Uttar Raag (Late Raag) a lyrical title attributed to the exhibition in memory of SH Raza at Triveni Kala Sangam, Delhi, collates the master artist’s much later works, between 2011-2016. In Indian classical music, a raag (melody) can be sung only at specific times of the day. In this context, uttar raag is a compilation of ragas that musicians believe have to be sung only between noon and midnight. The title in turn invokes the circle of life, symbolic of crests and troughs; and the shift in tenor, marked by the artist’s return to India, in the later phase of his life.
The gesture towards Uttar raag also evokes Uttarayan, the term which indicates a northward movement, when the sun travels, from Capricorn and Cancer. This is the period of the deep intensities of an Indian summer, the warmth of harvest, and the coming of the first rain clouds - familiar colours on Raza’s palette.
The 60 works on view include only those paintings which have been bequeathed to the Raza Foundation in a will by the late artist. Made by the nonagenarian, wheelchair bound Raza, they take the viewer through the last phase of his painterly life. The jagged lines, thick brushstrokes, the partial application of paint are rather conspicuous on some paintings, and an unfinished piece of work placed within the gallery space attest to his fading energies.
Sayed Haider Raza was born in Babariya, Madhya Pradesh in 1922. He pursued his education at the Nagpur School of Art and subsequently, the JJ School of Art, Bombay. He then went on to study at the Ecole Nationale Superierure de Beaux-Arts, Paris in 1950. It was in the year 1947 that Raza founded the Progressive Artists Group along with FN Souza, MF Husain, KH, Ara, HA Gade and SK Bakre. He lived in France for six decades and returned to India much later in 2010, and passed away in Delhi, 2016.
In these final years, Raza reworked the heavily explored bindu or the iconic dot, styles of abstraction, elements of tantra and yantra, which have been the mainspring of his inspiration. In a particularly fecund phase in the late 60s, a tumultuous landscape and his first geometric forms appeared together, like a taming of chaos, and its preternatural energies. In this exhibition, this phenomenon is pushed to its third and final stage, as the geometric structures unravel to suggest a final dissolution of form. The cosmic bindu, the ascending and the descending triangle appear to dissolve from within. The fixity of form makes way for a state of flux, and irresolution.
Raza’s pictorial language has seen many influences in the course of his long artistic journey. His artistic pursuit began with landscapes of Kashmir and dystopic habitations, moving on to expressionism, followed by abstraction and then works inspired by geometric symbolism. The assembly of paintings at Shridharani gallery draws on his wide spectrum of visual imagery, especially the motifs of the bindu, tree, inverted triangle/ yoni, snake and other elements of nature.
The significance of the bindu, a motif he absorbed in his quest for a new artistic lexicon finds deeper meaning in the works after his death. The painting Tanmay (2015) highlights a subdued bindu unlike the earlier darker, blacker, and bolder dots that dominate his works. The hues of grey, dull yellow and white are a departure from the brighter colours of the artist’s earlier years. In this painting Raza’s nebulous bindu resonates with the waning of the moon. The title Tanmay bears the sense of being engrossed or absorbed, drawing the attention of the viewer to the disquietude and restlessness in the artist’s tremulous brushstrokes. For Raza, the bindu not only provided a ‘meditative’ space but here also represents silence, stillness and transcendence.
Many of the works and their complementing titles provoke the viewer to engage with the contemplation of the unknown that may have occupied the artist’s mind. Paintings such as Achal (2015) literally meaning immovable, Turmoil (2013), Aaveg (2015) denote an urgency to pursue the imminent. The other conspicuous strand in the course of the show is a number of layered landscape paintings. It must be noted here that landscape was a central theme in the exhaustive body of work of the late artist. The painting titled Tree (2014) stands out in this regard. Colours such as olive green, mustard yellow and amber evoke the autumn season, synonymous with the shedding of leaves and cycles of change. Another painting titled Paysage (2015), delves into the same theme in an abstract depiction with an earthy palette of colours and thick brush strokes.
Known to infuse tropes of songs, text and lines from poems of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Kedarnath Singh and his friend and poet Ashok Vajpeyi, on both his canvas and for his titles, Raza’s last works take cue from ancient texts and contemporary poetry. In this particular exhibition, few lines from one of actor singer KL Saigal’s songs are used in the work titled Ghat Ka Pathar (2010). The works can thus be read both as a celebration of life as well as the anticipation of the inevitable.