Even if only in the short term, August 31 was a crucial day for Indian art history. On that Thursday, “Gestation”, a 1989 S.H. Raza painting, sold at a Pundole’s auction in Mumbai for Rs.51.75 crore ($6.27 million). The final price more than doubled Pundole’s original Rs.25 crore upper estimate, making “Gestation” the most expensive Indian artwork ever to be sold at an auction. “These records will keep changing hands. Before this, we sold a Gaitonde for a little less. This time, it was Raza,” says Dadiba Pundole, owner of Pundole’s. In 2022, an untitled 1969 painting by V.S. Gaitonde sold for Rs.48.3 crore.
The “Gestation” sale signals a new dynamism in the Indian art market and also a maturing. Pundole says, “Significant works don’t come around every day, but when they do, Indians can now recognise their significance.” Sonal Singh, Managing Director of Christie’s India, tells Frontline, “It is overdue that there is such a movement of prices for high quality works with excellent provenance which are increasingly hard to find.” In 2018, Raza’s large-scale “Tapovan” had sold at a Christie’s auction in New York for Rs.28 crore, and in 2010, his “Saurashtra” had sold for Rs.16.3 crore. Singh says, “There has been a lot of interest in Raza’s works for a long time—our auction of ‘Tapovan’ is an example of this. In 2010, Christie’s sold ‘Saurashtra’, which was also the world record for Indian art at the time. Raza is one of the key artists in the history of modern Indian art, and he is recognised as this at a global level.”
Also Read | Dismantling the gaze
One of Raza’s dearest friends, Hindi poet and critic Ashok Vajpeyi, who is also the managing trustee of the Raza Foundation, believes the Rs.51.75 crore tag places Raza at “the highest level of modern Indian art”. He says, “The Indian art market is barely 20 years old, and this sale only shows the market is getting bolder and more confident.” Reena Lath, director of Akar Prakar who has exhibited Raza’s work a few times, says the Indian art market is yet to fully realise its potential: “We’re not even close to the prices European masters have achieved. They have a 500-year-old market, but things move in quantum jumps. This is a step in that direction.”
“One of Raza’s dearest friends, Hindi poet and critic Ashok Vajpeyi, who is also the managing trustee of the Raza Foundation, believes the Rs.51.75 crore tag places Raza at “the highest level of modern Indian art”.”
Mumbai-based curator and writer Sumesh Sharma advocates restraint: “While we must, of course, congratulate this milestone, we must also not see it as a kind of summit. For more than a decade, Chinese modernists and masters have sold for more than $20 million. Many living artists in China have crossed the $10 million mark. Africa also has an art market that is many times larger than the Indian one. We have a long way to go.” “Gestation”, though, Sharma suggests, has an essence that exceeds commerce.
“Until recently, it was common to see Raza’s abstract landscapes being successful at auction houses. These works mirrored Western modernism and were thought of as more acceptable,” says Sharma. “But with ‘Gestation’, we see Raza having moved to geometric patterns—he uses the circle, square, and triangle. You see with this work a consciousness that is particularly Indian, where Raza decides to focus on India; a return to colourful and abstracted tribal culture.” Speaking of its large size (69 X 69 inches) Pundole says, “It has scale in its favour, but it is also a seminal work from 1989 when Raza was at his peak.”
The master colourist
Sayed Haider Raza was born on February 22, 1922, in Narsinghpur, a district of Madhya Pradesh. He grew up in the wooded district of Mandla, where his father Sayed Mohammad Raza was a forest warden. Akhilesh, an artist and Raza Foundation trustee, points out that Mandla’s forests are dense: “The sunlight hardly ever reaches the ground. One ray of light can make an object shine. I think Raza spent his life painting his childhood memories of wandering the forest. This is how he became attracted to colour, but in Raza, reds and whites have the same serenity. They are calm, quiet, stable.”
Speaking to art historian Geeti Sen in 1986, Raza said, “It is easy to talk of colour proportion—but it is very difficult to understand that two colours meet, two colours make love, two colours hate each other, that a space creates tension in relation to other colour spaces.” There is, for instance, a profusion of colour in “Gestation”, but Raza’s yellow padma and white sulka fade into his blue neelam and black Krishna. They complement more than compete. Vajpeyi calls Raza a “master colourist”. He says, “His real language was colour. Even in his geometrically organised paintings, the colours are very dominant.”
Also Read | From view to vision
The bindu, which is at the heart of “Gestation”, was a motif that first appeared in Raza’s work in the late 1970s and went on to define his output until his death in 2016. Raza once said, “The point, the bindu, symbolises the seed-bearing potential of all life. It’s also a visible form containing all the essential requisites of line, tone, colour, gesture, and space.” Akhilesh calls the bindu Raza’s “last love”. Vajpeyi adds, “The whole universe emerges from the bindu. The bindu is the centre, full of possibilities. Raza’s is a fulsome bindu, a dark sun. It is a dynamic bindu, not a static one. He was a painter of origins.” The idea that the world originates from a bindu is ostensibly Tantric, but Raza always said he didn’t intend his art to be Tantric or neo-Tantric: “I know little about tantric philosophy, and I have certainly taken this idea from various sources—perhaps also from my own living experience.”
