I met Syed Haider Raza long before he met me. In the early 1990s at a dinner party at my friends’ Rashna and Bernard Imhasly’s home in New Delhi, I was struck by the sheer magnetism of a black and white painting that hung in their dining room. Powerful in its simplicity, it consisted of a white circle on a black background with white lines emanating from it. On enquiring, I was told that this minimalistic work was the creation of the Paris-based artist Raza. Years later, I would learn that for Raza, black was the mother of all colours – the point from where all energy in the universe emanated and into which it also converged.
Who could have imagined that a young lad born on February 22, 1922, in the forest village of Babaria in Madhya Pradesh would later catapult Indian contemporary art onto the international stage? Along with Maqbool Fida Husain and Francis Newton Souza, Raza was certainly the most celebrated of the Indian Modernists.
His father was a forest ranger in Narsinghpur district and Raza grew up surrounded by forests, close to the river Narmada, which he referred to as Narmadaji. It is on the banks of this very same river that he has chosen to be buried, in close proximity to his father.
Raza’s abstract works are mired in memories of these formative years spent in the sylvan forests, close to nature. He also credited his school teachers as having a formidable influence on him, especially his headmaster who taught him to calm his restless spirit by meditating on a point, which he drew on the wall. Raza later attributed the formulation of his signature bindu to this childhood memory. The bindu variously interpreted as shunya or the void or nothingness in his works also served as a symbol of the seed which possesses the potential to give birth to all life.
After enrolling at the Nagpur School of Art, Raza got a government scholarship to study at the coveted Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art – better known as the J.J. School of Art – in Bombay. He later formed the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) in 1947 along with Souza, Krishnaji Howlaji Ara, Hari Ambadas Gade, Sadanand K. Bakre and Husain. It was a multi-cultural group that cut across ethnic and social lines. As Raza recalls, “What we had in common besides our youth and lack of means was that we hoped for a better understanding of art. We had a sense of searching and we fought the material world. There was at our meetings and discussions a great fraternal feeling, a certain warmth and a lively discussion of ideas.”
At the time of India’s independence, the narrative-figurative style of picture making was all the rage. This was perhaps understandable given that the curriculum at art colleges in the country, including at the J.J. was modelled on the lines of the Royal Academy in London. However, Indian artists such as Raza had always been exposed to indigenous traditions and ritual practices prevalent in a syncretic culture, which was an amalgam of Hindu, Islamic, Jain and Buddhist influences, and unconsciously imbibed its abstract principles.
They were also not impervious to the winds of change that blew in from the West, albeit with a time delay of about two decades. Like his peers, Raza too was exposed to the colour reproductions of creations by Western artists like Cezanne, Gauguin, Klee and Kandinsky. These tendencies were given a further fillip by the encouragement provided by the upper strata of Bombay society, which comprised European and British expatriates apart from a Westernised Indian elite. Central among them were the Jewish trio of Walter Langhammer, Rudy von Leyden and Emanuel Schlesinger who, through the soirees and salons they organised, were instrumental in familiarising the artists in Bombay with the works of Central European artists, among them Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele. Raza’s early works certainly bear influences of the expressionistic Kokoschka and depict land and cityscapes.
Raza moved to Paris in 1950 on a three year Ecole des Beaux-Arts scholarship. It is here that he would read Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Satre and the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. It is here he would follow Henri Cartier Bresson’s advice on studying the works of Cezanne and it is here that he would meet and marry a fellow art student, Janine Mongillat. For the next half century in Paris, he would explore different avenues moving from landscapes seen in works such as ‘Carcassonne‘ to exploring geometric abstraction. His works meld an emphasis on spirituality with the Indian love of vibrant colour.
My last abiding memory of Raza was on the occasion of his 92nd birthday at the French embassy. It was a very special and intimate evening, where the twin streams of art and music co-joined. Raza’s latest paintings formed the backdrop for a powerful and moving musical recital by Kalapini Komkali, Kumar Gandharva’s daughter. It was followed by the release of the book, Raza, the Journey of the Master and Geysers, a lively exchange of letters between him and his band of friends among others Husain, Tyeb Mehta, Bal Chhabda, Ram Kumar, Souza and Gaitonde. As I went to get Geysers autographed by him, he was delighted to hear that I was writing a book on his close friend and fellow abstractionist Gaitonde. This year the book, Gaitonde: Sonata of Solitude was finally published, in no small measure because of the support of the Raza Foundation.
Meerz Menezes is an art writer and critic. Her book, Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde — Sonata of Solitude, was published by Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation in 2016.