In these times of intense border controls, visa hassles and all, Sayed Haider Raza’s life is an example of a nomad whose travels across the globe enriched his art. Raza’s itinerant life included living in Nagpur, Bombay (Mumbai), Paris, California, and Delhi, towards the end of his career
BY RUKMA SALUJA
The point of existence, why we are here, where we came from, the beginning of life…most people have pondered over such weighty matters at least once in their life. These are profound questions that brains better than average have grappled with for millennia. Literature has been
written around them and religious doctrine shaped by trying to understand them.
In Indian metaphysics and philosophy, the point of origin is, well, the point—the bindu; the point at which creation begins and around which the mandala or the cosmos aligns itself; it is the source of all things. In short, it is the centre of the universe. Reams have been written about
it as debate continues. With a more scientific temperament now a participant in the discussion the terminology is the big bang and black hole.
What made Raza so fascinated with this little symbol that he came back to it time and time again? Sayed Haider Raza (1922– 2016) remains a towering figure whose retrospectives continue to draw crowds, as is the case at the exhibition at KNMA (Kiran Nadar Museum of Art), Delhi, Sayed Haider Raza Traversing Space: Here and Beyond, curated by Roobina Karode, director and chief curator, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.
On why she named it thus, she explains: “Because I think that he really moved from a very tangible and its very physical manifestations to a metaphysical world with abstraction as language but he always said that my works are not abstract, I use the language of abstraction, they are loaded with meaning and content and therefore you would also recognise a lot of his works are titled.”
Born in Madhya Pradesh before the Partition, after early education in Damoh, Nashik and Mumbai, Raza went to France to further study art. After which he travelled in Europe, painted, and held exhibitions with Paris as his base. From landscapes to abstracts, water colour to other mediums, he grew as an artist and evolved.
Villages and cities had been recurring subjects in the early works of Raza, before he started his metaphysical abstractions. These works, mainly from the KNMA collection, exhibit the young artist’s journey from an academically trained painter with realistic inclinations to one of the founding figures of modernism in India. Along with K.H. Ara and F.N. Souza, Raza co-founded the Bombay Progressives’ Art Group in 1947. The idea was to liberate Indian art from foreign influence and have artists look inward (antar gyan) for inspiration.
His early works are largely townscapes, landscapes, cityscapes. Inevitably, there came a point when he became restless and looked to change direction. This period coincided with his interest in metaphysical abstraction, the esoteric notions of feminine and masculine energies, and the
symbolism of square, triangle, circle, and most importantly, the bindu (point) which became a dominant and consistent feature in the artist’s later works.
It was in the Seventies and during his travels in India that he began to look more closely at his own Indian heritage. The bindu, for him, became the beginning, in his case the rebirth, setting him on a different style altogether. He recalled a teacher in his childhood asking him to focus on a dot on the blackboard to concentrate his attention.
Based on his childhood memory of the wilderness of tropical India where Raza was raised as the son of a forest ranger, and his deep knowledge of western Indian miniature traditions, he worked on the five primordial principles and elements of nature (panchabhutas and panchatatvas)
from the late 1970s, through his celebrated paintings like La Terre and Saurashtra. In his later years, after his move to Delhi, his works showed inspiration from Indian spirituality like the Kundalini.
That he lived to a ripe old age allowed for a rich and varied life where he collected numerous awards along the way, too many to mention here. His list of honours includes the Prix de la Critique, Paris, and the Padma Vibhushan, Government of India.
It is always difficult to fully understand art or why an artist used a particular colour or why he came back to a particular theme, or even to understand in words what his very being produced on canvas. Karode said, “When I started curating this exhibition, I realised that there still is an enigma and you cannot really know completely what an artist’s life is or what his journey is or what his preoccupations are and what desires he lives and paints. And this is something that is being uncovered, then discovered with this revisitation, I would say.”