Art News & Views

S. H. Raza: The Modern


by Nuzhat Kazmi

Syed Haider Raza, now resides mainly in Delhi and is in the late eighties; a Modernist who, connected the contemporary art of India, independent of the colonial rule, with that of the European ‘modernity’ as early as 1956. It is at this time, that, he won the Prix de la critique, a prestigious award in the art world. By this time he had seen and internalized in his outlook, perhaps much of what Raza saw and understood of art. The art that he found himself responsive was, indeed, neither eastern nor western but clearly was either modern or avant-garde. He had travelled most of Europe and had lived in Paris since 1950, and before that in Bombay, already a founder member of the radical Progressive Artists’ Group. He was, by this time an artist who was comfortable with his art anywhere in the world. Raza, it may be said, actually never left India, and his astute intellectual capacities, allowed him an eclectic perception that was integral to his artistic vision.

Raza was born in Babaria, Mandla district, Madhya Pradesh. His father was, the Deputy Forest Ranger of the district. Raza ascribes his early absorption in observing magical transformation of objects, as the day would end and the darkness would overwhelm the dense terrain. As also the magical quality of light that would hit the landscape as the dawn arrived. The daily drama of birds chirping and then retiring at the sunset, the heightened sense of the tactile, the visual and the audio lived as an integral being all through the years with him. He imbibed intensely all the shifting details in making of a day, light, sound, touch and smell and the visual. The elements of Nature as perceived early in life was not distinct from his natural self. And it can be said, much perhaps, because, he grew up in and around forests in the middle of India.

He created his graphic images, and he never forgets to emphasize this, with burnt wood charcoal, when still a child. Much as, I would say, every child does who can lay his hand on any such medium that can sketch his visual excitement on a surface he can find easily. Raza, must indeed have had made an impression, on all around him, as a potential ‘artist’, for he was send to the nearest art school in Nagpur. And soon he moved to Sir J.J. School of Art, Bombay, where he studied from 1943-47. In 1950, on a scholarship from the French Government, Raza was in Paris, studying at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts. He was here till 1953.

Today, and for last many years, his art is recognizably individualistic. His use of colours is distinct and he says the traditional Indian artistic traditions have always inspired him in his colour preference. The rich indigenous colour palette, largely to be seen in schools of Bundi, Basohli and Mewar, where deep strong vibrant hues of green, red and yellow dominate the visual representation. Like any child in India, even today, Raza grew on stable visual diet of Ram Leela and stories from Mahabharat and the constant presence of these in the cultural and social milieu, one way or the other. The myths, which may have originated in any part of Asia, but completely tailored to appeal to the Indian sub-continent sensibility and aspirations, were consumed by Raza. And these intellectual insights accompanied by unique Indian visual history, sustained much of Raza’s artistic enterprise, except for a short while during the early years of his stay in Paris, since 1950. Earlier works were fed by his immediate environment in the language that was realist in its objective, but was much informed by new modernist trends that were fast changing the ways of seeing for a great majority of young artists, even in Asia. Therefore, in the context of this fact, it is much easy to understand Raza’s pre-occupation as an artist more with the essence of the portrait or a landscape. This was expressed by his confident usage of strong form and line as also the colour. And less with the technique of ‘illusionism’ which he must have indeed been taught at JJ School of Art. As a colonial institution, JJ School, took pride in upholding the values of European academic art education and tried to follow it in its own curriculum. It is no wonder that Raza, with his intellectual vigour and youthful curiosity, left these virtues for more modernist idiom. Raza increasingly engaged himself with an artistic content that was honest and close to its social and cultural situation. Raza, along with other young artists, were struggling to formulate their artistic manifestoes in the wake of the independence of India from the British Raj. The Second World War had devastated the political and social fabric not only of Europe but also Asia. India, a colony in British Empire suffered heavily but also emerged triumphant in its nationalist movement and gaining the status of independent modern state, an equal amongst all nations of the world. The Bengal school of Art had played a constructive role during this nationalist fight for total independence. Now after the declaration of India as a socialist democratic republic, a need was felt by young intelligentsia, including the artists, to create a new vibrant artistic movement that spoke the language of young India. In this spirited, charged intellectual and artistic fervor was born a movement that has come to be identified as the Progressive Artists Group of Bombay. Raza was one its active members. F.N. Souza was its spokesperson along with others who understood the compelling force of modernity and its visual strength in new India. M.F. Husain, K. H. Ara, Tyeb Mehta, H.A Gade, Akbar Padamsee, Manishi Dey and S.K. Bakre were the core members with whom the PAG took up the joint effort to make Indian contemporary art modern in its content and ethos. In 1950 V.S. Gaitonde, Krishen Khanna, and Mohan Samant joined the group, following the departure from India of the two main founders Souza and Raza. Bakre also left the group and in the 1960s Sawant too left for America. The group officially disbanded in 1956. The movement itself was short lived but nonetheless a radically dynamic force that left an impression that had long lasting repercussion on the Indian modern and contemporary art.

