An Indian Modern artist and founding member of the historic Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG), Sayed Haider Raza is best remembered for his geometric abstract paintings drawing on Indian spiritual and philosophical traditions, particularly that of Tantrism. Raza painted landscapes and cityscapes in various styles before exploring the themes of nature and cosmology through colour symbolism and basic shapes, focusing particularly on the bindu — ‘point’ or ‘dot’ in Sanskrit. Living and working largely in Paris, he also distilled in his work the influences of Pahari and Rajasthani miniature painting, Indian poetry and meditative practices, as well as his own childhood experience of the central Indian forests, expressing these through a mastery of colour. Initially working with watercolour and gouache, he moved to oil and eventually acrylic paints over the course of his seven-decade-long career.
Raza was born in 1922 in the remote village of Babaria in present-day Madhya Pradesh, where his father was a forest ranger. His experience of close proximity with the rivers and dense forests of central India until the age of thirteen shaped his psyche and artistic sensibility, and one of his first teachers introduced the bindu to him as a focus for concentration. The family then moved to the bigger town of Damoh, where he completed his high-school education, taking a particular interest in visual art as well as Indian literature, poetry and cultural traditions. In 1939 Raza enrolled at the Nagpur School of Art, and having received a teacher’s diploma, taught drawing at government high schools. In 1943, he moved to Bombay where, before commencing his training in painting at Sir JJ School of Art, Mumbai, he worked for a designer and blockmaker who also allowed him to stay in the studio. He painted numerous gouache studies of the Bombay cityscape at this time, rendering buildings, roads and people as expressive masses of colour, in an early development of his abstract work that incorporated Fauvist colours, Expressionist brushstrokes and Cubist forms.
Following a group exhibition held at Cama Hall Art Society in Bombay in 1943, Raza’s paintings caught the attention of the art critic Rudolf von Leyden, a German émigré known for his promotion of experimental Indian artists. von Leyden went on to champion Raza’s work in the coming years, also inaugurating the latter’s first solo exhibition at the Bombay Art Society Salon in 1947. In the same year, Raza joined his contemporaries FN Souza, MF Husain, KH Ara, SK Bakre and HA Gade in founding the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, aimed at framing a new direction for contemporary art for a newly independent India. Attempting to reach the masses through a synthesis of traditional Indian art and European Modernism, the group held its first exhibition in 1949 at Rampart Row, Bombay, but dispersed soon afterwards with a shift in ideology and many of its members moving abroad. Between 1947 and 1949, Raza’s parents died and the rest of his family migrated to Pakistan with the Partition following India’s independence, while he chose to remain in India for its secular and plural identity.
In 1948, a year after India gained independence, Raza visited Kashmir where he became acquainted with the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who introduced him to the works of the French painter Paul Cézanne, which formed a precursor to Cubism. He encouraged Raza to look to Cézanne’s work towards incorporating greater structure in his own. The visit yielded numerous watercolours that were later shown at an exhibition inaugurated by Leyden in New Delhi. It also resulted in many works that showcased Raza’s early attempts at building a unique style of abstraction, marked by an exploration of urban forms through the use of colour and elimination of detail until the buildings appear detached from the background. These works were exhibited at a solo show in 1950, held at the Institute of Foreign Languages, a cultural and exhibition space founded by Viennese immigrant Charles Petras in Bombay.
In the same year, at the age of twenty-eight, Raza obtained a scholarship from the French government to study at the École Nationale Supérieure de Beaux-Arts, Paris. In 1952, he mounted a group exhibition with Akbar Padamsee and Souza at Galerie St. Placid, Paris — his first exhibition since arriving in France. The exhibition was a success and Raza was invited by the Parisian Galerie La France to showcase his work. The first few years of Raza’s life in Paris were dominated by watercolour and gouache studies of the French cityscape, reflecting his Formalist art education in Paris — paintings such as the gouache-on-paper Haute de Cagnes (1951) and the offset-printed Black Sun (1953) depict clusters of buildings in distorted but sharply delineated shapes amidst empty spaces, with a black orb in the sky above them. Inspired by Cezanne and Vincent van Gogh’s work, Raza shifted his primary medium from watercolours to oil, which he used in an thick, impasto application, as seen in Untitled (Village dans la Nuit) (1957) and Plein Soleil (1961).
In 1962, while on a three-month teaching stint in the USA, he became acquainted with the works of American Abstract Expressionists including Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Sam Francis. He was moved by the lack of rigid structural frameworks that he encountered in them, particularly the use of pure colour in Rothko’s paintings. He began to move towards a more non-representative approach, and shifted his medium from oil to acrylic. This is seen in one of his largest works La Terre (1977), which, with its expressive brushstrokes and subtle symbolism, evokes the forests of Madhya Pradesh forests at night, sparsely illuminated by the habitations of the Gond tribes.
From the 1980s onwards, Raza’s style shifted from the gestural and expressive use of colour to the exploration of geometric compositions. Inspired by themes from Tantrism, he began using primary shapes and colours to explore natural phenomena, incorporating symbolism from Indian spiritual practices, as well as written words or lines of poetry in the Devanagari script, in his paintings. It was during this period that the bindu began to occupy a central position in his work. Appearing in the eponymous Bindu (c. 1980) as a dark circle centred within a series of square frames, it became a recurring, defining motif in most of his subsequent work. By the 1990s, fuelled by a nostalgia for India and his study of Indian art, Raza began exploring the concept of the bindu as a point of primordial origin. In his Germination series (1991–2012), the bindu appears as a focal point, often surrounded or accompanied by a variety of geometric patterns, especially complementary triangles suggestive of the female (prakriti) and male (purusha) principles in Hindu cosmology.
Raza moved back to India in 2010, after the death of his wife, the artist Janine Mongillat, and founded the Raza Foundation in collaboration with the poet Ashok Vajpeyi for promotion of the arts. Raza’s work has been shown in two retrospectives — one at Palais Carnoles, Musee de Menton, France in 1991, and the second organised by Saffronart, New York and Berkeley Square Gallery in 2007. His work is part of the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi; the Asia Society, New York; and the Musee National D’Art Modern, Paris. In 1956, Raza became the first non-French artist to be awarded the Prix de la Critique by the French government. In 1981, he was awarded the Fellowship of the Lalit Kala Akademi and the Padma Shri in 1981, the Padma Bhushan in 2007 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2013, as well as the French Legion of Honour in 2015. His life and work are the subjects of various literary works, including the monograph Syed Haider Raza (2023) by Ashok Vajpeyi and the biography Syed Haider Raza: The Journey of an Iconic Artist (2021) by Yashodhara Dalmia.
Raza lived and worked in New Delhi, India until his death in 2016 at the age of ninety-four.
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