With Raza’s passing, last link to Progressives severed

The last rites will be conducted in Mandala in Madhya Pradesh, according to his wishes.

Updated - November 17, 2021 05:10 am IST

Published - July 23, 2016 02:42 pm IST - New Delhi

S.H. Raza at his residence in New Delhi. File photo: Meeta Ahlawat

S.H. Raza at his residence in New Delhi. File photo: Meeta Ahlawat

It’s the simplicity of the paintings that strikes you at first glance. A black circle with concentric lines radiating from that dark centre, a neat arrangement of triangles and straight lines; dabs of paint that never spill out of their cells, colours that glisten with vibrancy long after the paint has dried; perhaps a few words written in Hindi at the bottom. Wait a moment, let your eyes adjust to the brightness of the chosen pigments, and the painting starts revealing itself to you — its pristinely perfect geometry, the delicate and precise alignment of planes and pivots, the calculated nuances of shade, tint and colour; the magnetic blackness of the bindu.

Syed Haider Raza’s circle was completed on Saturday when, at 94, one of modern Indian art’s most legendary names breathed his last in Delhi. Born in a speck of a town in Madhya Pradesh, Raza travelled first to Nagpur, then to Bombay as it was known then and finally to Paris, all on the wings of his art. He was one of the legends of our art history and with him gone we have lost our last link to the era of the Progressives who in anger and elegance raged against established traditions.

A new aesthetic

Formed in the 1940s, the Progressives began fashioning a new Indian aesthetic that was diverse, impossible to pin down and yet distinctively our own. It rebelled against the romanticism of the Bengal school and rejected the conventions of classical European art. What emerged was art that powerful and negotiating myriad and traditions — just like the young India that had just secured independence.

In many ways, Raza was the most accessible of the Progressives. He didn’t have the angular rage that bristled out of F.N. Souza’s paintings. His paintings weren’t provocative like M.F. Husain’s. They didn’t disturb as much as reiterate a certain sense of harmony. In Raza’s most memorable paintings, everything is in equilibrium. On his canvases, particularly the geometric ones that he started creating at his artistic peak in the 1980s, was a world of feeling and abstraction that was like a portal rather than a painting.

Uncomplicated modernity

Raza’s art embodied an uncomplicated yet diverse Indian modernity — an artist with a Muslim name, drawing upon both Hindu and Islamic philosophy with his bindus and his use of geometry, taking colours and shapes from folk art, creating paintings that were undeniably contemporary. He was also among the first of the Indian artists to go and live abroad — Raza spent decades in Paris, having moved there when he was 28. He had chosen the city because he was determined to see the paintings of Paul Cézanne. He stayed on and it became his home and yet the canvases were filled with kaleidoscopic fragments of the home he had left behind, arranged in careful and beautiful patterns.

He once said that he hadn’t really left India. He said that he had carried India with him and surrounded himself with the country as he knew it through his paintings. In the colours that he chose and the shapes that he used, there was a landscape of memory and nostalgia.

What gave his paintings the energy was that sense of nostalgia and longing perhaps because Raza’s finest paintings were created when he was far away from home. Yet even when he came to India and made his home in Delhi, he continued to work and what he produced still characterised that easy and unlaboured fusion of traditions and ideas. There is no statement that he is making and neither is there any need to prove his adherence to any stream of thought or belief. At their best, Raza’s abstract, geometric paintings hum with energy. At their blandest — and there are a fair number that fit this description since Raza diligently painted in his studio every day until his body gave way a few months ago — they are simple and beautiful. Either way, they are at peace.

Today, in an age when we are struggling to find harmony in a society that seems to be more violently fragmented with every passing day, Raza’s paintings are a reminder of the times past and confluences that we no longer seem to be able to find around us.

Deepanjana Pal is an art critic, and managing editor at Newslaundry

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