Though Syed Haider Raza was out of India for six decades, not for a day was India out of his reckoning. India was where his heart always was. And to India he has now returned for good. 'Mother! What shall I fetch you when I come back home?' is a sentence he inscribed in Hindi across the lower half of one of his large canvases. The exquisite calligraphy in the Devanagari script lent the work an uncommon appeal.
It is in Paris and in Provence that Raza spent a greater part of his life in the company of his wife Janine Mongillat, a hugely talented French artist in her own right. Theirs was a mutually enriching relationship. She shared her husband's fascination for India in full measure. And he, in turn, benefited from her fine Gallic sensibilities. Her death in 2002 left him orphaned. That is when Mother India began to beckon him with an insistence he had never experienced before.
But to bid adieu to France - a country whose culture he had embraced with the fervour of a besotted suitor - was no easy matter. It had given him an exposure to some of the most uplifting creations of the artistic imagination. His real apprenticeship was not in the Ecole des Beaux Arts but in the museums and galleries of Paris. The City of Lights, home to thousands of aspiring artists from across the world, was where his work had received serious critical attention right from his very first exhibition. Over the decades, the plaudits gained in volume and eloquence. Raza had carved an enviable niche for himself.
In these circumstances, any other artist would have thought a hundred times before deciding to call it a day in France. Such a decision is fraught with both peril and promise. A nostalgia-driven return can and often does lead to disappointment. In no time at all, disappointment degenerates into despair. But a return, planned with a lucid mind and executed with circumspection can herald the start of a new and fecund process of rejuvenation -one that allows the artist to distil the experiences of a life-time into a final body of work with a sovereign disregard for fame and fortune.
The debilitating seductions of nostalgia have always been alien to Raza. For one thing, he visited India at frequent intervals. The brief sojourns gave him the opportunity to infuse vigour in his friendships; to marvel anew at familiar sights and sounds; to revel in the din and frenzy of Indian life: to discover beneath this chaos the millenarian urges and impulses of the people. He showed his latest work from time to time and soon found out that while it evoked praise and respect in the Western world, in India it generated something akin to reverence, even adulation.
Those visits also enabled him to pursue a singular passion: to encourage, support and inspire young Indian artists. At a time when hardly anyone in India, let alone abroad, believed that contemporary Indian painting had what it takes to compete in the international art market, Raza was convinced that sooner rather than later it would find its place in the sun. He proved to be prescient quite beyond his own expectations.
Another reason why he remained indifferent to the deluding charms of nostalgia was his resolve -made within months of his casting anchor in Paris in 1950 -to abide in his moral, spiritual and aesthetic choices by the time-tested traditions of Indian arts and letters, philosophies and religions, beliefs and values. In his eyes, their vitality derived from their pertinence to what he hoped to achieve in his life as in his art: to lead an existence that rose well above, and went well beyond, the philistine bondage of race and creed, community or ideological conceit. And in his art, he steadfastly followed Gandhi's famous dictum. He allowed every cultural breeze to blow through his home but took care that none swept him off his feet.
This explains how Raza's exposure to European art provided him the latitude to evolve his very own painterly syntax. To contemplate, say a work of a Cezanne or a Paul Klee, a Kandinsky, Braque or Picasso was to convince himself that these artists reached the zenith of their talents because they were able to create their distinctive world with lines and forms and colours. It is not style alone that gave their creations a cachet of greatness. They were able to tap the boundless potential of artistic endeavour to provoke thoughts and emotions rather in the manner of music. Each work was a self-contained world that defied the diktat of verisimilitude. A painting, the great French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson once told him, has to be 'constructed ' much like a poem, a cathedral, a symphony. Form was of the essence. Raza never forgot this sage piece of advice.
Armed with it, he was able to avoid the twin pitfalls of modem Indian painting. His work would not have the trappings of Oriental exotica. Nor would it be a shallow syncretism of Indian subjects projected through European art forms. No mandala and no tantra figured on his canvases. What he strove to be was, as the critic Pierre Gaudibert pointed out, "a planetary creator with local roots and cosmic antennas, a precursor to painters of the 21 st century, capable of forging all kinds of cross-fertilizations and artistic symbiosis."
The genesis of this quest can be traced to what Raza experienced since his early childhood: the fear and fascination of the dense and mysterious forests of Barbaria, the village of his birth situated on the banks of a tributary of the Narmada river in Madhya Pradesh; the teacher who drew a dot on the white-washed wall of his village school with the sharp end of a pencil and explained to him its primordial significance; the frenzy of the urban jungle of Bombay; the enigma of natural landscapes ... In tune with Georges Braque he could well say: I am more interested in unison with nature than in copying it: Indeed, according to the critic Rudolf von Leyden, what Raza retained from these sights was the flux and the fluidity of all things ephemeral. And what emerged from his canvasses was the 'serene sonority of India'.
To those who have been familiar with Raza's work for decades, none of this comes as a surprise. Just about every conversation with him is interspersed with a quote from a verse by Kabir, a psalm of Tukaram, a line from the poet Muktibodh, a folk ballad sung by the tribes of Central India, a stanza from the Rig Veda, a reference to a sculpture in Khajurao, an allusion to a fresco in Ajanta. Imperceptibly, they surface, metamorphosed, in his geometrical or sinuous forms, in colours pure or hybrid. What his work reveals, beneath its vitality and composure, is a mind forever engaged in an intense and intimate dialogue between the concrete and the specific on the one hand and on the other, the abstract and the universal. Again and again he returns to the dot his teacher drew on the wall of the village school. It is the origin of the concept of the Binduwhich is so central to his entire oeuvre -as a symbol of a seed, a grain, a rain-drop, a zero, a circle, each one pregnant with the possibility of generating other forms of life. That the circle, the purest of geometrical shapes, should hold him in such thrall is not the least bit intriguing. Back in 1937, Kandinsky had spoken about it with unmatched elegance: "A black circle --distant thunder, a world apart which seems to care for nothing and retires within itself, a conclusion on the spot. A 'Here I am!' pronounced slowly, rather coldly. A red circle --it stands fast, holds its ground, is immersed in itself. Yet it also moves; it covets another place as well as its own. It’s radiance overcomes every obstacle and penetrates into the remotest corners. Thunder and lightning together. A passionate 'Here I am!' A circle is a living wonder."
And so it is for Raza: an enclosed crucible of forms yet to take birth and lead a life of their own.
Metamorphosis is indeed his talisman: one where he is anchored in the various identities that have shaped him yet determined to transcend them. He needs no label; he belongs to no coterie; he defies a facile categorisation of his work. He is, in substance, what he is: a singular man and a singular artist who found solace in solitude, a fecund inspiration in the cultures of India and Europe, warmth and comfort in enduring friendships and, not least, joy, infinite joy, cuddled in the lap of Mother India.
In the winter of his life, Raza, now home for good, continues to work in the serene and soothing knowledge of the legacy that he will leave behind: an art that bears the imprint of an eternal India and yet is able to coexist in harmony with the art of the world at large. No longer does he need to explain himself. He can afford, at long last, to remain aloof, silent, sovereign.