From view to vision

Print edition : September 02, 2016

Raza at work in his studio. Photo: By Special Arrangement

"Hey Ram", 2013, part of the series "Parikrama: Around Gandhi".

"Haut de Cagnes", 1951, the painting in which the dark sun first makes its poignant entry.

"View from Malabar Hill", one of Raza’s earliest paintings.

S.H. Raza’s trajectory as an artist involved the transformation of a painter struggling to construct an image into a visionary lucidly revealing what an image holds.

THE circuit of an artist’s transformation is the inscape of a time-space that turns a view into a vision. “Hey Ram” (2013), an S.H. Raza painting that forms a part of the non-representational series “Parikrama: Around Gandhi”, reveals how this reflective dimension might be realised in a material medium. In the said work, the phrase “Hey Ram” in Devanagari script appears on a murky background which could be the sky, the sea, or the pervasive spirit of the dead. The two words indeed look like a last utterance, not yet separated from the poignant act of living. They meditatively stay against a slanting wall of mud-brown paint, a field transitioning from wetness to dryness—it could be the earth or sheer human blood.

Raza saw Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi at a public meeting in Mandla, his hometown in Madhya Pradesh, when he was eight years old. There was something about that view which transcended the fleeting moment and continued to grow with the child as he took to drawing a few years later and went on to study art in Nagpur, Bombay, and then Paris, where he later set up his studios, married the French artist Janine Mongillat and lived for 60 years. Between 1950 and 2010, whenever he came to Delhi, he unfailingly visited Gandhi’s samadhi at Rajghat. As he moved to India from France in 2011, he was still reading Gandhi, now distilling his words into a charged visual idiom. Soon, he began to work on the “Parikrama” series, which included works like “Sanmati”, “Satya”, “Shanti”, “Peed Parai”, and “Hey Ram”. When the series was exhibited at the Vadehra Art Gallery in early 2014, things were coming a full circle for the nonagenarian artist whose creative life had taken a definitive turn in the wake of India’s independence.

In 1947 Raza co-founded the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG), along with K.H. Ara, F.N. Souza, M.F. Husain, H.A. Gade and S.K. Bakre. They wanted to break free from the influences of European Realism and the revivalist nationalism of the Bengal school and to create an avant-garde artistic idiom for free India to engage with the international art scene. Towards this, they drew from the works of Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, as well as from the post-Impressionist, Cubist, and Expressionist methods and styles practised in different parts of the world. Coupled with these influences was the direct encouragement of Walter Langhammer, Rudy von Leyden and Emanuel Schlesinger who, through their regular salons, familiarised the young artists in Bombay with the works of Central European artists such as Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele. It was indeed Independent India’s tryst with its artistic destiny.

All the above inspirations brought a marked difference to young Raza’s artistic practice as it was until his first solo exhibition in 1946. In one of his earliest paintings, “View from Malabar Hill”, we find the artist capturing the aerial view of the curvaceous seascape and sporadic flora punctuating high-rises. There are bright reds and yellows in the frame, and the brush strokes are lively. Yet, the brooding blues are what we are driven to take home. The dialectic of connection-disconnection with the other was already intriguing Raza, but it had not been formed into a quest. It was an encounter with Henri Cartier-Bresson which played a crucial role in Raza, changing his stylistic trajectory during this time. When they met in Srinagar in 1948, Cartier-Bresson told him: “You are a talented painter. But your work needs one element—that is construction.”

Soon, mindful of Cartier-Bresson’s remarks and heeding Walter Langhammer’s advice, Raza was thinking about construction. “Ultimately, in 1949-50, I was already constructing pictures with a lot of geometry in them,” he reminisced years later. Yashodhara Dalmia, in her book The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives (2001), says about this phase of the artist: “The houses in a painting like ‘Moonlit Night’ are geometrically arranged and create a pattern of colour and shapes.” But, of course, it was not a question of appearance alone. Raza now had to confront his own engagement with art and figure out what it truly meant for him.

