I write these lines sitting in Mandala, a district town on the banks of the Narmada where the great painter Sayed Haider Raza was buried on 24 July 2016, as per his wishes, next to his father’s grave. Born in a small forest-village of some 10 houses, Babaria, 94-and-a-half years ago, Raza was one of the six children his parents had. He rose from the dust of Mandala and returned to dust here—he breathed his last on 23 July after a prolonged illness.

There was nothing in his humble origins to suggest that he would emerge a major artistic figure of 20th century India. He had his schooling in Damoh, and as a young man, moved to Nagpur to study art. Later, he shifted to what was then Bombay, to join the JJ School of Art. In 1950, he won a two-year French government scholarship to study painting in the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He became a professional painter there, winning the Prix de la Critique in 1956, married a French artist Janine Mongillat. Eventually he lived in Paris and in a French village named Gorbio for 60 years before returning to his home country at the end of 2010 to settle in Delhi.

Raza became an iconic figure since he combined in his art le sens plastique of France with a deeply Indian vision rooted in some of the central Indian metaphysical concepts. This was a rare case in that an artist who was a widely accepted member of the École de Paris decided to abandon that French identity to articulate and explore his own unique but undeniably Indian vision of life and aesthetics. By doing so Raza created through hundreds of paintings around bindu, kundalini, purush-prakriti, etc., a body of work which embodies an alternative Indian modernism. He was not obsessed by tension, disruptions, crisis, dissonance, and dislocations, like other modernists.

He, on the other hand, looked for, discovered and celebrated consonance, rhythm, music and colours of life and nature. In his hands, the loneliness of the modern was transformed into meditative solitude and rejuvenation of the irrepressible human will to connect; to resonate the whole universe in a dot, the bindu, the centre of energy and point of concentration.

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A master colourist, Raza was deeply influenced by the rich vibrancy and multiplicity of colourfulness of Indian life and nature. He took inspiration from the Indian miniatures and forged his own artistic geometry. A lover of Hindi poetry, he became a rare master, who has used lines of poetry from Sanskrit, Hindi and Urdu on his painted canvases in an almost forgotten miniature tradition.

Raza won many honours, including the Gold Medal of Bombay Arts Society, the Kalidas Samman of the government of Madhya Pradesh, a fellowship of the Lalit Kala Akademi, the Padma Vibhushan and the highest French civilian honour Commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur. He also became one the costliest Indian painters in his times. But honours and wealth could not ever sideline his basic nobility of the soul and irrepressible generosity. There are hundreds of young artists, poets, musicians, dancers and art writers whom Raza helped mostly at critical junctures of their artistic careers. His zest for living, loving and creating remained undiminished unto his last and he never forgot his hard days as a struggling young artist, both in Bombay and for some years in Paris. He established the Raza Foundation and funded it from the money he earned from his art to make it a major cultural initiative for helping others—both individuals and institutions. It would appear he paid back to the world and others a lot more than he took from them.

In Raza, the sensuous and the spiritual, the erotic and the metaphysical coalesce organically. Rhythms of pleasure and the choreography of ideas are in constant dialogue, as it were. Raza believed passionately that Indian modern art is distinct from Western art and deserves to be seen and appreciated as such. For him, the roots, the soil, the colours and hues, the fragrances, the shapes all constituted a spectrum which should create the artistic geography of contemporary art practice. After his final return to India the distance between living and painting, more or less, disappeared: he started living to paint, and painting to live. Raza’s life mission was to pursue his art; a whole life lived only for art. For him, art was a supreme human attainment and he practised for nearly 75 years, with passion and humility.

In an age with all kinds of fundamentalisms, Raza was a believer in the true spiritual essence of all religions. He would visit temples, churches and mosques regularly, and yet never was taken in by ritualism of any kind. In times of widespread disbelief, he asserted the importance of belief for creativity and imagination. He used to fold his hands in salutation before he finished everyday working on a canvas. In a deeper sense, his art was his ultimate religion. Through his art, he superceded, as it were, time and touched eternity.

Having lived a full and long time, he took its leave but has left a legacy of courage, vibrant imagination, nobility and humility and unfailing generosity.

Ashok Vajpeyi, former chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi, was a close friend of S.H. Raza. He is the author of Raza: A Life in Art (2007) and Yet Again: Nine New Essays on Raza (2015)

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