Home >Mint-lounge >Features >The evolution of S.H. Raza

Our limited imagination often compels us to conceive of timelines as linear. Our art historical impulses coerce us into either seeking narratives of origin, or delineating an artist’s trajectory into neat phases that can serve as mnemonic clues. Artists, on the other hand, often subvert such institutions of thought by creating work that isn’t necessarily impelled by either market demand or the intellectual underpinnings we often ascribe to them, but by what Joshua Kandinsky once referred to as “inner necessity;" and what one imagines as something purer and more integral to one’s being; a pursuit for perfection in composition, subject, and technique.

Syed Haider Raza, who passed away today, aged 94, remained driven, until the end, by some form of inner necessity. He was, for the last few years, the only living member of the legendary Progressive Artists Group and was continuing to practice his bindu-inspired work, which, though recently characterized by unstable brushstrokes, owing to the complications of old age, still contained elements of his painterly imagination which traces its origin to the early 1940s, when Raza was young, eager, impressionable, yet fiery, seething with a fierce hunger for colour.

Raza was born in 1922 in the Madala district of Madhya Pradesh, where his last rites are to be performed, in accordance with his wishes. It was when he was 12 that Raza took to drawing, eventually enrolling at the Nagpur School of Art from 1939 to 1943, and then the prestigious J.J. School of Art in Mumbai from 1943-1947, where he met some of his peers from the Progressive Artist Group.

One of his earliest works, a watercolour, View from Malabar Hill, made in the early 40s, aptly demonstrated his irrepressible quest for bold self-expression. The sky is densely grey, foreboding, and noticeably sunless; the euphoric green, signifying intermittent vegetation, punctuate the spaces between buildings; the brush strokes are exuberant; delighting in the aerial vantage point from which this gouache on paper work was painted.

Also read: The last great moderns | Syed Haider Raza

From the leafy, lyrical seascape, Raza moved into the dramatically geometric Haut de Cagnes. Seen together, the two works involve a full decade of time travel. This 1951 gouache on paper features a perfectly round black sun which dots the horizon, and yet, the landscape is ravenously, defiantly luminescent. Raza had clearly allowed photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson to intervene into his trajectory. The two had met in 1948 in Srinagar. Cartier-Bresson had questioned Raza’s style of composition. “You are a talented painter. But your work needs one element—that is construction," he had said. “With advice from (Walter) Langhammer and remarks by Bresson, I set to thinking quite a lot and ultimately, in 1949-50, I was already constructing pictures with a lot of geometry in them," Raza said years later.

Raza left for Paris in September 1950, armed with a scholarship to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Art historian Yashodhara Dalmia argues that even before he arrived on French shores, the geometric elements that would come to predominate his work were already firmly in place in the work he exhibited at the Institute of Foreign Languages at Outram Road in Bombay. “The houses in a painting like ‘Moonlit Night’ are geometrically arranged and create a pattern of color and shapes. They verge on the abstract where they occupy no specific location or time," she writes in her chapter “Journeys with the Black Sun" in her 2001 book, The Making of Modern Indian Art, The Progressives. “In the first few years in Paris, Raza painted strange uninhabited cities devoid of any human presence or location in time or space. The cubist contours of the houses are in blazing colours of red, burnt sienna, and deep black. In Haut de Cagnes, the rectilinear houses are themselves suspended in a strange space that could be situated in any place or time. The black orb above rotating in a blazing sky is an overpowering presence, looming over the intransient and unsubstantial structures below."

Two years later, Raza would complete Black Sun, a more seminal work, one that would become a very direct ancestor to the Bindu. The black orb in Haut de Cagnes would assume mythical significance in Black Sun. The canvas would come to be partitioned to allow for the twin states of darkness and light; the houses, would seem incidental to the landscape, necessary only to the point where they serve in relation to the scale and dimension of the cosmos, and to illustrate our insignificance within the boundlessness of the universe. Perhaps this is why Raza rarely engaged with the human figure. He was more concerned with reaching out to infinity through the gradient of the colour black. “Black for me is the mother colour, it represents the Mother Earth from which all life forms take birth," Raza said in a past interview.

