Dubai: This retrospective celebrates the life of Indian artist Sayed Haider Raza

The art of glow... and glory

By Shaikh Ayaz

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Published: Thu 28 Mar 2024, 6:57 PM

The fact that Sayed Haider Raza's (1922–2016) centenary festivities have been going on for the past two years across India and beyond is a testament to his immense popularity and undisputed status as one of the Asian subcontinent's greatest modern artists. Following celebratory retrospectives held both in his native India and adopted home France (including a very prestigious one in Centre Pompidou last year), it is now time for the Raza juggernaut to dazzle Dubai. In what has been described as the largest trove of the master's work in the Arab world to date, Raza: The Other Modern at the newly-opened Progressive Art Gallery in Jumeirah 1 is a must-visit for anyone wanting to better understand not just how Raza got to be Raza but also the fundamental ways in which he shaped Indian modernism in the 20th-century.

The exhibition, which marks the New Delhi-based Progressive Art Gallery's arrival into UAE's vibrant art scene, pulls out all the stops to explore Raza's remarkable career which took off in earnest shortly after India's Independence, blossomed during the decades he spent in France, flourished some more during a short teaching stint in America and ultimately ended in India, where he passed away in 2016 aged 94. The show has been in the making for "a very long time," acknowledges Harsh Vardhan Singh, director and CEO of the Progressive Art Gallery. But it was only after his trip to the Raza retrospective curated by Catherine David and Diane Toubert at Centre Pompidou in 2023 that he realised that for his gallery's inaugural exhibition in Dubai, there was hardly a more compelling subject than the man from Mandla. While Raza's abstract works with their trailblazing colour palette speak a universal language, Singh was particularly interested in another aspect. He has always found Raza's artistic journey, with its clear transitions and steady progress, to be a powerful inspiration for Indian artists.

"Raza has been an exemplary role model for artists in India throughout his life and career," says Singh, adding that he was also "keen to show, to a new audience in Dubai, the distinct phases, which Raza so smoothly transitions across his illustrious career. I thought about Emirati and Arab collectors who may have not had the privilege of seeing as many of Raza’s works the way those of us in India, or even in Paris, may have had the opportunity of discovering." Singh remarks that to fully appreciate the significance of Raza, it is important to see his total body of work "in one go." No wonder, he has skilfully arranged Raza: The Other Modern in a chronological reverie, presenting us with the trajectory of an artist whose genius comes alive in front of our eyes. The three distinct sections symbolise three different phases of Raza’s career — his early watercolours that echo Impressionist techniques, the gestural abstraction paintings, which he produced and perfected during his years of solitude in France and finally, his highly celebrated Bindu series.

"What is most interesting is that when one is first introduced to Raza, it is usually through his later works from his popular Bindu series or those from his gestural abstraction phase. But it is these rare early works, which are far and few, that portray a very intimate and almost vulnerable side of Raza in his youth," says Singh, pointing out that Raza soon abandoned the figurative style of painting altogether to focus purely on an aesthetic vision that sought to turn both art-making and art-watching into a more meaningful, truthful and spiritual experience. One of his luminous landscape paintings from this period, Srinagar (1948) depicts a scene from the Dal lake. Incidentally, it was during this Kashmir sojourn that the artist met the legendary French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who encouraged him to study Paul Cezanne, considered the 'father of modern art.'

Raza's Bombay years were what you might call heady. His deft drawings and watercolours, many of them on view across Progressive Art Gallery's 6000 square feet sprawl, confirm his talent as a budding artist at a time when the city of Bombay was a hive of intellectual and creative activity. Still in his 20s, he produced mostly watercolour paintings during this period, demonstrating a mastery of colour, composition and a deep love for nature that dates back to his childhood. He was born in the forested central Indian region of Mandla in 1922. After the Partition, much of his family relocated to Pakistan but he stayed back, travelling to Bombay instead to enrol at the Sir J. J. School of Arts.

He became the founding member of the influential Bombay Progressive Artists' Group, which also included MF Husain, nicknamed 'the barefoot Picasso of India' by The Guardian, who lived in Dubai before moving to Qatar. Raza, like his fellow artists, was a rebel with a cause. The self-confident Progressives, led by the firebrand FN Souza, aspired to throw away the rulebook and remake the contours of modern art in their own image. They were catalysts for change and freedom in a newly independent nation that perhaps needed young voices to reassure itself as a cultural force in the world. Thus, Raza, Souza, Husain, Krishen Khanna, Amrita Sher-Gil and others emerged as key figures and history has credited them for their unforgettable contribution to the evolution of Indian modern art.

