Paths go from here to there,
but don’t arrive from somewhere!
There was the river Narmada, not yet far from its origin. The dark green forests, thick with trees, rocks, birds and animals. Days drenched in bright sunlight and beauty; nights dense with darkness and fear. In a forest village called Babariya in central India, in a rural house, Sayed Haider Raza was born in the family of a forest ranger in 1922. It was an old family of Delhi which had to leave the Mughal capital after the 1857 uprising. The father was a government official managing forests. The family had retained its tradition of refinement and mutual care. Tall in physical height and lofty and generous in vision and conduct, Raza was nurtured in a caring and sensitive ethos in which strict discipline, helpfulness and single-minded pursuit were ingrained as basic values. Little did anyone, including the loving parents, know that years later, both in Bombay and in Paris, these same values would come in handy in the long and arduous struggles for both the material and the artistic survival and growth of their son. The lessons learnt in Kakaiya, Mandala and Damoh were not forgotten in Paris but were revivified and continue to remain the guiding principles for Raza as he nears his eighty-five years of life in 2007. No doubt, later many new values got added to the old baggage, but it was never abandoned nor found to be irrelevant by Raza. The journey from Kakaiya-Damoh to Bombay and, eventually, to Paris was unpredictable, full of uncertainties and anxieties. But if strong winds and tumultuous storms could not ultimately bend Raza, as a person as well as an artist, it is because he was too deeply rooted. They might have, once in a while, left marks and scars, wounds and scratches. But they could never injure his creative spirit and soul. A life that started in the ambivalence between beauty and fear, continues to contribute beauty to the realm of art and, by that token, to the world at large. Fear has subsided, if not altogether disappeared, but the dedication to beauty remains.
A lot more remains. The childhood memories of the Narmada river, its wild waters when it used to be in spate, its round stones sometimes treated and worshipped as little Shiva lingas; thick forests with the occasional humanising presence of tribal dancers around nocturnal fire; the lesson of concentrating on bindu given by an indulgent school teacher to help the wayward mind of an anxious boy. They have all been playing crucial roles in the Raza repertoire. Raza is not a nature-painter in any conventional sense. But he paints out of a deep and abiding respect for nature. If he almost reads nature in his art as also having a metaphysical text waiting to be imaginatively decoded, surely these tendencies have their origin in his having been born and brought up close to nature. Nature has also been his teacher. The lesson of joy, colour, celebration, tenacity, vastness and enormity have all come to be imbibed by Raza in the school of nature which he seemed to have joined unwittingly, and from which he never exactly came out. The long phase of his earlier career has been devoted to landscape-painting and one suspects that early childhood experiences of nature might have much to do with inspiring and sustaining that trend.
Another element which has persisted is his love for language. In a globalised world, where mother tongues are being continuously undermined, Raza has retained an unusual affection for his mother tongue, Hindi. More than half a century of living in Paris has not in any way diminished his love for and command over his original language. Following, perhaps, the well-established tradition of the Rajput and Pahari miniature paintings, Raza incorporates some or the other text in many of his paintings and it is invariably in Hindi or Sanskrit. In one of the paintings he uses verses of the Urdu poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, but inscribes them in the Devanagari script. Living in a Western metropolis, Raza has insisted on an art which is vernacular; the local, by its intensity and artistic power, transfers itself into the universal. There is hardly any other Indian painter, including the ones who live in India, who have so consistently made the verbal a part of the visual as Raza has. Raza has given his mother-tongue a rare visual expression and dignity. Even otherwise, he is a forceful speaker in Hindi as well as in French and English. It should, however, be noted that he has taken inspiration from poetry and ideas in many languages.
In the year 2006 Raza went once again to Kakaiya and Damoh. He has been continually revisiting these places over the last thirty years. For him these visits are deeply moving and emotionally charged: in some ways they are visits of gratitude and rejuvenation. As he put it almost twenty years ago, after a similar visit: ‘‘It is not a question of nostalgia. This is a very deliberate and conscious attempt to go to my own sources, as far as possible to my childhood. In fact one’s life is formed in the first few years of one’s existence.” He bends down, touches the earth, stands staring at the flowing waters of a stream, looks lovingly at the trees. He was here for almost eight years and this is, in some ways, going back to the original mystery, to the magic of seeing, touching and feeling nature, life and being itself, for the first time. It is a land of primordial images; the tribal live as much in their huts as in nature - for them the sky is the ceiling; it is the earth which nourishes them; fire, both domestic and ritualistic, cooks their meagre food and warms up their bodies to sing and dance in abandon; it is the wind that accompanies them in their hunt and it is water, their reliable nourisher and companion, that flows like eternity through time. All the five elements are active in their pristine purity. Raza may not have grasped the full import of this archetypal theatre of five elements taking place around him in his childhood, but he never quite forgot it. In later life, in his art, Panchtatva - the five elements - become a recurring theme: Raza returns not only to an old Indian concept, but also to his childhood experience. The concept, for him, exists as a sensuous visual reality, ready to reappear as memorable and abiding art. Raza’s later period art is full of these early childhood memories, resonances and images transformed into highly sophisticated art. It is unusual, if not truly amazing, that Kakaiya and other childhood villages and small towns are able to quietly intrude into the canvases that are painted in Paris and Gorbio. It is as if the art retrieves and saves as much of life and the past as it could without taking recourse to nostalgia.
Raza has been one of those who remembers his school teachers with deep gratitude and respect. “...I met teachers in Kakaiya, Mandlaandparticularly in Damoh who changed my life,” he says in acknowledgement. He invariably calls them giants and wise as the ancient rishis. They were teachers who taught him in the primary arid high schools. It is they who initiated him into language, poetry and drawing which later developed into deep and life-long passion. He feels that these teachers also gave him a lot of earthy Indian wisdom which he revisits in some ways in his later art. It would seem that Raza learnt to see nature with a Ioving and grateful eye; to appreciate the range, complexity and emotional precision of poetry and to comprehend that the Indian way of thinking posits harmony, consonance and peace in both nature and human life. He also imbibed the virtues of discipline, concentration and hard work from them. Learning in the school was further deepened by the family. His father was a liberal patriarch who ensured that his children got a firm grounding in the tenets and practice of Islam. But, more importantly, he also encouraged them to learn about other faiths, particularly Hinduism. Raza remembers, even at this ripe age, not only verses from the Holy Koran but also choupais of the Ramcharitmanas, a great and hugely popular epic of Tulsidas which narrates the story of legendary Ram in Awadhi and which is treated by Hindus in North India almost as a holy book. The father was a collector of stones rather than of money, a habit his wife made fun of, but which made Raza look at stones with awe and curiosity. He did not take to collecting stones but he has a small collection of stones, from a shaligram of the Narmada to a prehistoric stone-relic from South America. His mother was both a devoted wife and mother and gave to the children “all her affection, care and esteem.” She is recalled by her painter-son in two important canvases called “Maa” and “Aprapta Maa.” That the family had a truly liberal ethos is also evident from the fact that one of the brothers acquired proficiency in Sanskrit and joined an important Hindi daily of that time in an editorial capacity.