The ‘other’ in oneself

Partition was indeed an impetus for the PAG’s enterprise to create a new epoch of freedom. And for Raza, it meant more than an occupational cause. The year India became independent, he lost his mother and was separated from his siblings, who chose Pakistan over India. The presence of the “other” in oneself, and the othering of one’s own presence had thus come to be a key problematique for him as an individual, a social being and an artist. This question acquired starker dimensions as he moved to Paris.

It was Cartier-Bresson who told Raza he would benefit from studying Cezanne. Determined to go to Paris, he started taking French lessons and secured a three-year scholarship offered by the French government to attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. France tantalised him with many dazzling images of exteriority, and he promptly captured in his colours its rolling countryside and charming village architecture, the tall church and the inky sky. But his life in Paris also reawakened in him his early bonding with the practices of Cézanne, Klee and Kandinsky during his PAG time in Bombay with his peers, the co-founders of the group as well as other brilliant artists who joined later, like Ram Kumar, Akbar Padamsee, Manishi Dey and Tyeb Mehta.

Now Raza became keenly aware of a pitch-black sun hanging like a hard spot of unknowing in his horizon even as the land spread itself out around him, stunning him with its order and radiance. And, soon, into the intensely geometric “Haut de Cagnes” (1951) he let this dark sun make its poignant entry.

In just two years, the artist’s subjective unknowing in “Haut de Cagnes” acquires cosmic significance in “Black Sun” (1953), whose eponymous protagonist nonchalantly introduces into the dark universe, of which it is itself a part, a plane of luminosity which resembles a child’s drawing sheet. The man-made structures within and without this radiant space exist almost accidently in relation to the scale and feel of the cosmos.

It may be noted here that his first decade in France was the only time in his career when he turned to figuration. Experimenting with new media, he did some nudes and a few paintings with human figures. This does not mean that the human was irrelevant or negligible for him. But he simply could not get stuck to the figure because his artistic enterprise and philosophical quest were to figure out the larger connections that made it possible for light to remain a particle and wave at once, for a human to be in the fretful moment of becoming and yet partake in the cosmic calm of simply being, and for a dot of space to be a visual image and simultaneously be an all-encompassing consciousness.

With his artistic aspiration, Raza began to grow unhappy and restless by the 1970s. He wanted to experience a deep authenticity in his work by moving away from “plastic art”. His trips to India during this time took him to the caves of Ajanta and Ellora, to Benaras, and to the tribal spaces of Gujarat and Rajasthan. These journeys made him see that the living India was a multicentred and continuous space—its plural voices marvellously circumnavigated all nationalist impositions of integration by interweaving their distinctive traditions, practices and stories into a spontaneous sense of camaraderie. And in medias res Raza saw light slowly turning his stony black sun of unknowing into an orb of lightness. He turned, and called the vision, the Bindu.

The Bindu came to him in the middle of his career in 1980. Until then, he was evidently quite torn between his own blurred inner vision of the universe, of which he was convinced he and his fellow beings were only a minuscule part, and its immense exteriority luring him to represent its magnificent view as his eyes viewed it. “My work is my own inner experience and involvement with the mysteries of nature and form, which is expressed in colour, line, space, and light,” he once said. But, overcoming the burdening tamas of the black sun through his circuits with the Bindu, Raza now found his organic Indian connect. India “was large; it contained multitudes”. It was this revelation that at once took Raza’s work as an artist into its master’s future and linked it securely with his past. One of the reasons that Raza attributed to the origin of the Bindu dates back to his elementary school days: the boy’s teacher Nandlal Jharia drew a big dot on the blackboard and asked him to focus on it in order to correct his lack of concentration. Later, he would see this dot undergoing numerous transformations at various stages in his artistic life until its realisation in the Bindu.

