The passing away of Syed Haider Raza leaves behind only a few of those magnificent men with their splendid art and grand ways. In the early nineties when I first encountered him he had an aristocratic, dashing air of a man, with grey locks falling over his forehead, who had achieved and seen enough to be at ease with the idiosyncracies of the world. Raza had come to my apartment in Mumbai, where I was living then, for coffee and conversation about the Progressive Artists’ Group and his own journey. If his suave appearance put one in a daze it was his account which was even more mesmerising.
He had come as a young man from Madhya Pradesh in 1943 to study art at the Sir J J School of Art and when due to some complications he could not be admitted he joined a block-maker’s studio to earn a living. In his spare time he would paint the view from the window and even at this stage his street scenes were imbued with a special significance. His work attracted attention and he was soon to become a member of the newly formed Progressive Artists’ Group which had artists like F.N. Souza, M.F. Husain, K.H. Ara, H.A. Gade and S.K. Bakre. The group was critical of the effete revivalism of the Bengal School and the academic styles taught in art colleges and squarely took historical reality into account in their art. In course of time, they would not only be centrestage on the art mainstream in India but also act as an exemplar of an emergent non Euro-American modernism. In their formative years, however, the artists lived in small, congested spaces and travelled long distances to meet at the seafront or a chai shop to have discussions on art and pave the course it was to take in a newly independent country.
The elation of Independence, however, had been dismantled by the ravages of the Partition and for Raza it led to extreme isolation as his family members decided to leave for Pakistan. “My brothers, all four of them, and my own sister, decided to leave for Pakistan because the climate in Damoh, and in Delhi for my eldest brother, had become unbearable,” he said. But rooted as he felt in India he decided to stay on and his syncretic vision would infuse his work with subliminal depths.
Raza left for Paris in 1950 intending to study in the Mecca of art for a few years but spent the next few decades there, married the artist Janine Mongillat and began to make dents on the international scene. It was clear that his heart was in India though for when he made a breakthrough in his art, influenced to some extent by artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko during a residency at Berkeley University, it was with a fluid, gestural strokes latent with memories and colours of home. In a masterly painting like “Ma” for instance, we have flaming tongues of colour on one side counterpointed by a black still centre on the other and with the evocative lines below in Devanagari script, “Mother when I return home, what should I bring?” In many works we see the influence of the splendid colours and movement of the miniatures of Mewar and Malwa which bring the searing sensations of his land.
As Raza’s work became fluid and resonant with memories, his thoughts travelled to the still black centre which he had encountered as a child. The young boy’s mind would wander restlessly in the forests — for his father was a forest ranger in Barbaria, till his teacher Nandlal Jharia drew a large dark circle on the board and asked him to concentrate on it.
Gradually, as he blotted out everything else, the circle began to yield brilliant colours. And so the Bindu emerged — paintings with a black concentric circle pulsating with radiant light where the mother of all colours – black — gives birth to the enveloping red, yellow, white and blues reflected in its rotating orb.
There would be no looking back for the artist. Raza returned to India in 2011 and settled in New Delhi. His prices were now a far remove from the early days and fetched crores. But untouched by all this, despite his ill health, he painted till the last days before his final hospitalisation. Two years ago when we met at his Safdarjang house for a celebration of his 92nd birthday, he clasped my hand tightly. As fragile as he was he spoke softly but firmly, “I have come home at last and this is where I want to die.” How poignant it all seems now as we are left with his absence and also with his priceless legacy of art.