In school Raza was good at drawing and was encouraged by his teacher. Eventually, at the insistence of the same teacher, his parents allowed him to join the Art School at Nagpur, the then capital of the central province to which Raza belonged by birth and upbringing. Apart from drawing, he was also good at geometry. Drawing, geometry, poetry and some traditional concepts emanating from age-old wisdom of the pluralistic traditions of India, came to be deeply ingrained in the mind, and indeed, the artistic psyche of Raza from a fairly young age. They have remained an inexhaustible resource from which, particularly in his later phase, he continues to draw.
The Art School in Nagpur was structured on British academic concepts and had very little to do with either Indian reality or Indian traditions of visual arts. The training gave him skills but no vision; in any case, a kind of confusion as to how to go about painting in India. One could imitate the Western manner but creating something which was both contemporary and Indian was far from realisation.
While studying in Nagpur which he himself termed “very academic,” Raza learnt to work both in the western and traditional Indian styles in painting and stood fourth in an All-India Competition at Sir J
J School of Art, where students came from all over the country. Since his father had already retired from government service, Raza became a drawing teacher in a small town, Gondiya, in the Government Normal School. The Government of Central Provinces granted him a scholarship for studying at the J J School of Art, Bombay. He, unfortunately, arrived too late in Bombay for admission. However, he decided to stay on in Bombay to pursue his art-training rather than going back to yet another government teaching job at Akola offered to him. He also got a job as a designer in Express Block Studios. During the day he worked at the Studios and in the evening he went to Mohan Art Club to study. It was a period of hard work and challenges; Raza had to earn and learn at the same time. He recalls those days: “In retrospect, vivid memories of the years in Nagpur and Bombay come to my mind with an art-world divided between concepts of traditional Indian painting and the growing influences of European visual arts. Already in the middle of the 20th century, we were searching passionately and working in total liberty.” Raza, like many of his other contemporaries, was torn between the pressure of the Indian reality around him and the impact of western art. The Victorian academicism was woefully inadequate and the traditional Indian ways of painting left much to be desired. Although the new skills acquired were useful and necessary, a new aesthetics urgently needed a more rooted and modern vision.
That vision would take some time to emerge and grow. Meanwhile, Raza struggled hard to overcome financial difficulties and physical problems to continue to learn, discover and paint. He worked hard in the Studios which provided his livelihood, learnt at the Club and slept in the room of a taxi-driver who used to be on night-duty. An accident involving the taxi in a murder case forced Raza to abandon his night shelter and move on to the Studios where he worked through the day and then started sleeping at night. The physical distance between work and painting, between studios and shelter disappeared.
One day art would become work but that day was still quite far.
Raza, as a very young boy in Mandala, had once seen Mahatma Gandhi in 1930-31, when the latter had come to address a public meeting there as a part of his movement to get India freedom from foreign rule. He made a great impact on his young mind and, many years later, when India was free and the Mahatma was no more, he visited Sewagram where the Mahatma lived towards the later part of his life, leading the freedom struggle against the colonial British power residing in mud-made hutments with thatched roofs. Gandhiji’s devotion to and concern for the composite culture of India always inspired Raza, and when the country was partitioned at the moment of its gaining freedom from colonial yoke,
Raza decided to stay on in India, whereas his kith and kin left for the newly created Pakistan. At a young age Raza was married to a Muslim lady, Fatima, though, unfortunately they had very little in common.
It was a conventional marriage. She also left for Pakistan and wanted Raza to join her. Raza refused and a few years later they were legally divorced in 1959.
The mid-forties in Bombay, as in India, were a period of turmoil and churning. The British Empire in
India was facing its most severe challenge from the Indian people and the freedom movement led by Mahatma Gandhi, and was well on its way to leave the Indian sub-continent, free but divided. In the realm of culture, in literature and arts,theperiod marked a plurality of experiments and departures, creatively moving in many different directions, embodying new sensibilities, stressing self interrogation, asserting freedom and bold visions of reality, the human condition and aesthetics. Raza, as a young talented industrious painter, was bound to be caught in the whirlwind. The status quo, the conservative stability of academism, the emaciated spirit of a facile and imitative modernity, were all under assault and serious questioning. The historical juncture expected a new and bold response from the creative souls of that period, a daring leap into the realms of the unknown.
For the time being there was unhappiness with what appeared to be the verve-less lyricism of the Bengal school. The disenchanted youthful energy needed a bolder aesthetic, new idiom of expression and the seeking of new paths. They felt they were at the threshold of a new beginning. They knew what they did not want or approve or were not satisfied with; they were yet to discover and articulate what they wanted - that which would answer their irrepressible anxieties, artistic and social concerns and expectations. They did not want to delve in the past; they wanted to move on. Beset with countless uncertainties, they wanted to forge ahead. It was at that critical moment, both historically and artistically, that some of them came together to form the Progressive Artists’ Group. Some of the current doyens of modern Indian art were the founder-members of this loosely put-together organisation. Raza was one of them. It was a dynamic and aggressive camaraderie of artistic courage.
The Progressive Artists Group was initially thought of by three young painters Francis Newton Souza,
Sayed Haider Raza and H.A. Gade. In keeping with their joint decision, each one of them was to bring one more artist to the group. Souza brought Maqbul Fida Husain, Raza brought Bakre and Gade brought
VS Gaitonde. The group lasted for just a few years and held only one show. Souza, with his furiously
Marxist beliefs, became the ideologue who forcefully articulated the mystique of the Progressive
Artists Group, its common vision. The moment of the Group’s formation was following the lead given by the Progressive Writers’ Association in literature and by the Indian People’s Theatre Association, popularly known as IPTA, in performing arts. The search for new directions was already being pursued passionately in literature and performing arts. It was only natural that it should impact the realm of visual arts as well.
Raza was well on his way to start a career as an artist. The choice was neither easy nor, at that particular juncture, seemed prudent and practical. He was also becoming an artist in dialogue and interaction with other similarly struggling young artists. Bombay had opened him to the wealth of western art. It was the first time (and as it turned out, also the last time) in his artistic life that Raza joined a movement in art. The Progressive Artists’ Group was a loose combination and, luckily, allowed for a pluralistic approach to life and art. It was, therefore, possible for Raza to continue to refine and enrich his own style and adapt more modernistic modes. He was beginning to be not only a painter but a modern painter.