Cosmic connection

Syed Haider Raza recognised the cosmic connection between the self and the other through the advent of the Bindu, the germ that was responsible for the fecundity of the world. Ever since that hour of churning, he incessantly geometrised. On his 85th birthday, he told the art curator Uma Nair: “It has taken me more than 50 years to understand the holistic nature of the Bindu, which I believe is at the centre of all creation. It is the communion with nature that reflects the bearing and the being of the consonance with the doctrines of path.”

Raza’s words intimate us of the transformation of a painter struggling to construct an image into a visionary lucidly revealing what an image holds. From 1980, he kept adding newer dimensions to the original Bindu, with the inclusion of the triangle of space-time, the dualistic prakriti-purusa conception of matter and energy, the serpentine movement of the kundalini shakti within life’s architectures, and so on. Searching the roots of and the routes to the many-splendoured space we call India today, Raza met with innumerable ontic symbols and cosmic puzzles. He saw the coexistence of the instinctive drawings of the tribal artists, the sacred geometry of the tantrics, and the sophisticated darsanas of the ancient Indic philosophers. That explains why one would see the community spiral in Warli paintings and the notion of Swadharma in the Bhagavad Gita coexisting in Raza’s visual democracy. For him, the circular is not the opposite of the linear; it is a mere change of the latter’s form. The lyrical flows into the geometric, animating it. His words: “My search was always for the true and unforced image. Respecting all religions enriched me.”

It won’t be wrong to read Raza’s well-sung generosity as springing from this charged Bindu, which is at once an interactive zone, where one is pitted with the other through voices and colours and shapes, and a silent zone that meditatively contains it all. The poet Ashok Vajpeyi, Raza’s long-time friend and close associate, says: “It was always interesting to watch this artist religiously going to his studio every morning, to work in silence and utter solitude, and later transforming himself into a complete social being in the evening, fully in love with the beauties of life, and ready to share his time, money, ideas and energy with the others around him.”

The Bindu holds many perspectives within its motherly fold. It bursts into a spectrum of colours or a range of swaras; it retreats quietly into black, which, for Raza, was the mother of all colours, the point from where all energy in the universe emanated and into which it ultimately converged. Thus, Raza gifts the largely patriarchal world with a female sun—the kali sun. This subversive politics embedded in his artistic vision is what makes him an eternal progressive, a forever modern. He seemed to have been always guided by his inner kali sun while making choices—whether it was choosing to stay in India in the wake of Partition, or embarking on a search for India in his art at the peak of his career in Paris. With her presence as well as absence, his black mother of colours relentlessly resisted all forces of patriarchal exclusion.

Hence, at times, we find the Bindu wide open, panoramic, spilling over, or lying in myriad cross-sections, revealing the many worlds it effortlessly encompasses. Some other times, it remains closed, silently provoking the viewer to envision what all are within its well-rounded hull. It compresses time into a moment with the same ease with which it opens itself into timelessness. It tells us of the reality of appearances and of the non-reality of truth.

Two major facets of Raza’s work need to be studied in the context of the above reflection: his paradoxical lyrical-geometric preoccupation with landscape, and his simultaneous engagement with the passionate and the spiritual.

From the very beginning, landscape was at the heart of Raza’s art. While in India, he travelled from Kanyakumari to Srinagar, doing relentless studies in landscape and used his window at Express Block Studio as a vantage point to paint the aerial view of Bombay. Raza’s early landscapes bear resemblances to the expressionistic Kokoschka. His gestural brushstrokes were an intimation of his later experiments with abstraction. In Paris, he continued to paint landscapes through the 1950s, but, with the passage of time, they acquired the tones of abstract expressionism. By Raza’s own confession, his actual purpose in sailing from Mumbai to Paris was “to see the works of Cézanne”. He reminded one of Arjuna in the Mahabharata, who only saw the bird’s eye when he aimed, when he talked of Cézanne, who painted the Sainte-Victoire over 60 times from the window of his house in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France: “You must think of the mountain when you’re painting the mountain. Not the trees and the elephants and the horses.” It seems Cézanne painted Sainte-Victoire in long-views, side-views and close-ups, and with each painting he got closer to the mountain.

