Syed Haider Raza or S.H. Raza, a prominent Indian artist who co-founded the Indian Progressive Artists Movement in the late 1940s to early 1950s, passed away at the age of 94. On 23rd July, he took his last breath in India after having lived in France for over six decades.
Raza presented to the world, through his experiments with art, an intercourse of geometry and spirituality. Born in 1922 in Babaria, in the Mandla district of what is now the central Indian State of Madhya Pradesh, Raza went on to play a crucial part in the Indian Progressive Artists Group, along with Souza, K H Ara, M F Husain, H A Gade, S K Bakre and others, during his studies in J.J. School of Art in Mumbai, the capital of the western state Maharashtra.
This was an influential artistic group formed in 1947, in the freshly post-colonial Independent India that seeked to reject the objectivity and realism that was pursued by Renaissance art and instead wanted to give a new direction to the vision of art in India.
The apparent visual reality as the focal point of reference for artists was criticized by Raza who had said once that Indians see the world not as it is but also with the “third eye”, a concept that is prevalent in the spiritual discourse of the country. The country was thus introduced to Modern Art through the efforts of this group.
At the age of 28, on a scholarship, Raza moved to France in 1950 where he studied at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts, in Paris. There he met his future wife, French artist Janine Mongillat, and they remained together for more than forty years, until her death in 2002. He was the first non-French citizen to be awarded the prestigious Prix de la Critique in 1956 in Paris, after which he became a well known figure in the art circle. He briefly worked as a professor in America but returned to France and shifted between Paris and Gorbio, in the southeastern region of France with his wife.
A great admirer of French Poet Arthur Rimbaud
His time in Paris meant that his focus on landscapes and townscapes in his work incorporated the French countryside and cities but he slowly shifted inwards in the coming decades. Raza was known for his love of literature and poetry and some of his favourites included the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. However, he was slowly searching for the Indian connection that he had lost in his life in France.
The 1980s marked a new period for Raza when his internal questions of identity brought to his canvas the Indian spiritual thought that had shaped him. This was a period where he created works such as Saurashtra, a painting that sold for a price approximately equivalent to a staggering 3 million,Euros at a Christie’s auction in 2014. Raza had found his object of meditation, the Bindu, a point or dot that is a sacred symbol for the seed of thought, creation and manifestation around which a mandala representing the universe is made. All the works that followed, such as Kundalini (1999), and Arbre et Bindu(2008) were his ways of searching for the meaning of life and creation. Incorporation of colour in relation to the natural elements became central to his work.
Raza was made Commandeur de la Legion d’Honneur (Commander of the Legion of Honour) by the French President in 2015 and was a recipient of a large number of awards in India as well, including prestigious awards for civilians by the Government of India namely the Padma Shri in 1981, Padma Bhushan in 2007 and Padma Vibhushan in 2013.
His contributions as an Indian artist through revolutionary work on abstract representation of spiritual thought have been appreciated worldwide and will set a great example for artists to follow.