Geeta Kapur, tracing the history of Indian modernism, finds that “Of these the Bombay Progressives were the most correctly, modernist: they worked with a mandatory set of transfer motifs of the dispossessed but they offered a formalist manifesto that was to help the first generation of artists in independent India to position themselves internationally.” She also gives the Progressive Artists’ Group credit for helping towards modern art in India getting an autonomous status. Raza recalls this period as one in which artists’ were trying to orchestrate forms and colours on paper or canvas like musicians, to go beyond the theme and come to the pure painting elements in 1948, ’49 and ’50 in Bombay. That was an exciting period. He adds: “There were few people who understood what we were doing, but time has shown that the work realised in this period opened up new avenues.” There was a broad agreement amongst these artists about the importance of Rabindra Nath Tagore, Amrita Sher Gil and Jamini Roy, but there were serious differences amongst them regarding the art of the Bengal renaissance. Unlike Souza and some others, Raza had the conviction that the renaissance of art in Bengal was extremely important, not just in literature and music but in painting as well. “It was important because it brought our attention to our own culture,” he says. Evidently, it was during this period that Raza started feeling what he shared with others and what was to be his own exclusive, and perhaps lonely, domain.
He was already a landscape painter of sensitivity and competence. He was increasingly aware of the fact that while he was to be part of a venture to discover and integrate a new aesthetics for Indian art, he was to similarly put together his own artistic vision, his distinctive poetics of colour and composition.
A young man from river-side villages and small towns was fast acquiring cosmopolitan awareness, a sophistication of technique and skill, a location of attention and encouragement.
The partition of the country was an immensely traumatic experience for Raza since he had so far lived in and inherited the shared culture of both Hindus and Muslims. To him, the division of a country like India on grounds of religion was unacceptable. While recalling that “Partition was a very difficult period for us,” in 2001 Raza noted that “…we were very unhappy about it. But I decided to stay. I did and I am extremely happy that I have neither changed my name nor my religion nor my passport in spite of fifty-one years in France. I am still an Indian citizen’.
It was in Bombay in the forties that Raza also met his first promoters and collectors. They were three Jews, namely Rudy von Leyden, Prof. Walter Langhammer and Emmanuel Schlesinger. Leyden discovered Raza’s paintings “at a rather dark and dull exhibition of Art Society of India” in November 1943. The couple of lines of praise that he wrote about the paintings of Raza in his column in The Times of India marked the beginning of his critical notice, indeed of the critical appreciation of his work. Later, Leyden described him as “…a new talent that revealed itself modestly yet with a most convincing air of certainty and determination.” Raza’s entire artistic career could hardly be described better. It has been marked by three over-riding qualities - modesty, certainty and determination. He has always followed his self-chosen path and approach to art and life without insisting that they should hold good for others as well. Raza has never failed to either acknowledge or respond to other artistic view-points, alternative aesthetics, different visions and styles. In1959Leyden traced four phases in Raza’s artistic life: “The student, the adventurer, the scholar and the lover.” The phases seem to become simultaneous as Raza grew both as a man and an artist. Today, at eighty-five, Raza would readily admit to still being a student of life, nature and aesthetics; an adventurer trying to discover new aspects of visual reality behind the objective reality; a scholar who tirelessly researches elements of painterly space and composition; and a lover of life, its amazing colours and verities. Living abroad Raza has discovered for himself, and in strictly painterly terms, the vast and unending civilizational enterprise India is, and also, its inexhaustible repertoire of ideas and concepts, wisdom and insights which have inspired his later work. His is work born out of imaginative adventure, serious research and deep and abiding love. From the earlier phase of impression and expression, Raza later turned inwards and this phase could be described as one of reflection, verging on meditation and themes which are, in many ways, timeless - the objective world resonant with the spiritual realities of human existence. A world of shapes not objects, of configurations not figures. A noble world forged into being with careful economy verging on austerity. A world in quintessence, shorn of all redundancies. A world where fury enacts itself in silence and stillness. Passion is the quiet poetry of subdued colours. It has reached a point where one could say that Raza has finally pieced together his own personal classicism - it evokes a long past and yet is very much rooted in the present. It is a classicism in which the past and the present merge in a painterly space of quintessence.
The forties of the last century in Bombay were marked by the city also emerging as a major and cosmopolitan centre of art. The modern movement had emerged in many other centres through the 40s and 50s in Calcutta, Madras and Delhi. The Bombay art-scene had many artists coming from different parts of India. They included PT Reddy N S Bendre, Shivbux Chawda, Babuji Shirodkar. Aligning themselves with the Progressive Artists’ Group were the artists Akbar Padamsee, Krishen Khanna and from Delhi, Ram Kumar. The last three, along with Husain, Souza, Gaitonde and Raza, were to become important figures in the modern movement of art in India.
While as a student Raza had tried his hand at a variety of artistic expressions including portraiture and human figuration, as an artist he chose not to have human figures in his works- the human presence is evoked by its figurative absence on the canvas. Raza painted landscapes, townscapes and, what was to become his life-long theme of art, nature. He intuitively understood and tried to master what Leyden called, “the ‘constructive,’ i.e. the non-illustrative or non-representational quality of colour in painting”.
In 1948 during a visit to Kashmir, Raza met the famous French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, who after seeing his paintings, remarked: “You are talented, but I am sceptical about young talented painters. There is emotion and colour in your works but they lack construction. You should know that a painting is constructed like a building with a base, a foundation, walls, seams, roofs and only then it stands. I will advise you to study Cezanne.” These remarks had a deep impact on Raza who decided to try and go to France for further studies. This alone could enable him to see the works of Cezanne and other masters and to study them. His interest in modern French art was already considerable, and he joined Alliance Française to learn French.
Raza had been working, as mentioned earlier, in a commercial studio called ‘Express Studio,’ to earn his livelihood in Bombay. As he put it: “I was preparing for my journey not knowing what Europe was. Prof. Walter Langhammer gave me his overcoat and his shoes. Boman Behram gave me a guarantee in case I was broke in France, and the Express Block Studio’s directors, Jalil and Ashfaq Husain, paid my fare from Bombay to France”.
At that time it had not occurred to anyone, least of all to Raza himself that this was eventually going to be a journey to a country and a place, i.e. France and Paris, where Raza would come to stay for the rest of his long life. It was in France that he would grow into the master he came to be universally acknowledged as, and it was in France that his art matured to attain its unique identity and character. It should be noted that while Raza had otherwise to struggle hard, he was lucky to have always evoked appreciative response from persons who had good taste and an understanding of art. So much so, that even a chance encounter with an eminent French photographer as described earlier, led him to suggest to Raza the direction in which he thought he should move. Raza must have also realised that a certain direct exposure to the international art, particularly French and European art, could open up new possibilities for his own artistic endeavour.
You came here alone, but you create
hundreds of new worlds.
The looking itself is a trace of what we’re
Raza along with another painter, Akbar Padamsee, sailed in a ship from Bombay to Marseille and then
arrived in Paris by train on 3rd October, 1950. Another Indian painter, Ram Kumar, who was already living in Paris, received them at the railway station, Gare de Lyon. Raza was given a room in Rue Delambre in the famous district of Montparnasse, where many French and foreign painters also lived and worked.Raza says: “I do confess I loved Paris at first sight. Its buildings, the atmosphere, the charged energy; it seemed to reveal at every corner that it was marvellous and was with us.”
