Among India’s dominant artists of the 20th century, Syed Haider Raza leaves a rich legacy. CC pays him a tribute.
The passing of Syed Haider Raza at the age 94 marks the closing of an era in Indian painting; it also revives threads of nostalgia for the period of early modernism in Bombay and of the six founding members of the Progressive Artists Group. From the narratives of fraternity from which the modernist history was constructed at least three members of the group - Souza, Hussain and Raza - captured the art world’s attention. In an expansive arc, aspects of modernity and indigenism were argued and fought over and possibly settled by the sheer longevity of artistic practice.
Certainly the ‘moderns’ as they came to be known and their associates, including Akbar Padamsee, Tyeb Mehta and Krishen Khanna astonished critics and market analysts by the depth of their success. In the last few years of his life, especially after the death of his wife Janine, Raza was lionized by the auction and gallery circuit, even as his Bindu forms appeared to have an endless appeal.
What is lost sight of in the sheer excesses of the market however is Raza’s inventive quest for a signature language, one that would reflect the vicissitudes of his identity, as an Indian diaspora artist, who had gained acceptance in the west even as he elaborated upon his own aesthetic and philosophical interpretations.
Born in 1922 in Mandla district, Madhya Pradesh, Raza grew up the son of a forest ranger among unspoilt forests and continuous, traditional ways of life. An apocryphal story narrates how his teacher at school taught him to focus on a dot on the wall - the potential seed of his fascination with the Bindu. Interpreted widely in Indian texts like the Lalitasahasranam, the Bindu served Raza over his long and productive career, mutating from the forbidding Black Sun of the landmark work Haut de Cagnes (1951) to the symbol of cosmic abundance that he celebrated in the later decades.
Bearing some comparisons with J. Swaminathan’s pre-modern affinity for symbols and forms, Raza kept his formal vocabulary simple and limited to primal forms such as the circle, the square, the ascending and descending triangle. In the Indian system each of these symbols is loaded with interpretive meaning and associations with the yantra. In texts like Shankaracharya’s Saundarya Lahiri for instance, each of the 100 mantras is accompanied by a yantra, establishing a poetics of form, as much as a visualization of text. Raza drew on the formal potential of this aesthetic field without committing to its symbolic associations. This allowed his work to relate to geometric abstraction as practiced by fellow artists in Europe- refer Richard Pousette Dart’s Black Circle painting series- which appear about the time that Raza nudges aside his hectic, emotive landscape and with their expressionistic swirls of colour, to allow the Bindu to dominate his painting. Possibly the paintings produced from the late 1960s through the 70s which see the engagement of the conflicted rhythms of stillness and introversion represented by the black sun and the emotional volatility of the expressionistic field are among his best. In their resistance to categorization lies their strength.
In this geometric play and increasingly towards the last few decades of his life, Raza was to draw on symbols and the poetry of modern India, with occasional Sanskritic inflexions. Perhaps this lent a sense of the embrace of time, from pre-history to the present which he would have sought for his work. There was also an unmitigated exuberance - a symptom that he shares with his close friend Krishen Khanna. Since the 1990s, and especially after his switch from oil to acrylic painting, Raza chose the colours of Jain and Pahari painting which he so admired. The tenuous fragility of his painted town of the Haut de Cagnes period of the 1950s had long been banished. The art market lionized this form of painting and to Raza’s credit, he was able to draw much value from his chosen focus. The painted circle or dot, chromatically dense and expansive served him as Naad (cosmic sound), Beej (seed) as the symbol of fertility and the cosmos itself. To these he added more entrenched symbols like the Kundalini. Raza luxuriated in this language, creating a fine balance which other artists of a similar persuasion did, with much less conviction.