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Art News | With an Emphasis on Color and Form, S. H. Raza Broke New Ground for Modernism

By Devorah Lauter

When the artist Sayed Haider Raza (1922–2016) was a child living in a small, forested village in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, his teacher drew a circle on the board and told him to concentrate on it to stay focused.

Years later, the circle returned into the artist’s life, this time drawn by S.H. Raza himself on his now iconic paintings depicting the bindu. Sanskrit for “drop,” “point,” or “grain,” a bindu is a symbol of the cosmos and the point of all creation in Indian philosophy. S.H. Raza’s black bindus burst and anchor his abstract geometric paintings in burning yellows, oranges, greens, and reds. They are setting and rising suns within interior, symbolic landscapes, where lines of poetry in Hindi or other vernacular languages sometimes emerge.

These masterpieces, including explorations of his native land, are characteristic of Raza’s paintings made primarily between the 1960s and the ’80s, and make for fiery, swift entry points into his creations. They speak their own, mysterious language in dialogue simultaneously with his Western contemporaries and his Indian heritage. They are also an overripe introduction to the often miscategorized and under-recognized universe of modern Indian art, of which S.H. Raza was a leading figure.

In a belated effort to help rectify that, S.H. Raza’s paintings have been united in a rare, though restrained gathering of some 90 paintings at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, on view until May 15. The exhibition is a first retrospective for the artist in France, where he lived from 1950 until 2011, and highlights his earlier, lesser-known experimental works. Unfortunately, his groundbreaking abstract geometric ­paintings, which reach their crescendo in the early ’80s, are introduced relatively late into the exhibition and feel under-represented as a result. Still, seeing S.H. Raza’s painterly progression, fleshed out in this chronologically organized exhibition, reveals a fascinating life of artistic question and response, battled out on canvas.

During his time in France, S.H. Raza traveled to India annually, effectively straddling both continents, and refusing to be pinned to either. He “lived with a dual belonging, and a dual consciousness,” said Roobina Karode, director and chief curator of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, a significant lender to the exhibition. “He really did not like how people said he was an Indian painter in Paris. He was trying to reach out to the cosmos, to embrace the entire thing, and break that narrow vision.”

Raza is among India’s most celebrated artists, and a co-founder of the country’s renowned Progressive Artists Group (PAG), along with M.F. Husain, F.N. Souza, S.K. Bakre, and others. Formed on the eve of Indian independence in 1947, the group rebelled against previous, colonial-era artistic movements such as the Bengal School of Painting, which focused on “true Hindu art,” or works “free of colonial infection,” as Partha Mitter writes in 20th Century Indian Art, a recent survey published by Thames & Hudson.

Instead, PAG artists explored what a new national identity might entail. They looked to Indigenous philosophical and artistic traditions, while also embracing a form of internationalism that was curious about Western art, but not derivative of it, as is often misunderstood.

PAG artists “were struggling with wanting to be seen globally, beyond India, because they felt they were equally competent, and equally involved in the practice of modernism,” Karode told ARTnews. “They were open to influences, but they were actually trying to make meaning of what it was to be modern in their own context.”

And, as Karode pointed out, Eastern philosophy heavily influenced European modernism. “This traversing of influences is happening all the time, but [historiographies tend to say] it always started from the West. What comes out of [India], doesn’t get equally acknowledged, and that acknowledgement is something these artists were passionately working toward,” she said. “It was not a one-way street.”

The Pompidou exhibition’s curator, Catherine David, agreed the “derivative question comes up for every modern artwork that is not from the self-proclaimed centers of modernity. It’s very complicated to deconstruct, but we’re working on it.” As early as the 19th century, Indian artists used their own modes of expression “that are not in any way replicas,” forming a body of modern and contemporary art that is quintessentially figurative, she explained.