Coming from Bombay where there were statues of kings, administrators, industrialists, Raza was immediately struck by the statue of Balzac by Rodin -a great writer by a great sculptor in a public place - at the corner of Boulevard Raspail. The Montparnasse quarters where Modigliani, Soutine, Apollinaire, Picasso etc. had lived and worked were well-known. The first solo exhibition that Raza saw after his arrival in Paris was one of the collages by Matisse at the Maison de la Pensee Francaise. He noted that it was extraordinary, in that this art seemed to be “nearer to the Indian concepts in which we were getting interested and involved. It was not the realism of the post Renaissance period. It was solidly constructed, where colour prevailed.” Raza visited other museums to see with his own eyes the original works of masters such as Vincent Van Gogh; Cezanne’s over-orchestrated works, bringing him “from an emotional approach to art to reason”’; Ganguin, “much more oriental”; and Rousseau, “close to oriental aesthetics.”
At the Ecole Nationale desBeaux-Arts(National School of Fine Arts) where Raza was scheduled to pursue his art-studies, he enrolled himself at the recently opened studio of Edmond Heuze, a wellknown portrait painter of France. He realised that Raza was already a mature painter, coming from “a great civilisation and culture.” He asserted in modesty that Raza had “nothing to learn at this school,” but insisted that he should work and see him “at least once a week.” What truly transformed Raza, making him think anew about his own vision and style as an artist, was not so much the art-school but the highly evocative ambience of Paris, embodied in its various museums, art galleries, art-events; and also, new friends including a fellow student at the ecole, Janine Mongillat, a “very talented” person whom Raza was eventually to marry in 1959.
The museums Raza frequented included the Jeu de Paume, Musee d’ Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris,
Musee Guimet, and Musee de l’Homme. It was in these museums that he was deeply impressed and moved by some great works of art such as Vincent Van Gogh’s “L’autoportrait a l’oreille coupee,” “La
Pieta d’Avignon” attributed to Enguerrand Quarton, (Paolo Uccello’s “La Bataille de San Romano” and
Douanier Rousseau’s “La Charmeuse de Serpents.” Raza had already felt the impact of France while he was in Bombay. He admitted that France affected him -“Firstly the impressionists, post-impressionists, and later, a host of painters like Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Roualt, Chagall.”
Raza worked hard for two years, still painting in the style that he had acquired from the climate and the aesthetics at the JJ School of Art, with the assistance of Ahiwasi and the influence of Gaitonde, Shankar Palsikar etc. “The works were landscapes, cityscapes, about houses and buildings, very carefully constructed. By the time I left for Paris I was so taken up with the Indian style and Indian concepts that for two years I worked in it: landscapes, housescapes, earthscapes re-constructed.” In 1952 these works were shown along with the works of Souza and Akbar Padamsee in a gallery in Paris and were “well received.” Raza was keen to understand French culture, its subtle complexities and depths, its creative dimensions and underlying ideas. This led him to read Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Andre Malraux, Paul Valery etc. He discovered the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke and his diaries, which have remained an inexhaustible source of inspiration till now. Even now he recalls a saying of Rilke: “God give me the grace to write a few verses which will prove to myself that I am not the least or the lowest of man; that I am not in fear of those I have criticised and disliked.” And one of the “Dueno Elegies” in which the lines occur, evoking a state of silence where the uninterrupted message could be received, and which Raza uses every now and then, almost as a daily prayer by reciting parts of it in French version as he enters his studio in the morning.
Raza saw and admired a lot of theatre, ballet and opera and engaged passionately in that particularly French phenomenon, conversation with friends and others. His relative innocence was being overtaken by the richness of experience, both of life and art, of relationship and culture.
Adding to his inherent imagination and sensitivity, he was being sucked into the French way of living and was getting initiated to a clarity of thinking, to the gift of reason. He was not so much looking for elements which could be akin to India in France: rather, he was discovering for himself the fact of France, its implications and visual structures.
As advised by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Raza concentrated his studies on the vision, technique and composition of Cezanne. “I went to the museum again and again and tried to understand what, according to Cezanne, was construction”, he says. “I read Kandinsky’s book, Concerning the Spiritual in
Art, and studied which paintings, particularly in cubism, were carefully constructed. I also went to the extent of finding out what Mondrian and Vasarely had done with pure geometry and what Nicolas de
Stael did to it.”
Raza travelled far and wide in France, Italy and Spain. As Leyden has noted: “It was the art of medieval European and early renaissance that spoke to him convincingly. Byzantine painting, Romanesque sculpture and the Italian primitives...appealed to him in their austerity which was capable of conveying the most exquisite poetic sensitivity.” He was fascinated by the French countryside. He visited many places including Chartres, Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Menton, and these visits resulted in many works notably “Les Hauts de Cagnes.”
So much exposure to a new and different visual culture could have easily caused a “turbulent confusion.” However, in its place, Raza was able to attain a degree of order and a new kind of landscape started dominating his work. The works of this phase are best described in the words of the French critic Jacques Lassaigne: “... strange un-accountable works, unnamable to any traditional type of art. Timeless landscapes with no accommodation for man; uninhabited, uninhabitable cities, located beyond the confines of the earth, bathed in cold light; schematic houses stretching away in a sinuous line, suspended in the sky beneath a black sun.” The works were well-composed, painstakingly constructed; colours were used very poetically and evoked a unique mood of their own. Perhaps the style developed in Bombay was getting refined and expanded in Paris while imbibing new elements, creating some new and surprising combinations. There was wide recognition of the painterly qualities of these works which created visual and poetic images simultaneously, and also of the masterly skill Raza was already displaying in handling colour. He had come to realise “forever the importance of pictorial space as a living entity which does not just happen but has to be created.”
At a personal level Raza was getting closer to Janine Mongillat in a relationship of love, mutual respect, reciprocity and understanding. Janine was a painter who later experimented with many materials and eventually created an art form which was neither painting not sculpture but a bit of both - paintings which looked more like sculptures, sculptures which could have been painted. The scholarship of the French Government was coming to an end and Raza decided that both for his work and for his companion, Janine, he had to stay back and seek an artistic career in France. This was a difficult decision for him to take for many reasons. Firstly, he loved India and felt rooted in the country where he had chosen to stay on in spite of the fact that most of his brothers and sisters with their families had left for Pakistan after Partition; and secondly, he had discovered in Janine his life-companion and she was insisting on staying on in her native country, France. Thirdly, pursuing an artisticcareer ina city of great masters like Paris, was not going to be easy or smooth. But having decided to stay on, Raza took a plunge and immersed himself in the Parisian school of art.
Janine, besides being his wife, was also a creative and lively companion in art. She was solidly rooted in modern French life and culture and her work followed an interesting and parallel path to that of
Raza. Unlike him, who stuck to painting on canvas, Janine experimented rather boldly with different materials. She used tea-bags for creating paintings on both canvas and sculptures. She also made use of almirahs, dolls, shoes, frocks, old books, etc., to create new art-assemblages recapturing her French childhood memories, her Corsican experiences. Many of these works have monumental dimensions.