Subtlety of abstraction

That Raza’s landscapes had moved from the gross materiality of representation to the subtlety of abstraction is a reflection of his faith in the repetitive technique of Cézanne to go nearer and nearer to the truth. His encounter with the New York school of painters, while on a visiting professorship at the University of California at Berkeley in the summer of 1962, brought a major breakthrough in his work. The new art movements of the 1960s in the United States followed the lead of innovations by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Hans Hoffman, Adolph Frederick Reinhardt, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman and Sam Francis. Raza met many of them in the U.S. and found that there was a kindred aesthetic at work.

Raza’s practice acquires cosmo-spiritual proportions once the Bindu arrives; he was unapologetic about ceaselessly exploring its possibilities: “I have no apology for my repetition of the form of the Bindu. With repetition you can gain energy and intensity—as it is gained through the japmala or the repetition of the word or a syllable until you achieve a state of elevated consciousness. You say ‘Ram Ram Ram’ to rest your mind…. It is how you arrive at the truth.” The Bindu contains everything—it could be anything between shunya, or the void, and the beeja, the seed, which possesses the potential to give birth to all life. Hence, it was important for Raza to meditate ceaselessly on it, thus celebrating a non-linear art practice and defying the linear demands of art history.

That brings us to the second aspect of Raza’s work that needs to be understood deeply: the presence of the erotic and the sensuous in the sacred and the spiritual, and vice versa. Ashok Vajpeyi says that until his last days Raza would pray every morning before starting work —sometimes a few lines of Rilke or Rimbaud or a verse from the Gita; some other times in the form of an intensely uttered wish to sustain the fever in his heart. In his consciousness, the religious and the secular were not antithetical terms. Raza lived with the poetry of Kabir and Tuka, and in the true bhakti-sufi marga, he saw the passionate and the spiritual as inseparable. His black sun and blue moon were not opposites. His practice of art was at once iconoclastic and prayerful. He would say: “I am a romantic; I took the blue moon as my focus, as if celebrating a rare sighting.” The art critic Ranjit Hoskote brings out how Raza’s abstraction is not manifested as vairagya or renunciation, as it is often found in Indian art, but as “an embracing of sringara, a joyous reaching out to experiences”.

It is this capacity to let things cohabit in his system that makes Raza’s quest as an Indian artist and as a seeker of truth so relevant and political in our intolerant times. It is a larger ecological vision that makes coexistence of apparent opposites possible. One is reminded of the fact that Raza’s father was a forest ranger and Raza grew up on the banks of the Narmada in an area surrounded by forests. He was buried near the river, which he always referred to as Narmadaji. He was reported to have said thus about his connection with water: “I was drawn to water wherever I went. It would provide reflections for me.”

Today, S.H. Raza may have gone from our midst, but he remains, for his was a complete artistic life that transformed a fleeting view into an abiding vision. Alongside his intensely solitary studio work, he created open spaces for conversations and collaborations wherever he lived and worked. Even as he was immersed in his Parisian life and was even conferred the Commandeur de la Legion d’Honneur, the highest French honour for his artistic contributions, he did not give up his Indian citizenship and was in constant touch with his contemporaries in India through letters, and with the land and its cultures through his readings and travels. In India, he was awarded the Padma Shri and the Fellowship of the Lalit Kala Akademi in 1981, the Padma Bhushan in 2007 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2013. Raza belongs to all, and yet, to none. His creations survive him not because they have been sold for record prices, but because they belong to our future. They remind us of Plato’s terrific insight: God forever geometrises. Raza’s oeuvre forms a poornam which is not reduced even if another poornam is taken out of it. It is a priceless seed of care in our reckless, opinionated times—a timeless bindu ever growing into a full circle….

Rizio Yohannan Raj is a bilingual writer, educationist and governance thinker. She is the founder and Executive Director of LILA Foundation for Translocal Initiatives (, a cultural think-space based in Delhi, and the Creative Director of the annual IHC Indian Languages Festival, ILFSamanvay.