The Story of Indian Art #4: Syed Haider Raza

Last month, on 23 July, a young lad born on February 22, 1922, in the forest village of Babaria in Madhya Pradesh and went on to catapult Indian contemporary art onto the international stage passed away. Let’s meet Syed Haider Raza, who, along with Maqbool Fida Husain and Francis Newton Souza, was the most celebrated of the Indian Modernists.

Last month, on 23 July, a young lad born on February 22, 1922, in the forest village of Babaria in Madhya Pradesh and went on to catapult Indian contemporary art onto the international stage passed away. Let’s meet Syed Haider Raza, who, along with Maqbool Fida Husain and Francis Newton Souza, was the most celebrated of the Indian Modernists. He lived and worked in France since 1950, while maintaining strong ties with India.

Syed Haider Raza (1922 – 2016)

Where it all began

Syed Haider Raza took to drawing at age 12 and completed his school education from Government High School, Damoh. His father was a forest ranger in Narsinghpur district and Raza grew up surrounded by nature, close to the river Narmada, which he referred to as Narmadaji, and asked to be buried on the banks of this very same river, in close proximity to his father.

After high school, he studied further at the Nagpur School of Art, Nagpur (1939–43), followed by Sir J. J. School of Art, Bombay (1943–47), before moving to France in October 1950 to study at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts (ENSB-A) in Paris, 1950-1953 on a Govt. of France scholarship. After his studies, he travelled across Europe, and continued to live and exhibit his work in Paris.

Clocher du Village, 1958, Abstract

Raza painted mainly abstracts in oil or acrylic, with a very rich use of colour, replete with icons from Indian cosmology as well as its philosophy. They draw on the memories of his formative years spent in the forests. He considered his school teachers to have had a formidable influence on him, especially his headmaster who taught him to calm his restless spirit by meditating on a point, which he drew on the wall. Raza later attributed the formulation of his signature bindu (point) to this childhood memory.

Syed Haider Raza, had his first solo show in 1946 at Bombay Art Society Salon, and was awarded the Silver Medal of the society.

Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group

1947 proved to be a very important year for him. First, his mother died. Then, he co-founded the revolutionary Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) (1947–1956) along with K. H. Ara and F.N. Souza. This group set out to break free from the influences of European realism in Indian art and bring Indian inner vision (Antar gyan) into the art. The group had its first show in 1948.

French connection

Once in France, he continued to experiment with currents of Western Modernism, moving from Expressionist modes towards greater abstraction and eventually incorporating elements of Tantrism from Indian scriptures. Whereas his fellow contemporaries dealt with more figural subjects, Raza chose to focus on landscapes in the 1940s and 50s, inspired in part by a move to France.

In 1959 he married the French artist Janine Mongillat, who died in 2002 of cancer, after which he decided to return to India.

The birth of ‘Bindu’ and the rebirth of Raza

By the 1970s Raza had grown increasingly unhappy and restless with his own work and wanted to find a new direction and deeper authenticity in his work, and move away from what he called the ‘plastic art’. His trips to India, especially to caves of Ajanta – Ellora, followed by those to Benaras, Gujarat and Rajasthan, made him realize his role and study Indian culture more closely, the result was ‘Bindu’, which signified his rebirth as a painter.

After the introduction of ‘Bindu’ (a point or the source of energy), he added newer dimensions to his thematic oeuvre in the following decades, with the inclusion of themes around the Tribhuj (Triangle), which bolstered Indian concepts of space and time, as well as that of ‘prakriti-purusha’ (the female and the male energy), his transformation from an expressionist to a master of abstraction and profundity, was complete.

Saison I, 1966, Abstract

Five famous works of Raza

Did you know?

Raza’s Saurashtra became India’s most expensive paintings on 10 June 2010 when it was sold for 16.42 crore ($3,486,965) at a Christie’s auction.

Awards

He was awarded the Padma Shri and Fellowship of the Lalit Kala Akademi in 1981, Padma Bhushan in 2007, and Padma Vibhushan in 2013. He was awarded the Prix de la critique in Paris in 1956, becoming the first non-French artist to receive the honour. He was also conferred with the highest French civilian honour, the Commandeur de la Legion d’honneur (Legion of Honour) on July 14, 2015.

“My work is my own inner experience and involvement with the mysteries of nature and form which is expressed in colour, line, space and light” ~S.H.Raza

Previous Editions:

To read other editions of the series, click here.

Avinash Subramaniam

Avinash has been an advertising writer, fiction writer, poetry writer, freelance writer and serial wronger. Other roles he has been in include those of an editor, brand builder, and teacher. His interests include advertising, scrabble, body building, chess, cinema, making money, reading, internet culture, cricket, photography. To hear him air his thoughts, follow him on Twitter @armchairexpert.

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