Janine, on a chance visit to Benaras, happened to come across wooden, painted toy birds which she found very fascinating. Later in Paris, she started using them in her sculptures, creating a new series of works appropriately called ’Birds of Benaras’. By using a variety of toy birds, some even without any paint on them, Janine was able to evoke an ambience which was distinctly Indian. She even used small statues of Ganesha, an Indian god, and, in a manner of speaking, paid her own tribute to India; an India to whom she was tied by marriage, love and companionship. Janine invariably accompanied Raza on his numerous visits to India and experienced the rich riot of colours, fragrances etc., that India always is. She responded to these experiences, once in a while, by making her palette very colourful and incorporating many images, memories, objects and resonances in her art. She had an independent studio next to their home-cum-studio on rue de Charonne in Paris, and participated independently in many shows held in France and elsewhere. While sometimes disapproving of Raza’s over-indulgences, Janine remained a most charming and elegant hostess with her husband and proved to be a great support to him. Raza’s keenness to build a foundation in her memory in Gorbio, which would also house some of her works, is not merely an expression of a husband’s continuing affection for a loving wife, but also an artist’s tribute to a companion-artist of notable attainments.
She stood by him firmly during many of his artistic struggles and gave him all kinds of support in his hours of need. She invariably became the first viewer of his works, and must have often had the opportunity of seeing their growth from blank canvases. Raza’s search for his distinctive identity which took him back to his Indian roots, was evidently supported by the enthusiasm of Janine for the new direction his art was to take in that search. There is no doubt that Janine’s companionship with Raza gave him physical and spiritual support and, more than anything else, gave him his own home in France, so far off from his native land.
There were some helpful occurrences. From 1952 his works were being acquired and a modest reputation had built up. In 1953 Galerie Creuze invited Raza to show in another group-show along with Souza and Padamsee. Raza was carrying on his research for knowing more about art and art-practice and discovering his own idiom and vision, furiously but quietly. He took to oil painting and this was a fundamental change. A certain ripening of knowledge and aesthetic sensibility and a maturing of his style were taking place. Even at this stage he was following his own path, which he was to more stubbornly pursue in the next half century of his life.
However, even till this point it was difficult to earn a livelihood by painting. A solid base of collectors of his works was still to take shape. Raza gave Hindi lessons to some French persons and also did commissioned work of cover-designs for a French publisher for books of some well-known writers such as Emile Zola and Edgar Allan Poe. These made him earn modestly and allowed him to continue to live and work in Paris. Not only were those days difficult, but the change that was coming in his art required him to apply himself as well. Working hard both for livelihood and art, Raza was able to complete a body of work which was shown in a solo exhibition held at Galerie Lara Vincy in 1955. The art attracted appreciative attention. Raza’s career was on the verge of a break-through. The new medium of oil painting needed to be mastered and made to reflect, indeed embody, his changing vision and approach. This was not a simple case of an Indian painter getting transformed by French ambience and art, aspiring to be a part of it: it was the complex case of an Indian artist entering the French inner circle and trying to explore it with many Indian elements, almost daring to feel like an insider, making himself vulnerable but not overwhelmed enough to give up what he had brought from outside, as it were.
Gustave Moreau, the master, wrote to his pupil, Georges Rouault (an artist Raza admired): “I can read your future. With your absolute single mindedness, your passion for work, your love of the unusual in paint structures-all your essential qualities, in fact, you will be more and more a figure on your own.”
This might as well be a description of Raza’s qualities and his future. Ultimately, he turned out to be a figure on his own.
In 1955 Galerie Lara Vincy proposed a regular contract of work to Raza, under which it would acquire his painting in advance on a monthly payment. Raza had in the meantime acquired what the French call le sens plastique’ - “‘an understanding of those pictorial elements which were fundamental in painting: problems of colour, space, and their orchestration.” A big event took place in 1956 when he won the Prix de la Critique (Critics’ Award), a very coveted award those days. He was selected out of twenty shortlisted artists by fourteen of the most important art-critics writing for French, Belgium and other foreign press in Paris. He was the first foreign painter to win it. Overnight Raza joined the galaxy of masters such as Debre, Kito, Buffet, Cesar Balduccini and Sugai. Apart from the French press, his work came to the notice of the British, German, Belgian and American press. Some of the major art galleries of Italy, Germany, Canada and the United States started looking for his works. Raza’s financial worries were beginning to get over: he could now afford to live on his art alone. Following the award, Raza had to do a show in Galerie St Placide. He did it successfully in October 1956, after being almost in hiding for three months in a room he hired in a place called Maubert, which was not known to anybody.
Raza participated in a prestigious exhibition entitled ‘Les Arts en France et dans le Monde’ (Art in France and the World) organised by the Musee d’ Art Moderne of the City of Paris. He was invited to show in the famous Biennales of Venice, Brussels and Sao Paulo. His paintings were shown in exhibitions in Tokyo, London,New Yorkand Canada.
It was now possible for Raza to travel and discover the countryside and landscape of France. He moved to a studio on the rue des Fosses Saint-Jacques, close to the Pantheon in Paris. He was acutely aware that he had to carve out a path for himself. After seeing a major exhibition of Nicolas de Stael, the first after his death, organised in a museum in Parisin the late 50s, Raza noted that Stael had gone “very abstract, very sensual, very non-realistic.” He felt: “There was a whole lot of expression to be surveyed but what was important was that ultimately you came back to yourself.” You didn’t have to paint like Cezanne, or Nicolas de Stael. For the time being, in fact, from 1954 to 1965, for more than a decade the French landscape became a dominant theme in Raza’s work. However, his landscapes also became studies of light and darkness; though the human figures were absent in each one of them, there was an intensity which did not directly evoke or embody any emotion or the presence of self, but it was obvious that these were concealed, existing on the canvases subterraneously. Raza’s art never states, it enacts: it was always evocation and escalation. Rumi had famously said ‘You are not your eyes’ and Raza has always believed in the third eye, beyond the physical retina. He seemed to have taken home Cezanne’s idea that the painter was parallel to nature, implying that art was parallel to nature, and by the same token, different from it as well.
Raza’s art had attracted the attention of many, including some important Parisian critics. One such senior critic was Waldemar George who, incidentally, had discovered Soutine and Modigliani in the 20s. Claude Roger-Marx, the critic of Le Figaro and Jacques Lassaigne, who was to become the Director of the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, wrote enthusiastically and perceptively about Raza’s art. Positive critical response to his work helped his reputation of as an artist distinct from others,grow.
In September 1959 Raza married Janine Mongillat. His search for harmony and happiness with a partner was over. For more than forty years, their artistic companionship and marriage lasted in great cordiality, deep respect, mutual love and creative togetherness. Janine was as dedicated to Raza as Raza was to her. Through her he came to further deepen his understanding of “French sensibility, the French mind, French literature.” Janine also introduced him to many complex and creative aspects of Christian thought, precepts and values. Raza had other Christian friends with whom he had a sustained interaction on matters of religion and spiritual insights and motifs. To his Indian initiation into Islamic and Hindu thought were added the Christian view-points of life, the universe, suffering and redemption. Raza became aware of many points of similarity between these three great religions as also of their radical differences. His own spirituality, which was to influence his later work in substantial ways, deepened and helped him to grow into a man full of generosity, gratitude and spontaneous warmth.