As a young artist, Raza was restless and leaned towards the European tradition of painting and may have wanted to be where the action was — Paris. In 1950, he decided to sail to what was then the capital of modern art, though he never really severed his ties with his former home. He remained close to most of his old chums from the Progressive Artists' Group, exchanging heartfelt letters with them which testifies to the idea of enduring friendships and deep emotional bonds. He wrote about France to his friends and how the French tradition had a profound impact on his art. Another important relationship awaited him at Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. It was while studying here that he met fellow artist Janine Mongillat.

After getting married in 1959 they began to split their time between Paris and the small village of Gorbio, near Nice. Initially, the self-styled "nature's child" captured the beauty of the Provençal countryside, its fields and churches recalling a quasi-Cubist style. Despite his successful career and blissful personal life in France, Raza eventually began to miss India on his canvasses. "He used to often say, 'How to paint I learned from France and what to paint I learned from India," says poet Ashok Vajpeyi, a close friend of the artist and managing trustee of Raza Foundation. A New Delhi-based non-profit organisation for arts, Raza Foundation has been recognised for promoting and advancing Raza's legacy, particularly through supporting shows such as Raza: The Other Modern.

Vajpeyi maintains that Raza was a profoundly Indian painter and finally, when he hit a wall in the 1970s he found himself increasingly drawn back to India. Speaking to wknd., Vajpeyi recounts the artist always making these long "pilgrimages" across the length and breadth of India. He collected sacred objects, souvenirs, paintings and tokens from his countless trips and used them to remind himself of the constant presence of his roots while living in Europe. A major breakthrough in his art occurred when he remembered a long-lost memory — that of a favourite school teacher drawing a circle on the board and instructing the fidgety child to concentrate. This pivotal incident, Raza scholars agree, was the turning point that marked the beginning of his renowned Bindu series.

The artist himself once described the Bindu as the seed from which all life is born. For him, it served both as a symbol of infinity and a mysterious, unknowable void. Starting from the late 1970s, the Bindu became a core tenet and motif of his oeuvre. "While we do see a gradual move towards more Indian subjects and landscapes in his later gestural abstractions works, it is certainly through his Bindu series that Raza comes full circle. He is back to the lush greens of the forests of Madhya Pradesh, the deep blues of the river Narmada that was close to his home, the yellow ochres and burnt sienna of the Indian earth, and the fiery red and orange hues of the Indian market. Raza, despite living in France for a staggering 60 years, dedicated the most important phase of his artistic career to his homeland," observes Singh, whose gallery (which was incidentally named after Raza's Progressive Artists' Group) is flooded with the master's saturated colours.

Like Mark Rothko, whom he admired, Raza wanted to distil the essence of painting and use it to convey only the "big emotions –tragedy, ecstasy, doom," as the tortured Rothko famously put it. In one of life's many happy coincidences, Raza's Bindu now hangs alongside Rothko at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Where would we place him in the global art pantheon? Ashok Vajpeyi is in no doubt that his late friend is one of the giants of 20th-century modern art. Rothko's geometric splashes might be brooding; Raza's art, on the other hand, showcases scenes of joyous energies — truly a celebration of Indian cosmology, tantric thoughts and other Hindu ideas. Vajpeyi notes that Raza's art is not one of rejection or withdrawal. It is an art of involvement and inclusion. It is an art of glow, as he puts it. "Modernism the world over was marked by disruption, dislocation and distortion," he notes. "All these negatives, the tensions and contradictions are not to be found in Raza's vision. He tried to create an alternative modernism by exploring elements of harmony, of peace, of consonance and rhythm."

With its extensive Raza collection, the Progressive Art Gallery is on a mission to ignite fresh discussions about the late artist and help us connect more deeply with his spiritual pursuits and geometric symbolism that helped redefine Indian art. What's more, Singh hails Raza as one of India's most successful artists of all time and he's proud that his gallery, which was founded more than two decades ago by his father RN Singh with a focus on modern masters, has played host to Raza: The Other Modern. Beyond critical acclaim and his philosophical contribution to the medium of painting, Raza's work consistently commands record prices at auction. Singh believes this commercial success strengthens the entire art ecosystem. "At a macro level," Singh concludes, "we cannot deny that through the individual success of artists such as SH Raza, FN Souza, Tyeb Mehta, MF Husain and VS Gaitonde the market for Indian art had begun developing. The buzz about Raza’s paintings at international auctions (iconic works such as his 1983 painting, Saurashtra went on to fetch $3.48 million in 2010 at Christie's) has contributed towards building the global market for Indian art. We owe a lot to artists like Raza who heralded a new dawn for Indian artists and all of Indian art."

Raza: The Other Modern is on view at Progressive Art Gallery in Jumeirah 1 until May 31.

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