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Syed Haider Raza

Syed Haider Raza was born on 22 February, 1922 in the small town of Babaria in Madhya Pradesh. His father, Syed Mohammad Razi, was a forest ranger and her mother Tahira Begum was a housewife. He spent childhood roaming in forests, surrounded by nature. Raza started drawing at the age of 12 and completed his primary education from Government High School, Damoh. It was these days when his concept of ‘Bindu’ was born. A headmaster, Shri Nandlal Jhariya at his primary school, reprimanded him by drawing a small black dot on the school wall, asking young Raza to concentrate on that motif. This memory remained with the artist till his death. The black dot philosophy of ‘Bindu’ created an artist.


In 1939, he pursued arts at the Nagpur School of Art and went to Mumbai to join the Sir JJ School of Arts in 1943. Noted European art critic Rudolf von Leyden got impressed by Raza at his first solo show in 1946 at Bombay Art Society where he was awarded the Silver Medal of the society. Leyden introduced him to young artists like FN Souza, MF Husain and HA Gade. This association with two other artists KH Ara and SK Bakre, led to the formation of Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group soon after Partition in 1947. The manifesto, written by the Group rejected the nationalist tradition of the Bengal School of Art and embraced the European art movements in their attempt to create a new identity for Indian art. It was the most influential art movement in India, which lost its last member now.

Raza’s four brothers and sisters moved to Pakistan but he remained rooted in India and this isolation from family pervaded in his paintings.

A historical meeting with iconic French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson at an exhibition in Kashmir in 1948 changed Raza’s perspective and he started studying French Impressionist master, Paul Cezanne and other European artists. Later he went on an ‘artistic exile’ to France through French government scholarship in 1950 to study at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He married a fellow art student, Janine Mongillat in 1959 but they had no child.

In 1956, Raza became the first Indian artist to be honoured with Prix de la Critique award. In 1958, he held his first solo exhibition in France at Galerie Lara Vincy.

He spent 60 years in France reaching newer heights but returned to India after the demise of his wife in 2002.

He was first an expressionist painter but moved to abstract geometrical painting which revolves around ‘Bindu’ through which he maintained a connection with his motherland and his childhood memories of exploring the nature in the forests of Madhya Pradesh.

Manoeuvring his craft, Raza discovered symbolical themes like Tribhuj, Mandala, Kundalini, Prakriti-Purusha and Panchtatwa. His creation depicted Indian culture and history.

Raza mostly used acrylic on canvas and oil on canvas to showcase his artistic splendour. In his painting ‘La Terre’, Raza fathomed the Indian heritage by mastering the geometrical fusion of classical and modern art. ‘La Terre’ fetched 2.5 million US dollars in Christie’s auction in 2008.

About his pilgrimage, Raza said, “I moved to a new period in the eighties. The language of your painting changes when you start listening to silence. Within the silence of solitude, the inner landscape of the human mind moves into another pathway. I learned to understand polarities - the co-existence of opposites that complement even as they exist. Life and death, man and woman, black and white - everything has a different rhythm. I realized how poetry can contain few words and say so much. Painting became the metaphor of life itself.”  

Another masterpiece named ‘Saurashtra’ was sold at a record price of 3.4 million US dollars at Christie’s auction in 2010, becoming the most expensive Indian artwork.

After coming back to India, Raza started an NGO, “Raza Foundation’, to encourage and fund young Indian artists. He was assisted by his close friend and poet Ashok Vajpeyi, who now runs the organization after Raza’s death.

Vajpeyi wrote in his Hindi blog, “Even at his nonagenarian, Raza lives for his art and every painting is a prayer in which only his own unique colours can be heard.”

Vajpeyi further said, “Though he became infirm, he could walk without support, have difficulty hearing but he makes it to his studio. As soon as he lands in front of the easel canvas, an energy flows into his eyes and one does not know how his fingers start applying the paint brush on canvas, totally unexpected.”

Raza was awarded by Indian government many times, Padma Shri in 1981, Padma Bhushan in 2007 and Padma Vibushan in 2013. He was awarded fellowship of Lalit Kala Academy in 1981 and the highest French  civilian award Commandeur de la Legion d’honneur (Legion of Honour) on 14 July ast year.

He died on 23 July and was laid to rest in his hometown in Mandla district near the grave of his father.

Hasan Zia Rizvi

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 August 2016 on page no. 12

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