Having passed through difficult times and material tensions, Raza increasingly moved towards celebrating the great gifts of life, existence and nature. Not that he in any way distanced or withdrew from the less ennobling aspects of life and reality, nor from self-exploration; yet he sought, sometimes with passionate fury, a degree of harmony and tranquility, a deeply reflective space in his art. For him nature became almost the perfect metaphor for human nature. A happy marriage, a creative companionship, and constant dialogue with his artist-wife, helped Raza to move more decisively and confidently on the artistic path he had chosen for himself. Many elements of the dominant modernism of the Parisian school were absorbed by Raza and transformed by his brush into components of an overall intensity, a colour-fury ultimately attaining harmony. The colour-harmony achieved on the canvas was emblematic of an inner search for harmony. The emotive element in Raza’s art was an Indian legacy which he never moved away from and which, once again, qualified his kind of modernism. Though his deeper sense of Indian rootedness was to appear much later in his work, one could discern from his work at this stage that he still painted like an Indian in the Parisian school. His somewhat realistic phase, in which one could recognize churches, trees, houses and such other objects in his canvases, started fading and were soon to disappear altogether, making him take to abstraction in a major way.
Since his works had been shown in the USA and Canada, in 1962 Raza was invited to be a visiting lecturer at the University of Berkeley in California. He and his wife visited New York, its galleries and museums. Another alternative world of art was discovered by them, as also were acrylic colours, “a new technique that suited his Indian temperament better than oils.” Raza was appreciative of the art of Mark Rothko. He remarked: “I had more affinity with and regard for Mark Rothko and Hans Hofmann’s research, which were, in my opinion, not only important for American painting but also for the future development of painting all over the world.” Raza moved towards the gestural and, in his own words, “continued to pursue my work towards a gestural expression, which critics in France call lyrical abstraction.”
At the University, Raza spent three months with around fifty young students. He enjoyed the stay, and evidently, the Department of Painting at Berkeley campus found him a popular and enthusiastic teacher. He was offered an extension of his residency there as well as an invitation to come on a regular assignment. However, not feeling interested in the American “preoccupation with money, power and certain aspects of material life,” he preferred to return, “to stay and live the life of a painter in France where I had a very congenial climate for work. There were many aspects to this. Firstly the work, secondly my life, and thirdly, the fact that my wife was French.” At the invitation of the Rockefeller
Foundation Raza and Janine spent a month or so in New York and Washington before returning home.
Back in Paris, Raza had the city allot him a studio-apartment on Avenue Secretan. His restless mind was seeking “a kind of liberation from the severity of geometrical construction.” He was on his way to be more free, more resident in his artistic vision. The Parisian art-scene those days was dominated by abstract art and non-figurative painting. Raza felt his work was still somewhat figurative, in that one could discern trees, houses, churches etc. He was painting through the inspiration of nature as transformed by him. He moved towards a more fluid, more fluent style.
For nearly a decade now, Raza incorporated gestural elements in his work. More importantly, he continued to explore further possibilities ofcolour, makingcolour rather than any geometrical design or division, the pivotal element around which his paintings moved. Also, colours were not being used as merely formal elements: they were emotionally charged. Their movements or consonances on the canvases seemed more and more to be provoked by emotions, reflecting or embodying emotive content. The earlier objectivity, or perhaps the distance, started getting replaced or at least modified by an emergent subjectivity - colours began carrying the light load of emotions more than ever before.
His main works of this phase such as the well-known “L’Ete (Summer)” of 1964 and “La Source (Spring)” of 1972, could be seen to be depicting seasons at one level and, at another, exploring the emotive meaning, the unsuspected sensuousness nature invariably evokes. They are emotional essays in colour. There was passionate fury and restless reaching out to catch the essence of experiences. Via the poetry of his favourite Rilke, Raza was also realising the spiritual and metaphysical reverberations of nature that were fast becoming for him both a source and a complex text to be imaginatively and sensuously comprehended. The elements, water, earth, seasons, etc., started to attract his artistic attention, and many of them evoke childhood memories as well.
In 1970, Raza and Janine moved into their own house-cum-studio which they had started acquiring gradually a few years back. The flat was part of an old 16th century convent for nuns which stood as a protected building on the me de Charonne, close to the Boulevard Voltaire. Since Raza also longed for his “childhood days, for the forests of Madhya Pradesh,” the Razas wanted to have a village house somewhere in the south of France. They travelled far and wide trying to locate a suitable place “closer to nature, trees and mountains, water, flowers and hills.” They finally settled for Gorbio, a few kilometers from the city of Menton, close to the French-Italian border. They first moved there into a house that was a few centuries old. Later they acquired a piece of land in the same village where Raza built a new house-cum-studio. For many years now, Raza spends a few months in the summer at this house at Gorbio. Gorbio, its sylvan surroundings, tranquil and unhurried life provided both him and Janine with a very congenial ambience to live and work in peace, in total concentration, in the midst of nature. Many important works of Raza have been painted in Gorbio. It is here that, finally, in an ancient tower once built to keep vigil over possible invaders in medieval times, Raza is going to house a Raza-Mongillat Foundation which will store and display his vast collection of artifacts, antiquities, works of many Indian artists that he had acquired along with works of his own and his wife, on a permanent basis.
While Raza was discovering a summer resort for himself, his art was also in some ways rediscovering his childhood villages, colours and memories. Raza was getting himself away from the need to paint what he saw; he was now drawn more to paint what he recalled. In some ways, seeing, recalling and painting came together organically. It was not some romantic nostalgia, but Raza was torn between two worlds: the tumultuous present and the tranquil past. Beauty and fear coming together again as in the beginning of his life.
consider the sun. It’s neither
oriental nor occidental. Only the
soul knows what love is.
Self-knowledge reveals to the soul that its natural motion is not, if uninterrupted, in a straight line, but circular, as
around some inner object, about a centre, the point to which it owes its origin.
The self is a circle, whose centre is everywhere and where circumference is nowhere.
- Carl G. Jung
From 1959, when the painter Bal Chhabra organised a Raza exhibition in his art-gallery in Bombay, Raza and Janine had been visiting India to return for a while to his native places in Madhya Pradesh, and to many other undiscovered and hitherto unvisited parts of India. These visits were not only reinvigorating for Raza, they also started impacting on his work. He began to feel that he had to aesthetically assert and articulate his irrepressible Indian identity. India, at any time is a riot of colours and hues. Geeti Sen quotes the French critic Jean-Dominique Rey saying of a painting by Raza entitled “Lost Paradise”(1971) with its glowing colours and forms, as making him see “perhaps the native village of Raza.” Dr. Sen adds: “They glow with the recollection of a world once known.” From the colourful spectacles he saw and imbibed, Raza sought both a lot of inspiration as well as an endorsement, as if were, of his colourful palette. He also saw for himself that in spite of a lot of poverty and illiteracy, India was an unceasing celebration of life, humanity and nature. Raza felt attracted to the celebratory aspects of Indian life and art. He could feel that the modernist stance had sidelined the celebratory nature of art, over-loading it with turmoil, tension and dissonance. For him the moment of rehabilitation of the celebrative in art was not far.