Raza’s early art was informed by art school syllabi but soon it matured into modernist idiom that was strong, vibrant and a distinct presence. Raza spent one summer teaching in California and saw the lively delight of Pollock and the mysterious works of Rothko. Besides the individualistically treated landscape, there was good figurative content and if I may coin a new term quite portraituresque. These early works are spread all over the world but a large body of work remains in India in various private and institutional collections including the national Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. He major shift, both in term of theme and technique can be said to occur after he travelled parts of Europe and internalized a artistic impulse that was to be felt in the breathing avant-garde art in the art centers of contemporary world art. He achieved for himself recognition for his talent and was to take on himself the function of artist scholar visiting as a faculty member in educational institutions all over.

The most celebrated of Raza art series has indeed been the ‘Bindu’ informed by the Indian conceptual of Sunya or the abstract of nothingness and yet the ability to add value to whatever it is affixed. Bindu can be read as dot, the smallest unit. A line is a series of dot and therefore there is indeed no line in nature. This idea had obsessed the moderns in the west and light and line became themes of art by early Moderns. Bindu in the Indian context is the very centre of all visual representation as it’s the beginning of all visualization. It becomes the cohesive point in Raza’s colourist compositions. Bindu also becomes the consolidator of his artistic vision and it is realized on canvas by Raza in vibrant dark and deep colours. Much like, I would say, the vision that came into being for young imaginative Raza, when the lit lanterns broke open the black monotony of the darkness of a forest somewhere in the centre of India.

I have selected some works of Raza, that are shown here, that for me define his long career as a modernist, which he remains to this day. To paint like a modernist may have been, at that point of history in India much easier to some. But, to think in a modernist framework, it was essential to be an ideologue, to a great extent and that did not come so easy to anyone. F.N.Souza, the Indian artist, who was aware of the urgent need to create a forum, a movement that would articulate the artistic aspirations of the young generation. And would as well search and articulate the vision of a modern world. This required an energetic intellectual who well understood the growing international ethos of the world art, as it was emerging from the Europe in the wake of the two World Wars. Souza, a dynamic and forcefully focused, was the one to do so in Bombay around 1947, when he brought together a group of artists, all immensely individualistic. Souza, as an ideologue, clearheaded and knowledgeable of the historical implications, that were there to see, in the making of a modern state. He got Raza, Tyeb Mehta, M.F Husain together to formulate a group that held certain defined artistic beliefs and vision for their art and the practice of it. Thus was born the Progressive Artists’ Group and later it was to be associated with Bombay, as much of this group’s activities were generated in and around Bombay. However, the influence of this short lived group was indeed thunderous, much because of Souza’s articulations, writings and the publicity that they generated and inspired. Much so because of the intensity that this group was able to harness in their art and the attitude. They related to their art practice intellectually and perceived dynamically its role in the changing world. They were sensitive as to how the world has to be seen, the need to create a new vocabulary, a new ethos, while confident in retaining their immediate individual identity. And in many senses, this individual identity was indeed expressive and celebratory of the emerging identity of the young, modern nation state of India. The art of PAG group of this period is suffused with modernistic fervor but yet non-sentimental and not at all nostalgic or forlorn. It had the force of straightforwardness; and a spirit to confront and adapt any visual language, theme or content. To, acclimatize the audience to its avant-garde idiom, by the sheer force of its conviction and sincerity of artistic objectivity.

