The opening of Raza-100 at the Centre Pompidou in Paris is in many ways a historic milestone. With 91 of his works and more than 80 other documents on view -- including catalogues, photographs and letters -- this is the largest showing by any Indian artist in a world-class museum. Even as a bevy of Indians -- writers, gallerists, journalists -- descended on the city, Parisians responded with a heartwarming showing at the inauguration. It was in this swirling mix of Indian and French, conjoined and separate histories, that the Raza legacy unexpectedly came under scrutiny.
Critics and Raza specialists have so far read his work through the prism of the founding of the Progressive Artists Group, his migration to France, and his engagement with elements of the Yantra as a basis for a mystical or sacred geometry. Broadly, this view has been upheld by Raza’s own titling of his works as “Mandala”, “Kundalini”, “Shunya” etc., all abstract or geometrical elements which seek states of transition towards a siddhi or a heightened state of self-realization. His use of symbols and citations from texts have affirmed influences of the Indian miniature, and the sacred poetry that inspired it. Speakers at a panel organized to mark the event, however, expanded the reading of Raza’s career through divergent views. While acknowledging Raza’s overarching use of the Yantra, Roobina Karode made the persuasive proposition that geometric symbols like the Mandala, whether drawn from Hindu or Islamic traditions, were a part but not the significant conclusion of his quest. Islam, with its teaching of pure formlessness, was a powerful influence, as was Raza’s affinity to Christianity, thus making his practice richly syncretic. Karode argued that in his later years, Raza’s depleting chroma and the exclusion of symbols lead to a purer abstraction, which drew from his faith. In this manner, he worked towards a universal language, unfettered by any symbolic references.
Turning to Raza’s early years from 1943 in Bombay, up to 1955, by which time he was well-ensconced in Paris, Ashvin Rajagopalan was quick to challenge what he described as the “myths” surrounding the Raza legacy. Rajagopalan argued that through his four years of work in Bombay with the Swiss trading company Volkart, Raza’s beginnings were circumscribed as a calendar artist, in which he painted scenes from cities such as Jaipur or Benaras, possibly from photographs. His skills earned him a lot of praise in art circles, and he was also asked to create illustrations for the magazines Blitz and Caravan. Similarly, Rajagopalan averred that the famed Austrio-German troika, of Rudi von Leyden, Emanuel Schlesinger and Walter Langhammer, were engaged in a more commercial investment in the work of the Progressive artists, rather than opening up the vistas of a sweeping internationalism that they so craved.
While new research will no doubt stand the test of scrutiny, particularly in the case of a group as valorized as the Progressives, certain issues do come to the fore.
Perhaps, the most cogent concern is about the leap into the ‘modern’ so to speak, or what Chaitanya Sambrani has written of as the rush to internationalize their practices. In the case of the ex-patriate troika, the terms of engagement could be further fleshed out. Already in Europe, Oskar Kokoshka, Otto Dix, Max Beckman and George Grosz had been influential. The Vienna school and Freud had explored a psychological dimension that translated into more radical practices. While the sharing of images and prints with the enthusiastic Progressives has been broadly recorded, the extent of the troika’s influence on Raza and Souza, before they emigrated, is not clear.
Raza’s own forms of abstraction undergo several shifts in his long career, which has a fascinating trajectory. While in Bombay, his initial works are dedicated to picturesque views of timeless India and village scenes. The first burst of abstraction, that seems to rip through his landscapes in a riot of colour, comes as early as the 1940s. Over the decades, we see the organic growth of his language. In the late 1960s, there is the successful meeting of the expressionistic landscape and the order and geometry of the Yantra, until he finally accedes to a symmetry that invokes calm, even an attitude of submission, that allows the work to serve as invocation.
In the early paintings, we see that the figures are entirely notational and unindividuated, serving the kind of purpose that they did in Samuel Bourne, of delineating human presence within the greater environment. Here, the figures are virtually insignificant and are only used to hint at a populous market place or temple environs. .
My own reading of Raza is that his 1960s turn is entirely towards space and the possibilities it offers, of journeying and contemplation. Marked, cut and serrated across his canvas, in works like “Zameen” (1960) and “Red Earth” (1962), Raza perceives of Bhu or the earth as nation, as mother and as a dynamic, teeming space, accommodative of vast energies. We can only conjecture if “Red Earth” also speaks of his view of the Indo-China War of 1962, and of Raza’s emotional response, heightened by his stint at Berkeley, and the vastly underplayed influence of the American artists Mark Rothko and Sam Francis. What Raza gives us then on his canvas is a symmetrical platform; viewed horizontally, it seems to serve like the ground or nation, approximating its tensions, its borders and its divisions. This is not a natural ground, but approximates a civilizational space of settlement, traversals and migrations. From the vast platform of Mohenjo-daro, to the chabutara of the village panchayat, to the platform that surrounds the mosque, Raza lends space an elevation, to stand somewhat separate from the ground. He confers upon it the Bindu, or the black sun, darkened by an eclipse, one might conjecture, that is nevertheless insistent on its wholeness. In Islam, the black star Khatim bears witness to the Holy Prophet as the last rasool or messenger in the line of prophets that came ahead of him. Recuperating as he does the fissures and movements of the ground, Raza allows us to read his work as specific to our time.