The many visits to India also made Raza feel that living and working in France did not mean that he had distanced himself from his roots or country of origin. Physical location did not necessarily mean a spiritual and creative dislocation. In fact, he discovered that art, his art in any case, was a very satisfying way of retrieving the lost locus, the physically abandoned home. For him, hereafter, art was to be a home, reconstructed through memory, resonance and imagination. It was soon to be also his spiritual haven, a space where he could connect with the infinite, the limitless and the timeless.
Raza had always admired poetry, whether in Hindi, Urdu or French. His love for verbal beauty now started to be a part of the visual structures he so meticulously created in his painting. In India there had been a tradition of chitrakavya (picture-poetry), both in the classical and the folk traditions, of combining the verbal and the visual. In the Ragamala series in miniature painting this was a wellentrenched convention where bandishes (verbal compositions) of a particular raga were inscribed on the painting which purported to illustrate the raga. Taking a cue from this Indian convention, Raza started using lines and words from Hindi-Urdu-Sanskrit poetry and sometimes utterances in Sanskrit in Devanagari script on his canvases. This practice, which began when he was nearing fifty, has continued till this date. Much later he was to do a painting which has a whole poem of the Hindi poet Nirala - an invocation of Goddess Saraswati - inscribed on the painting in his beautiful handwriting. He has used verses ofKabir, Ghalib,Mahadevi Verma, Agyeya, Gajanan Madhav Muktiboth, Kedar Nath Singh, Faiz Ahmed Faiz etc., inscribing lines from them on paintings. The paintings structure these poetic lines into their formal organisation: they are not being illustrated in any way. They exist on the bodies of the paintings as verbal works, standing out but unobtrusively - at one level deepening the intensity of colours and, on the other, providing some kind of visual relief in the midst of the passionate fury or dynamic force of colours - a kind of a tranquil space. While there are any number of modern artists who have been inspired by poetry and have had poets as personal friends, who have done books jointly, Raza’s use of poetry in the actual body of the painting is rather unique. In his work the visual acknowledges the existence and also the autonomy of the verbal: they coexist on the painted surface in harmony and consonance, both reverberating with their own specific and mutually helpful energies.
It should also be noted that though Raza has been deeply interested in and knowledgeable about
French poetry and can count some French poets as his friends, he has never used a line of French poetry on his canvas. Since the tradition from which Raza has taken the practice is specifically Indian, he seemed to have accorded it exclusivity, a clear marker of its Indian origin. Also, it is perhaps a quiet assertion of his restless search for Indian-ness in his art. In his later phase Raza has hardly ever painted an object. In fact, objects more or less disappear in their discernible shape and form. He reduces them to their existential essence. The words of poetry from India are the only objects, verbal artifacts, that are allowed to exist; they, in fact, are invited to exist in the painting in a very discernible way. The kind of abstraction Raza has moved into has space for another kind of abstraction: the abstraction of the poetic word. One reinforcing the other. In an interview Raza has said: ‘”My understanding is that essentially the force of the words that I use on a painting, write on a painting, is very carefully designed and integrated into the painting in a formal order... But at its origin it may be a different idea…after experiments for many years in the domain of lyrical abstraction, paintings which I did were expressions in colour beyond the subject matter... my paintings do evoke themes...only suggesting and exploring.”
In 1978 Raza was invited to Bhopal to receive the State honour from the Government of Madhya Pradesh, his home state. He came with some of his new paintings which were shown in a special exhibition organised in the gallery of Madhya Pradesh Kala Parishad, the state academy for visual and performing arts. This was his first ever solo exhibition in Madhya Pradesh. He also participated in a multi-arts festival, Utsav, featuring classical music, visual arts, dance, theatre and poetry. There were many Indian forms of performing arts including classical Dhrupad music and contemporary Hindi poetry that he was listening to for the first time in his life. They made a deep impact on him. Apart from Bhopal, he was taken on a visit to Indore, Gwalior and Damoh, where he had first started drawing many decades ago. In his dairy Raza noted: “A large number of young people, students and painters came to see me. Old memories come back. When I was of this age we all had the same kind of struggle; we also used to ask similar questions; we had the same hopes, the same difficulties.” His visit evoked tremendous enthusiasm amongst young artists and the art-circles in Madhya Pradesh. His honest and candid responses, transparency and clarity aroused wide admiration. He almost became a hero who had returned home. Many were surprised to find that though Raza had lived in Paris for more than twenty-five years, he had not forgotten his mother tongue which he spoke with great felicity and creative force. In Indore he told an audience of journalists: “My story is the story of a student’s life in which in the beginning were darkness, dense darkness and restlessness. It was this restlessness which created a need for light.” In the festival there was a morning of poetry-reading arranged in the gallery where Raza’s show was already on. Raza recorded in his diary: “Who would come to see paintings, to listen to poetry so early in the morning, I thought. I forgot that just as in France everybody paints, so is poetry written in Madhya Pradesh. By 10 am the hall was packed. We were about two hundred, or even more. I have never seen something like this in Paris.”
While in India and Madhya Pradesh, some of the ideas which were to become the kernel of his later phase of art started getting crystallised. In the same diary he wrote: “Even then I saw on your forehead the same bindu which I have been seeing for years and whose powers I have only recently begun to feel.” He also noted: “Revolutions, movements, operations are unnatural. Sometimes they cannot be prevented. They are needed. Creation is the best. The same actions which are evident in natural problems are found on artistic borders: the same gestation, the same conception, the same process of being in the womb and at birth.”
All paintings of Raza from his maiden show in Bhopal were sold out. Almost a decade later when a multi-arts complex, Bharat Bhavan, was setup in Bhopal, they were transferred to its art-museum, Roopankar. They constitute perhaps one of the largest collections of Raza’s work in a public museum. Raza did not take the money he got from the sale proceeds. Instead he donated the entire amount to the Parishad for instituting an annual prize for visual arts and Hindi poetry to be given alternatively.
The Parishad, with great difficulty, persuaded him to allow it to name the prize after him. In existence for nearly three decades now, the Raza Puraskar, as it is called, has been given to several young artists and poets of Madhya Pradesh, and the list includes many who have attained considerable reputation in the meanwhile.
The well-regarded journal of criticism in Hindi, Poorvagrah, published by the Parishad, later devoted a whole special issue to Raza. It contained the most comprehensive material in Hindi on Raza and traced his artistic journey and life up to the late seventies. It also had a cover design specially done by Raza besides many of his drawings and sketches.
