The Layers of Coloured Silence in the Paintings of Sayed Haider Raza

The silence that Raza must have experienced in his childhood, growing up in Babaria village in Madhya Pradesh, is what suffused his works later on.

Sayed Haider Raza

Sayed Haider Raza. Credit: Facebook/Raza Foundation

The great artist S.H. Raza passed away on this day one year ago

Walking through the iron gates, one sees an uneven stretch of land dotted with tall trees, which gives way to a clearing ahead. At the edge of the clearing are two graves with small tomb-heads painted white. This is the place where Sayed Haider Raza rests beside his father. It seems as if father and son are lying on soft white sheets under a summer sky, whispering to each other about all those days spent without the other. The Shia graveyard is located in Mandla, a picturesque town on the banks of the Narmada in Madhya Pradesh.

Raza was born in Babaria village, about 30 km from Mandla, 95 years ago. His father, Sayed Mohammed Razi, was the deputy forest ranger of the district. The village, which boasted about 10 houses, was surrounded by dense forest on all sides; it was a time when the onslaught on forests had not yet begun.

One can only imagine the kind of silence Raza must have experienced in his childhood, for that silence would suffuse his works in the years to come. It was a silence born in the depths of the dense forest, its breath a constant caress on the child’s shoulders – a silence pregnant with word, a silence where word is yet to be born. In Raza’s paintings, one can sense layers and layers of coloured silence, beneath which lies the word – yet to be formed, submerged in silence.

Babaria was a forest village, that is, it was a settlement established by the forest department. Since such villages are not listed in the revenue schedule, Babaria remains an ‘unnamed’ village to date.  It would not be wrong to say that Raza was born in an unnamed, albeit real, village which was wrapped in silence. Babaria was a location yet not a location; the village did have a name yet had no name.

Raza’s paintings are very much like his village Babaria – they may have names such as  ‘Rajasthan’ or ‘Germination’, but one has to delve deep into them to discover the ways in which standardised formulations that such titles bring to mind, almost  as if they are part of a ‘schedule’ of conceptions, are subverted by the artist.

In his early years, Raza went to a school in Kakaiya, a slightly bigger village where his father was posted. He found it difficult to concentrate on studies; his mind constantly wandered. Still, there must have been something about the child that drew the teachers towards him, or else the kind of care they showered on him would not have been possible.

Raza’s wandering mind did not go entirely unnoticed by his teachers. One day, a teacher, Nandlal Jharia, drew a pencil dot on the school wall and asked Raza to stare at it for as long as he could. Like an obedient student, Raza did what was asked of him.

It might sound strange but this little, almost unnoticeable, event changed the way Raza’s mind worked. It was as if his mind had found a home in the space of a tiny dot as the last refuge of reality before its obliteration. Raza’s mind peopled the dot with all possible colours and forms, seeing reality in thousand-fold ways. Finding the dot in his life was like finding the very source of reality.

The dot, which was born, as far as Raza was concerned, on a dilapidated school wall in Kakaiya village, allowed him in his later years to give birth to innumerable realities on hundreds of canvases. His paintings move towards shedding the slightest hint of illustration, moving more and more towards inventiveness. When I reflect on Raza’s creative process, it seems to me that he first allows the absorption of entire reality into a dot, a bindu, and then witnesses its rebirth from the same bindu.

It was in Kakaiya that Raza learnt the magnificent lesson of making possible endless rebirths of reality. This is exactly what he did in endless ways throughout his creative life.

In other words, when Raza joined the Nagpur School of Art in 1939, he was already equipped with the enigmatic desire to give birth to a world of his imagination. The search to find his own way to enable this creative process took him on a tortuous journey – initially to Nagpur and Bombay and finally to Paris. It was in Paris that Raza finally delineated what his child’s mind had starting seeing in a small village in Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh.

Udayan Vajpeyi is a well-known Hindi poet, short story writer and essayist known for his writings on art, cinema and theatre.

The Raza Foundation, is organising a workshop for young artists at Mandla in Madhya Pradesh to mark his first death anniversary