The Enduring Charm of the Bindu

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Syed Haider Raza explores his lifelong motif, the traditional Indian bindu, through 14 new works on display at his latest show in London

“Yes, we do get some funny questions from visitors,” says Kajoli, the gallery assistant showing me around. She points to the information plaques pasted beneath the paintings: “That’s why we put those up.” The plaques explain various Sanskrit terms—yoni (vulva), mandala, bindu—all of which play a fundamental role in understanding and interpreting Syed Haider Raza’s work. There are, unfortunately, no other visitors at Grosvenor Vadehra on this rainy afternoon, and I’m robbed of the chance to eavesdrop on conversations or ask what people think the words mean.

At his solo show in New Delhi in 2011, aptly titled Punaragaman (Homecoming) to celebrate his move back to India from Paris, this reviewer overheard, for instance, someone call the bindu ‘The Abyss’ (no, not the movie). Although, considering Raza has been painting bindus since the early 1980s, one assumes mostly everyone has it figured out—that, in Hindu philosophy, it is the point from which creation began. It is, metaphorically speaking, the cosmic ‘egg’.

Bindu Vistaar is the 90-year-old artist’s latest body of work, commissioned by Vadehra. As its title suggests, it has 14 paintings that are meant to be an elaboration of a particular group of themes, or ‘notes’ in musical terms—in this case, the bindu.

The title painting is an expansive interplay of geometric shapes with a large black bindu in the centre of the canvas enclosed within concentric squares and triangles. The quarters at each corner contain principle forms, which Raza explores in other works as well. The colours, as usual, are startlingly vibrant and jewel-like, with a concentration of earthy brown, red and orange. On the bottom right is a pair of bindus in red and blue that represent male and female energies—close but not merging into each other.

Antar Jyoti is similarly divided into squared sections, each containing strips of colour, aligned triangles and variations of the ‘dense and solid’ bindu that characterises Raza’s earlier work. He has explained that his later bindu appeared as ‘concentric circles of energy expanding. Still later they began moving through space as the sun moves across the sky.’

There are numerous examples of this in the show Aarakta Shyam (bought by the British Museum), a large-scale work that greets you as you enter the gallery, is a striking medley of evening sunset colours. The bindu in the centre is coloured black, surrounded by concentric circles of dark red that lighten and change into waves of orange and light yellow.

In contrast, Bindu Panchatatva, arranged in the same manner, is muted and calm. Meant to represent the five elements from which all life evolves, the painting is a mellow blend of teal blue, burnt orange, mustard yellow and tan brown. The colours are beautifully blended, with hints of green, darkening as they approach the coal-black bindu centre. Similarly calming is Infinite Bindu, a steady black dot surrounded by an expanse of watercolour blue. In Sagar, the artist interprets the ocean as a space into which the bindu plummets, falling into deeper and darker waters, while Yoni shows a black triangle—presumably the female genitalia—above which a bindu is suspended ringed by concentric circles. Birth and creation run as a steady theme in Raza’s work.

In the artist’s interview featured in the exhibition catalogue, Raza explains why it is so important in his art for him to depict the seed—the ‘unit which contains all essential potentialities that can develop in the course of time in the life of plants, animals, humans’. His painting Germination illustrates this well, with a series of V-shaped colour blocks, on top of which balances a pale bindu against a delicate leaf-green background. This composition seems to mimic the emergence of a sapling from a seed.

Amid these geometric paintings, however, are a couple that hark back to Raza’s early landscape works: Tad Pan and Nature are playful collages, created from lively dabs and bold strokes of paint; they are wonderfully unhindered by pattern and shape, and seem almost like bursts of abstract expressionist rebellion against the others. If you would like to revisit Raza’s early paintings, the gallery’s basement displays his work from the 1940s to the 1980s. “We thought it would be interesting for visitors to see the vast contrast in his style,” explains Kajoli. The collection, though small, is exquisite and includes landscapes rough and rugged, textured by heavy slabs of dark paint, similar to the style of his contemporary FN Souza. In some, his switch to geometric patterns can faintly be foretold. Meanwhile, a documentary on Raza plays in a loop upstairs.

Admittedly, visiting Bindu Vistaar didn’t throw up many surprises. Raza’s style and subject matter has changed little since the early 1980s, leading to accusations of his being a little too monotonous and un-innovative. As though in response to this, a banner strung up at the Delhi show last year had the following quote: ‘I have no apology for my repetition of the form…

With repetition you can gain energy and intensity—as it is gained through the japmala (prayer beads), or the repetition of the word, or a syllable, until you achieve a state of elevated consciousness.’

I thought about his words as I walked through the gallery, and I was reminded of a retrospective I had visited recently of the works of Lucian Freud—the artist who only painted portraits. Born in the same year as Raza, he too worked well into his nineties, and although his style changed over the decades, for him, the human face had all the stories he ever wished to tell, and every history—personal or political—he ever wanted to document. Face after face, or bindu after bindu, this repetition is a chant, a prayer for timelessness.