Art News & Views

Knowing Raza

by Koeli Mukherjee Ghose

“After many long years of thought and work, I find that the mystery remains just as great. Hence I wonder about the existence of the system of logic”. S H Raza

Syed Haider Raza was born on February of 1922, in a village called Babaria in the Narsinghpur district of Madhya Pradesh; between 1939 and 1943 he studied at the Nagpur School of Art, guided by M Y Athwale and Vasant Kelkar. In 1943 he shifted to Mumbai and studied at the Mohan Art Club with Mohan Kulkarni and V R Baam of Radhakrishnan Book Depot, Girigaon as his teachers, he joined Sir J J School of Art as a private student, later in his 5th year he was absorbed as a regular student under the tutelage of Shri Ahiwasi. His first solo exhibition was held in 1946 in the Bombay Art Society Salon, his solo exhibition on Kashmir was held in 1948.

Raza's meeting with the French photographer Henri Cartier Bresson in 1947, in Srinagar, brought in a turning point in his creative journey to realize the significance of constructing with rudimentary structural elements, he reflects that those were the early days of his art education which began in Nagpur and continued in Mumbai. He painted landscapes inspired by his natural environment of lush forests of Madhya Pradesh for six years. He mentions that as a child without knowing too much about geography or philosophy, the landscapes created a great impact on him.

In Mumbai, he found himself in the company of Bresson again, it seemed to the artist that the photographer appreciated his paintings but felt that he needed to impress upon the constructive principles of Cezanne. “A painting is constructed like a building on a sound base with walls, base, roof, doors, windows and if it does not have these it is fragile. Paintings are in a way similar; you have to construct a painting with a sense of geometry. Remember the name Paul Cezanne, he mastered construction in painting. His paintings are testimony to his sense of structure.”

Unable to perceive Bresson's suggestion, he sought his defender and guardian, Emanuel Schlesinger, and narrated to him his encounter with the photographer and what he had to say. He asked him for books so that he could study Cezanne's paintings.

The idea of studying Cezanne, stirred in him a desire to go to France. He studied the French language in the Alliance Française de Bombay and in three years he was able to speak in French. The French council of Bombay interviewed him along with many other aspirants for a scholarship to study in Paris, he responded to the interviewer by saying “Jaime beaucop la peinture Francaise - this meant that I loved French painting so much”. Moreover Raza informed him that he enjoyed seeing works of Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin, Cezanne and van Gogh.”Raza's need to study intensely won him an extension of an extra year for his one year scholarship in France in 1950.

His work of the 50's, conjure up his engagement with construction that is reflected in his landscapes of France. Gradually his interest shifted towards a more gestural approach in his paintings that became quite apparent from 1970, when 'La Forges' came about along with other paintings that are more gestural in nature. His deep- rootedness, he feels towards India and his love for the Indian landscape that was obvious to him since his very childhood, remained strong even when he internalized the French landscapes; he felt the urge to attain a sense of both the lands and hold their beauty and memory together to acquire an internal peace. He elucidates that he travelled to Paris from the south of France and the impressions overwhelmed him to an extent of compelling him to paint landscapes with a sense of passion and urgency, culling from memory and imagination. He then realized the Indian notion of seeing with the internal eye, the eye of the mind, to achieve a complete impact, in the painted context.

In the École des Beaux Arts, where he was engaged in doing portraits and nudes, he met Janine Mongillat, whom he married in 1959. In the studio Raza worked with Janine and other artists for a short while, since he was considered a matured artist he painted staying home, this gave him time to visit and work in the Museum of Oriental Arts, where India was well represented and he gained the realization once more that he has always been drawn to India. Raza says “I am still studying Indian culture, Contemporary Indian art is growing in a big way.”

The artist visited New York and had an exhibition in Palo Alto in San Francisco, his work was much appreciated and he was invited to teach. After teaching for over three months Raza went back as he yearned for Paris. He has been living in Paris for the past sixty years.

Till 1960, Raza painted in the medium of oil, he chanced upon the use of acrylic colour and employed it as a medium since then as he was experiencing problems of cracking and slow drying of the oil paints. He articulates that his paintings are a combination of a few elements such as lines, tones and colours and these are integral and pulsating component of Raza's paintings. Raza's palette and his rudiments of construction is the signifier of life and its supremacy and this belief he reinforces in his paintings.

He relates his palette, consciously to the notion that - “nature and the world are made of five elements.” His palette is comprised of black, blue, yellow, red and white, and a mix of these five colours invoke his world of paintings. His engagement is to make the best of these colours and impress the essence of the five colours as a “paanch ranga existence”. He explicates that nature, earth, water, air and fire, is the essence of existence, Raza informs his palette of five with the same notion,

Along with the importance that he stresses on the colour palette, emotion, philosophy and metaphysics, are key players behind the image that appears in his canvas. He says “spiritual idea is valid for a painting” and the language of painting with its components is employed to be able reach this idea.

Although Raza announced his series of the Bindu in 1980 the circle kept appearing in all stages of his work, apparent in the landscapes of the 1950's and in the black sun of the Rajasthan series in 1970.

As a research scholar and a painter he always urged to present to the world something pertaining to Indian thought and culture. Aligninging to this thought he realized the forms of the bindu, mandala and nagas in his paintings. His conscious reinterpretation of these symbols visually, is his engagement to see in a new way.

 Image courtesy : Christie's


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