During the same visit when Raza went to the village school in Mandala where he started his education, he rediscovered ‘Bindu’, the black circle which his teacher had drawn many decades ago in order to make him concentrate. Raza had been wondering for a while as to how to go back to his roots, recapture some of the concepts in visual terms for modern times. He wished to integrate the essence of his life experiences, his childhood memories, the celebratory aesthetics of India with the plastic skills and sophistication hehad soassiduously learnt and imbibed in France. He wanted to return to the age-old tradition through modernity, without replacing or abandoning one for the other. He was moving towards the essentials: shorn of all redundant matter, pure and transparent. This movement was not easy or smooth. The painting was to become a kind of contemplation not only for the viewer but also for the one who created it. Art, from now on, was to be in a deep and moving way celebrative contemplation. The narrative element was to disappear almost completely: form was to become content. There are ideas and concepts behind the form but they are aesthetically transformed as inner form or reality. They do not stand out. Herbert Marcuse had declared: “The truth of art lies in its power to break the monopoly of established reality... to define what is real.” In a manner of speaking, Raza, in this highly innovative period of his art, tended to redefine what was real by breaking the monopoly of the established reality of his own previous art. During his various visits to India he had been realizing that colours have both emotive content and spiritual resonances. Though Raza denies any religious motive guiding him, his works attain an unavoidably spiritual glow.
Rajasthan, the land of deserts, miniatures and colours, is a theme to which Raza continually returns. He has never painted a traditional miniature work: instead he uses some of the dominant colours from the miniature tradition and uses them boldly on canvases which are sometimes many times larger than miniature paintings and also makes imaginative use of the divisions such paintings had of painted surfaces. It should be noted that while Madhya Pradesh, the state in which he was born and grew up, comes back in his works more subterraneously, Rajasthan, a state he loves and has visited many times, comes as a direct theme. He admits: “In my opinion, colour in Rajasthan represents ecstasy. The Jain and Rajput miniatures have always been a source of inspiration for me.”
It would have been extremely unusual if Raza had reached the final phase of peace and tranquility without passing through intense turmoil and tension. Indeed, the period before he reached his encompassing vision of ‘Bindu’ and ‘Roop Adhyatma’, Raza tried to artistically resolve the central problem of his identity as an artist.
While Raza specifically thought of the painting entitled “Maa” carrying a line of a poem as a letter to his motherland, a large part of his later work consisted as visual, largely non-verbal, letters written to the motherland from a son living far away in self-chosen exile. The Hindi, Sanskrit words actually used in some of the paintings are gentle reminders, rooted in the soil, of his existence to the motherland at a distance. The recreation and reinvention of some of the Indian concepts and images could also be seen to be visual assertions of memory and loss, of longing. It may appear a highly idealised motherland but it remains nonetheless very real, tangible, sensuously felt and aesthetically imagined.
Anyone, who is familiar with the autobiographical accounts of Raza, would know that every day before he starts to paint, whether in Paris, Gorbio or occasionally in Mumbai, he says a prayer. To quote him: “My studio work starts with a prayer. It is not asking for anything. It begets blessings or grace….I have a conviction that you cannot create art without the support of divine powers.” He has also asserted that
“Without doubt intelligence, reason and the divine energy residing on the helm of restrained fury, the inner flame, alone are the best means of artistic action.”
With time, Raza’s visits to India became more frequent and his stays longer. He was able to acquaint himself better with current trends and younger artists active on the Indian scene, to renew his old contacts and visit new places. His circle of friends and admirers in the meanwhile kept on expanding: it included not only painters and art-lovers but also many poets, writers, film-makers, dancers and musicians. Some of the rich vitality and vibrancy of the Indian art world greatly enthused him with the new and exciting direction that art was taking, and also inspired him to continue his own research. In his zeal for promoting younger artists he took to showing his works along with those of young artists, every year during his Indian stay. Over the years he has shown with Sujata Bajaj, Akhilesh, Seema Churaiya and Manish Pushkale. The shows which were well-received also underlined a major artists’ faith in youthful creativity and solidarity with the artistic struggle of young artists.
Yet Raza’s art is neither religious nor ritualistic. It is spiritual in that it evokes, embodies and explores the sacred. Surrounded by many bronze statues of Ganesh, a round stone shaligram, a Jain miniature, a copy of the Koran, Gandhiji on Gita, a wooden statue of an erotic yakshi, Raza in his studio reveals the multiple sources of his spiritual inspiration, which is no longer different from his artistic inspiration. Islam, Hinduism and Christianity all contribute towards his deep and abiding sense of the sacred. He aspires for a purity rooted in the essence, inviolate. Though a product of history like everybody else and pursuing many concerns that history imposes on those who grew up in post-war France, Raza supercedes history to reach out to an eternity where the vast cosmos is apprehended in its complex but translucent originality on a small canvas, in shapes and colours which have an almost primeval ethos. It is as if the first Vedic man is viewing existence and the earth, the sun, the world at large, come to light. It is a journey back to the beginning. To start from the original Bindu. It is reaching back to Kakaiya, a forest village in central India, far away from Paris, where even now things exist in their original earthiness.
If prayer is the way one connects across time and space with the larger cosmic existence and creates a space of communication, then Raza’s works can be seen as prayers. They are prayers which are luminous with colours, which yield light both to those who watch and to themselves: they are self-illuminated compositions. The Tibetans have a custom of hanging their prayers in the monastery written on flags or pieces of cloth. Raza paints his prayers as “Suryanamaskar,” “Kundalini,” “Bindu-Naad.” etc. They are works “suddenly set ablaze” and having an “infinite” direction.
However, there is nothing casual or arbitrary about these paintings. With his French ‘le sens plastique’ alive and active both in his mind and on his canvases, Raza composes each work meticulously and painstakingly. The geometrical shapes, the colour combinations, the tones and nuances, all are balanced in perfect harmony. There is precision: more is less. No excess, no inadequacy: The colours have a choral existence: they supplement,intensify,talk to, each other.
Raza is an artist of evocations and resonances. He invariably evokes a state of mind, an aspect of pure consciousness. He makes silence and depth speak, perhaps whisper gently. There are no human figures. Figures are seen as shapes. Shapes which are triangles, circles, squares. They constitute the elemental
geometry. If the whole universe is constituted out of five elements ‘Panchtatvas’, as the traditional
Indian belief asserts, the shapes are the tatvas, the elements of figures. The sacred has no figure, only shape and colours. The pure exists in essence.
Raza has painted many “Kundalinis”, a few “Surya Namaskars” and some “Bindu Naads.” They do not replicate each other; they resemble each other superficially but differ so vastly, that each one of them is in fact unique. In the Indian classical music a raga is performed many times and each time the same raga is new and fresh, with elements of mood, sensitivity, imagination incorporated and accentuated in entirely different, and sometimes unexpected, ways. Raza is a similar musician of abstraction. Addressed to the theme of latent or awakened energy each kundalini contains, as it were, a unique and different source of energy. Singularly concentrated the sacred is plural in Raza. These works are luminous, they are drenched in grace and they make us see what we may otherwise never come across: the painted surface as a constructed space of prayer, an illuminating residence of the possibly sacred.