Dalmia suggests that the works of this period were not mere formal exercises. “They inhabited a personal space that was undergoing a metamorphosis, in a no-man’s land, uprooted from the earth, searching for meaning. The savage intensity of the colors, the smouldering oranges against charred blacks speak of passionate lived experiences… The dark, smouldering sun was to shadow Raza through his life, reflecting his own persona and at the same time being reflected by it."

According to Dalmia, the trajectory of Raza’s work moves from “landscape painting to expressionism, to be succeeded by cubist paintings, which then lead to abstractions, abstract expressionism, and post-painterly abstractions," remaining, to the end, “a painter’s personal quest for expression." This art historical presumption, however, belies the possibility that perhaps landscape was always at the heart of Raza’s artistic compulsions, from the aerial views of Bombay in watercolour produced from his window at Express Block Studio around 1943, which reaches its zenith in his 1959 acrylic-on-canvas portrayal of the city flooded with the flaming colours of its bustling night life overshadowing the illumination that would have been provided by the otherwise sentinel moon that lurks at the deepest end of the horizon. The gestural brushstrokes augur his impending experiments with abstraction, into which he immersed himself when he was invited as a visiting professor to University of California at Berkeley in the summer of 1962, which was when he encountered the New York School of painters and found in the work of Hans Hermann, Mark Rothko, and Sam Francis a kindred aesthetic that would gradually infiltrate his work.

Art critic Ranjit Hoskote wisely pointed out the difference between Abstraction as it generally manifested in Indian art as vairagya, or an “impulse towards renunciation" [“The Indian abstractionist often subordinates the sensual pleasures of figure, color, and texture, to the stringencies of line, plane, and symbol," writes Hoskote.] and how it was almost defiantly practiced by Raza who demonstrated that it could articulate “an embracing of sringara, a joyous reaching out to experiences."

Raza’s work evolved in conjunction with his contemporaries, with whom he was constantly in dialogue. Richard Bartholomew, in his introduction to the catalogue for the 1973 exhibition, “Contemporary Indian Painting," that marked 25 years of Indian Independence, contextualized Raza’s landscapes in relation to his fellow practicing artists like Biren De, Ram Kumar, Souza, and Husain, among others. “In non-representational painting in India, the artist relies on the symbol. Even when the painting is implicitly landscape motivated, that is, when the pictorial situation is a resolution and restitution of impressions of the land gathered over many years, color is made to evoke the mood without the painter resorting to direct delineation. This can be seen in the mystique of S.H. Raza’s intimations of the living land or of nature revealing herself. The land is a part of nature, yet she is formed and conditioned by other aspects of nature."

Despite his move towards abstraction, and later, towards tantrism, Raza never abandoned his primary genre—landscape. In fact, he continued to transform its depiction, moving, eventually, towards an unprecedented interiority, facilitating a metamorphosis into mindscapes or inscapes. Each seminal work that, through our art historical perspective, we delineate as a shift in trajectory, or a landmark movement towards an overarching quest for the perfect composition that could encompass his spiritual aspirations and his ideological belief in the meditative act of painting, could, perhaps, be interpreted both as a rite of passage and a rite of paysage; where the aesthetic obsession with land, with earth, with all that is elemental to the cosmos and to human existence, including masculine and feminine energy, is always at the beating heart of every formal experiment. “My work is my own inner experience and involvement with the mysteries of nature and form, which is expressed in color, line, space, and light," the artist once said.

It was in a 1958 oil-on-canvas church that Raza’s experimentation with what Bartholomew referred to as “gestations of color" is revealed. Bold daubs of primary colours were used to build the church’s structure, echoing his growing obsession with non-representational paneling, which he articulates in his 1977 acrylic on canvas, a work that seems to preempt the narrative framework for the bindu to exist.

The movement, from 1956 to 1977, reflected Raza’s adamant engagement with the non-figural, his preoccupation with seeming desolation, with architectural structures as signifiers and substitutes of human existence and history. The edifice of religion was held against the cosmic infinitude of the sky; a humanizing, if not entirely humanist suggestion. Raza mediated between earth and sky, and as he evolved, colour started to assume shape, texture, and structure, and the brush strokes became the very foundation for visual significance.

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