Raza, however, took a peripheral course to that of his Indian peers, despite maintaining a close bond to his artistic cohort and origins. He distanced himself from their dominant figurative art, moving toward abstraction. In the exhibition, this development is illustrated from rarely seen early watercolors on paper, depicting Indian cities, female figures, and geometric landscapes devoid of people, reminiscent of Bernard Buffet, van Gogh, Gauguin, and fellow PAG member and friend, F.N. Souza.

Works in this mode brought Raza relative early recognition, particularly during the years he was more closely associated with the Paris School of artists. He was the first non-European artist to receive the Prix de la Critique in 1956, and he exhibited in major international cities, including the Venice Biennale in 1956. The gallery Lara Vincy represented him in France, and he enjoyed widespread visibility in India as well. In 1959 he married French artist Janine Mongillat (1930–2002), whom he met through friends from the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts de Paris, where he studied on scholarship from 1950 to 1953. Unfortunately, none of Mongillat’s intriguing artworks, including strange, painted sculptures and collages made from found objects and paper mâché, are included in the exhibition to highlight another source of influence for Raza.

By the ’60s, a major change was afoot in his practice. “Raza started getting a little anxious about feeling there wasn’t much of India in him,” said poet Ashok Vajpeyi, a longtime friend of the late artist and head of the Raza Foundation. “So, he started on a different direction, and moved toward a kind of abstraction.”

He began looking increasingly to Rajput miniature paintings on paper, dating from the 16th to 19th centuries, moved by “their power, in terms of composition, space, and color,” David said. “Little by little, Raza finished with figuration, and he embarked on the process of deconstruction, toward an explosion of color, until we are left with a colored composition.”

Soon came large, flat areas of vibrating pigment, composed within linearly divided segments of canvas, informed by Mark Rothko as well as other American Abstract Expressionists. He discarded Parisian shades and opted for colors evoking hot, humid Indian summers. His childhood memories of walking alone at night through the forest led to a key series of works from the 1970s, titled “La Terre”(the land), where poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke also comes in as an influence. In these works, glowing points of light break through darkness and chaos.

Around the same time, examined roughly a third of the way through the exhibition, references to Indian spirituality become more prevalent, including early references to bindus as well asnagas, kundalini, Indian poetry, and classical music, known as ragas. As one rounds the exhibition’s last leg, Raza effectively enters his well-known “radical and symbolic geometric abstraction,” per the wall text. His masterworks titled Maa (Mother), Rajasthan, and Saurashtra, to name a few, can include bindus drawn with the perfection of a protractor, alongside dense, roughly gestural geometric forms and color, painted within rectangular strips and square marked segments. The latest works on view are pared down, cleaner, and more uniform, losing much of their vibrancy and singularity. Raza’s symbolic, ordered forms often reference renewal and a cyclical concept of time, and are a support for meditation in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist traditions.

Born into a Muslim family, Raza’s father was a forest ranger who interpreted Islam liberally, leading to his son’s interest in Hinduism and Christianity, all three of which are referenced over the course of his career. “He created an indirect narrative around elements of his own culture and civilization, that was a very important aspect of his work to me,” said artist Manish Pushkale, a mentee of Raza’s who has previously exhibited alongside his teacher.

In the last decade, demand for S.H. Raza’s works has hit record highs, rising 800 percent in value at auction between the mid-1990s and 2010s, reaching a top price of $4.45 million at Christie’s in New York in 2018. “The hardest thing for us is sourcing these incredible works,” said Damian Vesey, a specialist modern and contemporary South Asian art at Christie’s.

At a packed opening at the Pompidou, visitors, many of whom flew in for the event, dressed in a myriad of sparkling saris, lending the event a festive touch, not incompatible with the works on view.

“I think Raza had a celebrative instinct, unlike the usual modernists, where there is disruption, dislocation, tension,” Vajpeyi said. “Raza tried, on the other hand, to reach consonance, tranquility. He was trying a different kind of modernism, which undid the dichotomy between the sensuous and the spiritual. For him, they were more or less the same.”

Describing Raza as a “master colorist,” Vajpeyi added, “Raza’s legacy is that colors can speak. They can sing.”