SH Raza (1922-2016): The Point Man

SH Raza
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He was the greatest colourist of modern Indian art

WHEN SYED HAIDAR RAZA died on 23 July, at the age of 94, it seemed as if the world was suddenly awash in the colours of early sunrises over the tropics and summer sunsets of Europe. Coral and topaz, ruby and sapphire doused our computer screens and pages of newspapers. The colours were alive as they partnered with the next shade, each one giving way to the next, yet retaining their individual identity. If they seemed to be moving towards a point, they also appeared to move away from it. Geometry is essentially a creation of instruments and determined by rules of radii and angles. But with Raza they became the fancies of the hand, the concerns of the mind. In the midst of these lines and swirls of colour, there was always a point of stillness, a circle of nothingness which sucked in one’s attention and said, ‘Stop here. Stay.’ It was from that bindu that Raza’s later work arose. His abstracts in oil and acrylic had the unique ability to inspire and evoke movement and pause, freedom and restraint, confinement and space. By creating these dualities on canvas, he reminds us of the amorphous nature of beginnings and ends.

Raza best expressed his own relationship with colour in an interview: “I treated colour as if it was a life element in our body, the lines were like veins. The painted surface like flesh, geometry like the structure, like the bones in the human body... through that I could suggest the essence of living experience.”

As one of India’s best known and highest-priced modern artists, Raza’s trajectory is now the stuff of legend. He was born in Mandla district, Madhya Pradesh, to a deputy forest ranger. He would go on to join the JJ School of Art in the early 1940s, before moving to France in 1950. As one of the co-founders of the Bombay Progressive Artists Group, he would set the foundations of Indian art in the 20th century. Along with the other Progressive artists such as MF Husain , KH Ara and FN Souza, he would create a grammar of art that was Indian but not traditional, spiritual without being dogmatic and deeply aesthetic in spirit and appearance.

Raza’s abstract paintings in oil and acrylic had the unique ability to inspire and evoke movement and pause, freedom and restraint, confinement and space

The folk songs of Madhya Pradesh, the themes of the epics, the lines of Ajanta, the tumult of Bombay, the last words of Gandhi, the essence of the Rig Veda —all these echo in his work, in big and small ways.

But the influence of Europe—where he spent many decades—is not to be underplayed. In his work one can see the palette of Cezanne and the sensibility of Camus. In his amber and auburn canvases one can hear the riffs of Rilke’s poetry: ‘And from beyond a brightness helps it.../for all above become your Suns, / full and glowing, / turning round you. / But in you is already begun /what will outlast the Suns.’

While he died in Delhi after a long illness, Raza was buried on the banks of the Narmada back in his hometown Mandla, beside his father as he had desired. It is said that the bindu first came to his attention as a school student there, when his teacher asked him to focus on a black dot that he drew on the board, to stop him from fidgeting. It is only fitting that he will return to that starting point.