From landscapes in the early years to townscapes after moving to France in 1950, Raza finally settled on what Vajpeyi calls the “in-scape” for the rest of his life. In 1986, Raza described his evolution as “starting from the most naturalistic landscapes, to a preoccupation with structure, composition, and then coming to the inner landscape”. To celebrate his centenary, there was a major Raza retrospective in the famed Centre Pompidou in Paris from February 15 to May 15 this year; it was the first monograph of Raza’s work in France. Christie’s Sonal Singh says, “It was an eye-opener for many. The Pompidou showing him makes everyone sit up and look at his larger body of works—and this goes for international and Indian collectors alike.”
- Sayed Haider Raza’s 1989 painting “Gestation” made auction history when it sold for Rs. 51.75 crore in August 2023.
- The “Gestation” sale signals a new dynamism in the Indian art market and also a maturing.
- To sale comes close on the heels of a major Raza retrospective in the famed Centre Pompidou in Paris from February 15 to May 15 this year; it was the first monograph of Raza’s work in France.
Rooted yet connected
Centre Pompidou collaborated with the Raza Foundation for the retrospective. According to Vajpeyi, some 62,000 people attended. “On an average, nearly 800 persons saw it every day. This was the biggest exhibition of Raza’s artistic career and also one of the first major shows of modern Indian masters in France.” Lath says the curators Catherine David and Diane Toubert wanted to present Raza “as a contemporary artist of India, not as some yesteryear modern master. They also wanted to show India in its modern context, a time when its artists were migrating.”
As Vajpeyi says, “France may have taught him to paint, but India, Raza said, taught him what to paint. Raza was trying to combine the home he left and one that he found in France. These two could only simultaneously exist in art. The Pompidou show was a reaffirmation of his transcultural existence. I feel he belonged equally to France and India.”
“There is for a profusion of colour in “Gestation”, but Raza’s yellow padma and white sulka fade into his blue neelam and black Krishna. They complement more than compete. ”
The Progressive Artists’ Group which Raza formed with F.N. Souza and K.H. Ara in 1947 had a short life, but by the time the group dissolved in 1954, its three founders and several of its members—M.F. Husain, Ram Kumar, Akbar Padamsee, Tyeb Mehta—had come into their own. Moving away from the colonial tradition of imitating reality, the PAG wanted to champion an art that was modern, one that was rooted in India but also connected to global art movements. “They did not want to revive Indian traditions,” says Vajpeyi. “They wanted to look ahead. They had a sense of rivalry between them, but there was also respect. Raza shared with Husain and Ram Kumar his love for colour. Together, these artists all introduced a celebrative element into Indian modernism.”
For Lath, members of the PAG made a difference because they were curious: “Opportunities came to the progressive artists because they wanted to step out of their comfort zone. They wanted to go out and learn about Western art. That had a big role to play.” Raza first sailed to France with Padamsee in 1950, and Ram Kumar met them in Paris. In 1985, the work of all three artists was shown at the Foundation Nationale des Arts Plastiques in Paris, along with paintings by other Indians who had a French connection—Jogen Chowdhury, Nalini Malani, Krishna Reddy. Raza said of this first exhibition of contemporary Indian painting in France, “The impact of it is much more than what people here are inclined to believe. […] Indian painting is at its best and can be projected in any museum in the world.”
A tri-religious person
Vajpeyi laments the fact that unlike the Pompidou, no Indian public institution “either at the Centre, or in Madhya Pradesh, has done anything to celebrate his birth centenary”. Though Raza, as Sharma says, “was barely aware of the Hindu-Muslim binary,” Vajpeyi believes the BJP government has ignored Raza’s 100th birthday because “he is Muslim”. He calls this “unfortunate, sad, and despicable” because “Indian art is a permanent refutation of bigotry and communalism, and Raza is a shining example of this truth”.
When Raza lived in Delhi, he visited a mosque, church, and temple every week and sat quietly in these places of worship. “He was a tri-religious person,” says Vajpeyi. “He followed Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism.” Raza’s first port of pilgrimage when he earlier visited Delhi, says Lath, used to be Gandhi Smriti or Birla House. “He would go down on his knees and put his head on that stone. The first temple for him was Gandhi’s samadhi.” Raza went to hear Gandhi at a public meeting in 1933, and several of his works—”Shanti”, “Sanmati”, “Satya”, “Hey Ram”—use abstraction to convey the essence of the Mahatma’s teachings. Raza said of Gandhi’s death: “No other incident has [caused] this acute a pain and distress in my life.”
That Raza should need to prove his patriotism is a sure sign of moral weakness that defines the times we live in, but Raza’s centenary year, says Sharma, has also benefited from the Modi government’s strengthening of its strategic relationship with France: “The Pompidou show happened in the backdrop of Modi’s visit to Paris and the sale of Rafale jets. Raza at Rs.51 crore is also an amalgamation of these other factors.” Akhilesh says Raza was not moved by money. Lath says that the artist would have smiled to hear that a painting of his had made auction history, and Vajpeyi says, “Raza’s art does not need validation from outside.” Yes, the Indian government might have ignored his centenary, but the world has just given Raza a standing ovation.