Being and nothingness

Print edition : August 19, 2016

S.H. Raza with one of his paintings in New Delhi on February 11, 2006. Photo: The Hindu Archives

The universality in the works of S.H. Raza (1922-2016) came with a quintessentially Indian sensibility.

A LITTLE under three years ago, a young woman journalist stood admiring S.H. Raza’s works at an art gallery in New Delhi and exclaimed: “Wow!” Raza asked her what was “wow” about the work. As the journalist fumbled for words, he took her by the hand, explaining the geometrical poetry of the paintings. A few minutes later she walked out clearly overwhelmed by his modesty and his words, “Art is meditation…”, still ringing in her ears.

The same evening, Raza was seen chatting to some seasoned critics. Here he expounded the virtues of modernism, how it helped shape Indian art in contemporary times, and his new-found penchant for tantrism in art. He talked of the spirituality of art, how the bindu, or dot, came to symbolise the world, and how gradually the world too was elevated to a bindu. All of them soaked themselves in the experience, keeping the words safe in their memory bank.

It is not every day that someone like Raza expresses the undercurrents of feelings beneath a placid exterior. This was no moment of inquisition for the grey-headed, hard-nosed men and women, but rather a rare opportunity to enrich their understanding of the medium from a man who spent around 60 years in Europe, learning from the craft of the post-Impressionist painter Paul Cezanne and others. Interestingly, in Paris, his imagery evolved so imperceptibly that for a layman it seemed more of the same. Yet, with each languid stroke, breeze of a line, every still dot, he was charting a new course for Indian art abroad. Those brought up on stereotypes of a riot of colours with everything Indian were surprised with Raza’s blacks. Those who thought he had been won over by the West were taken aback by his vibrant reds and an imagery that was quintessentially Indian. The meditative quality of Buddhism, the simplicity of Islam and the rich mythology of Hinduism —all combined to shape his thought process. The West was but a cherry on the cake that was Indian to the core.

Back to that evening. Once the critics stepped out, Raza, unusually generous that day, spoke at length to a few upcoming artists who were holding a group exhibition in the city and had stepped in to see Raza’s works more as pupils than as contemporaries. This time, he expounded the virtues of colour mixing and how an artist could give new life to a colour with his deft touch. His minimalism had them in quiet rapture. He spoke slowly, even haltingly. He did not always look up during the conversation, preferring to look into the distance, his thick-rimmed glasses proving to be a slight impediment. His words though were all that mattered. The artists listened in rapt attention, savouring every nugget that came their way.

When it came to Raza, it was always each to one’s own. With Raza, it was for the viewer to draw inferences. He gave one the freedom of interpretation and often goaded him or her to do some reflection, some introspection. For all the debate around cultural relativity, no work of his was bereft of myriad meanings. His width of vision and profundity of thought made debate not just likely but inevitable. Some talked animatedly of his landscapes, others of his abstracts. Still others found all the colours of life devolving in his blacks. Mostly though, they found that in shunya lay the seedbed of life.

Raza was no prisoner of monolith, but rather revelled in giving his viewers and his admirers the freedom to take away from his work what they wanted. This freedom to dissect art was beguilingly beautiful for art lovers; it made them feel part of the process. So rare was this experience that many waited for his annual trips from Paris to Bombay [now Mumbai]. Then, for a month or so, it would be celebration of art in the commercial capital; not that Raza cared much for commerce. His work “Saurashtra” sold for an astounding Rs.15.9 crore and “La Terre” for Rs.18.8 crore. Yet Raza insisted art’s value always went beyond the economics of the medium.

Many who came to his see his works in Bombay recalled the early days of Raza with F.N. Souza and M.F. Husain and how they joined hands with the likes of Hari Ambadas, Sadanand Bakre and Krishnaji Howlaji to found the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG). There was a great sense of camaraderie among the young men, their free thought in consonance with the spirit of an emerging free nation. Those were the days of rage and good cheer, values and fraternal feelings. There was little money. Love for the medium acted as an adhesive. It was a friendship that was to last much beyond the immediate days of PAG.

Raza, who went to Europe on a three-year Ecole des Beaux-Arts scholarship—and then stayed on to marry fellow art student Janine Mongillat and see from a distance a generational shift in Indian art —kept in touch with fellow artists exchanging information about the changing trends in art through long letters. The exchanges throbbed with energy; on the one hand he talked of their times together, on the other there would be attempts to unravel the emerging art scene both in Europe and India. It was no mutual admiration club; the attempt was to dissect the works. Each letter was like a canvas, the only difference being that Raza painted with words here. Of course, reading the likes of Jean-Paul Satre and Albert Camus in Paris helped Raza immeasurably.

A friend of the Husains and Tyeb Mehta(s), an art connoisseur for others, and an indulgent art teacher to upcoming journalists in the art world. Raza was that. This transformation was remarkable for a guy who took to drawing at the age of 12, enrolled in the Nagpur School of Art in 1939 before going on to the famous JJ School of Art in Bombay in 1943 and later to Paris in 1950. All along he played different roles; if at one time a chance meeting in Kashmir changed his perspective of art, at another, he remembered how no exercise is ever futile, not even something seemingly as meaningless as staring at a blank wall with a teacher looking at you from close quarters.

Virtue of silence

Raza learnt the value of a lesson imparted by a schoolteacher early in life. Not blessed with the calmness to harness the bundle of energy he was endowed with, young Raza would seldom stay still in his classroom. Until one day when his teacher pointed to a dot on the wall, asking him to concentrate on it in silence. This little exercise changed the meaning of the world for Raza, indeed his world itself. In his works Raza often expostulated on the virtues of silence. Indeed, most of his works of the late 1940s and through the 1950s had stark, rectangular houses and denuded cities with absolutely no human interference. Yet they spoke beautifully, even poignantly. Geometry came infused with meanings of life. This was the time Raza tapped within to explore newer meanings. This was also when fresh breeze from the West that came in through the window of change impressed him much.

In Paris, Raza moved away from landscapes to abstracts, attempting thereby to find a universal language. His “Black Sun”, in many ways a precursor to bindu, arrived as a seminal work around this time. It brought to the world’s attention Raza’s ability to handle darkness and light, melancholy and hope. Black, for him, was the mother colour. Yet the universality in his works came not with neatly delineated lines or the absence of human imagery, but rather with a quintessentially Indian sensibility. His strokes had an Indian spirituality; some read in them the influence of Sufism, others that of tantrism. Add that to his emphasis on Nari, Purush, Prakriti, and you understand why Raza, for all his fascination with the West, refused to be swept off his Indian feet.

His imagery, his thought process, his value system were all Indian; it is in certain strokes, certain abstraction that he transcended the barriers of geography and history. It is hardly surprising when one considers that Raza, born in Madhya Pradesh’s Babaria village in 1922 near the banks of the Narmada, addressed the river as Narmada ji. The river could not just be a stream of water; for Raza, she had life-giving properties. If one needed a totally Indian touch to his work, it came with the term Narmada ji. Then, of course, there was the not-so little bindu, the source of all life and energy. Characterised as shunya by some, void by many, it was but essentially a symbol of life-giving seed. For Raza, all life emanated from the bindu, and all life devolved into shunya, or nothingness.

On July 23, Raza passed into history. Life had come a full circle.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor