with ‘Rai’ like Rai Mohabbat Prasad Rai, Rai Daroga Prasad Rai etc. Their names, interestingly, showed a mix of Hindi and Urdu words. HC Rai’s ancestors switched over to Lal. His father, Chandra Behari Lal, was also an artist and mother Leelavati, a singer. Their family then shifted to Bareilly and Harish Chandra was born there. He traced his ancestry and decided to start the clan of Rai. His son, Sharat Rai, is an architect of repute in Bhopal and his daughter, Amla Rai, has earned name in doing and teaching theatre in Mumbai.
When I reached his home in Chhota Shimla adjacent to the re-done Darshan Villa, HC Rai was nursing his septuagenarian bed-ridden wife Nirmala, who a deft craftswoman had served as teacher in government schools. It was for the first time that I saw him off-canvas; otherwise he kept himself busy in painting and had the stamina to do about a hundred paintings every year at the age of 85. He had come to Himachal Pradesh in 1962 as Principal of the College of Arts and since then the State has been his ‘karmabhumi’.
Rai is an excellent violin player. He has learnt violin from the world-famous and Padma Vibhushan Late VG Jog. Rai says, “About two years back, he came under a spell and started writing ‘Krishna Kavya’ – a lyric on Krishna- in Brij Bhasha and completed it in nine months. He further wrote about a hundred ‘Rasiyas’ in shringar rasa (beauty style in Hindi literature), a short form of poetry like Haiku of Japan.” The remarkable poetic works await publishing. Many may not know that Rai is the architect of Ram Mandir at the Ganj and drew sketches for ‘A Simla Story’, a book by OC Sud. I was surprised to know that he had spent a good time at Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh where he had rubbed shoulders with Swami Chinmayananda, who later established the Chinmaya Mission, and Swami Chidananda, who was the President of Divine Life Society created by Swami Sivananda. He says he being a Kaistha knows Urdu by birth but had learnt Sanskrit after superannuation to deliver a lecture in that language on a Sanskrit Day and memorised 800 shlokas of Bhagwadgita at the age of seventy-nine. Am I not justified in dubbing him as a man of many parts?
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