It indeed is an important insight to see for ourselves the trajectory that the sensitive eye and mind of the artist took, and to find that Raza perpetually worked ardently to transform his artistic language and eventually, his vision that he translated on the surface of his canvas. On himself and his art he has this to say, “I have never been a good student. When I was seven years old, my school teacher Nandaji Acharya made me wait after the school time, drew a dot on the black board and asked me to keep looking at it till he returned. He had realised that my mind was wandering and he wanted me to concentrate my energies and thoughts” and “Forms emerge from darkness. Their presence is perceptible in obscurity. They become relevant if their energy is oriented through vision into a live form-orchestration for which certain prerequisites are indispensable”.

“The process is akin to germination. The obscure black space is charged with latent forces asking for fulfillment. Like the universal natural order of the ‘earth-seed’ relationship, the original unit, the ‘bindu’, emerges and unfolds itself in the black space. All inherent forces unite. A vertical line intersects a horizontal line, engendering energy and light. Space is charged. Contours appear: white, yellow, red and blue, and along with the original black, they compose the colour spectrum of the visible world.”

And he is also quoted as having said, “The mysteries of form reveal themselves through light colour space perceptions. In a visible energy spectacle, certain fundamental elements are intricately interrelated and determine the nature of form. Their understanding is indispensable in any creative process. Whatever the direction art expression may take, the language of form imposes its own inner logic and reveals infinite variations and mutations. The mind can only partially perceive these mysteries. The highest perception is of an intuitive order, where all human faculties participate, including the intelligence that is ultimately a minor participant in the creative process. This stage is total bliss and defies analysis”

Raza is showing in Delhi and it is indeed an opportunity to connect with this modernist in the art that he shows here this winter. As always, Raza, is delightfully articulate and can speak with refreshing abandonment on anything including his own life and art. I still can recall the charm and fun in his conversations, years ago when he was visiting Delhi and we were at his friend Ram Kumar’s home in Janpura. Ram Kumar would make witty interventions but it was Raza who spoke most and spoke with energy and vehemence. Recently, quoting from his interview given to The Hindu, Raza said, “I was getting a lot of appreciation for my work in France and amidst all that I asked myself,”Where is India in your work Raza? What have you done is Ecole de Paris…. Bhagavad Gita tells you swadharma moving in one direction, is very important. For me painting is an inner process and the whole Hindu thought revolves around the concept of search within. There are numerous forces operating in the human mind and I often ask myself why I did Pitambara or Panch Tatva.”  However, it indeed is a revelation in Raza emotional response to colours which he appears to still associate with his native land. He says and I again quote from The Hindu interview,”India is very colourful country and why not let that reflect in my paintings? In spite of my sixty years in France, I remained connected to Indian roots, but I don’t deny the importance of my time in France…… How did I get Bindu or Panch tatva:jal, thal, paavak, gagan, sameera. It was after the immense understanding of pictorial elements which are indispensible in a painting…..In poetry, painting there are many things which are complicated and it is necessary that the artist gives an explanation of his works so that it helps people to understand.”  And this is from 25th November 2011 press print.

Raza, at eighty eight, is willing to transform with change in his immediate reality. He makes accessible to his audience his romance with colours, his many metaphors from his memory, his search for meaning in all that he encounters and his professional zeal to find meaning in all that he does. I would doubt if Raza ever moved away from the Progessive Artists’ Group. The PAG did kind of de-group, but it would be difficult to assert that the artists who had revolutionized the Indian perception of modernity in visual art ever perceived themselves as working without the manifesto of PAG still embedded in their sub conscious. The manifesto that Souza had so lovingly, fiercely worded and with which each member identified and created his art with an intellectual affinity to it.

To say that PAG was the only group that mediated modernity as it became a movement engaging ever increasing number of artists would not be a complete fact, for the reality was that modernity as it was happening in Europe was well understood in Indian artists’ circles, however, obliquely or partially. Calcutta had in its intelligentsia, as perhaps elsewhere, where critics operated on a desire and need to bring modernist sensibility to Indian artistic practices and aesthetics. However, what the PAG did in the long run was to show a courage and conviction in art practice and to enjoy the new found sense of liberation in the art domain. A clear manifesto brought them together and they shared the modernist agenda that informed their individual art practices, nearly all through their vocation. The PAG succeeded in infusing unflustered ability to depart from the past and believe in their vision to create their own visual world, and indeed be avant-garde of Indian Modern art consciously and uninhibitedly.


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