This book on S. H. Raza is a great window into his life and art

(Left) Bhoomi, 1994, acrylic on canvas, 150 × 150 cm (59 × 59 in.); and Raza at his writing table  (Courtesy: Collection: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art,  New Delhi and The Raza Foundation, New Delhi)
(Left) Bhoomi, 1994, acrylic on canvas, 150 × 150 cm (59 × 59 in.); and Raza at his writing table (Courtesy: Collection: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi and The Raza Foundation, New Delhi)


‘Raza: The Other Modern’, the companion book to an exhibit of the same name in Dubai, is a visual treat, and a solid Raza reference book to have

Sometime between the early 1920s and 1930s, when the modernist S.H. Raza was still a distractible schoolboy in Madhya Pradesh, his teacher Nandlal Jharia took him to a blank, whitewashed wall. On it, he drew a dark circle.

Is bindu par dhyaan do," he told Raza – focus on this spot. He did. After some initial difficulty, Raza could focus on nothing else. Over 30 years after that, in 1980, the iconic modernist painter would begin to make the Bindu one of his most well-known preoccupations.

This account, is vividly and wonderfully recollected and referenced in ‘The Radiating Circle’, an essay by art historian Yashodhara Dalmia in the book Raza: The Other Modern, published by Mapin in collaboration with the Progressive Art Gallery and the Delhi-based Raza Foundation.

In the same book, in another essay titled ‘Raza’s Search for Infinity’, cultural historian Geeti Sen notes how “Raza offers us no apologies for the repetition of the bindu, which explores, as it expands, the infinite possibilities of the universe."

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Published as a companion to an exhibit of the same name at the Progressive Art Gallery in Dubai, the book – rich with 103 paintings and sketches, 5 stunning photographs of the artist and three essays – is a treat. In keeping with the aim of the exhibit which runs till 31 May this year, the book, too, traces the various stages and phases of his artistic journey. This includes mapping the evolution of his work through the periods of his training in the Nagpur School of Art, the JJ School of Art, and the École Nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts; and from his brush with expressionism in the early years right up to abstraction in the later stages of his career.

While the luxurious reproductions of his paintings, sometimes spread across pages, offer the privilege of a tête-à-tête right on one’s tabletop, the book’s profound yet accessible essays afford the reader a deeply intimate learning of Raza’s life and work, which no exhibit, despite best intentions and curation can really do. 

In addition to Sen’s and Dalmia’s pieces, critic and curator Gayatri Sinha’s essay offers wide-ranging and cross-cultural insights, while director of the Progressive Art Gallery Harshvardhan Singh, and poet and managing trustee of the Raza Foundation, Ashok Vajpeyi, bookend the volume with their thoughts.

Despite having lived and worked for most of his life in France, Raza greatly influenced generations of artists in India, too, even going on to become a globally well-regarded icon. In September last year, his acrylic on canvas Gestation (1989) became the most expensive Indian artwork ever sold at an auction: it fetched Rs. 51.75 crore, breaking the record earlier held by an untitled work of V.S. Gaitonde, which had fetched Rs. 32 crore in 2020.

Raza: The Other Modern; published by Mapin Publishing, 128 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span> 1,950.
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Raza: The Other Modern; published by Mapin Publishing, 128 pages, 1,950.

The book does a great job of delineating this phenomenal appeal of Raza’s work. It helps readers learn and/or situate facets of his life and work in a larger context, helping them connect the dots both big and small. The influence of “the ‘rhythm’ of the natural forest reserves of Madhya Pradesh", which were the landscapes of his younger years, on his later abstracts, for which he drew from “nature and its essence, its deeper implications for mankind" comes through in Sen’s essay. Sinha’s piece, ‘In The Shadow of the Black Sun’, glistens with factoids like Raza’s working in book design in his years as a struggling artist.

Vajpeyi’s final piece, ‘The Last Days’, highlights the artist’s zest and activity despite and disregarding old age and frail health. It isn’t surprising given the quote from Raza’s interview with Krishen Khanna in 1987, recalled, again in Dalmia’s well-referenced essay. In it, he explains how he thinks “divine forces" are “tangible and real…they are a link between the unknown and the known" altering him “to a state of ‘unawareness’". It is in this state, he says, that his best paintings happen, “without my ever fully knowing how and why. It is a state of grace, inexplicable," Dalmia quotes Raza as saying. It is revealing of his view of art as more than work, as more than a way of expression – for Raza, art seems to have been a way of life itself, laden with both spirituality and the very purpose of existence. The book makes these thoughts, and so many more, available to interested readers.

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