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A new biography of artist SH Raza celebrates his art and his times

In 'Sayed Haider Raza: The Journey of an Iconic Artist', author Yashodhara Dalmia alternates between Raza’s artistic oeuvre and his relationships

Written by Vandana Kalra |
April 25, 2021 6:30:13 am
Raza is known as the artist who introduced the world to the mystic symbolism and the energy of the bindu. In the biography, Dalmia delves into personal details that run parallel with his evolution as an artist.

From a life of comfort as the son of a forest warden in Mandala, Madhya Pradesh, to becoming one of India’s foremost modernists, art historian Yashodhara Dalmia chronicles the life of artist SH Raza in a biography that celebrates not just his art but also his times. Dalmia alternates between Raza’s artistic oeuvre and his relationships; the life he led in France and India, to give us a comprehensive picture of the artist.

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Curator and author of numerous books such as The Making of Modern Art: The Progressives (2001), Dalmia delves into her own interactions with Raza as well as with his associates and friends to draw up the picture of a “naughty” boy who would swim in a taalaab with his friend in Damoh, and, years later, discover the same thrill by the sea when he accompanied his wife Janine Mongillat to the south of France. Filling the gaps in Dalmia’s narrative and bringing in the artist’s voice are the letters Raza wrote that speak of his aspirations, experiences and uncertainties. If in a 1953 letter to fellow artist Akbar Padamsee, Raza shares details of his Italy trip, in a 1987 letter to another artist, Krishen Khanna, he describes Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru as his favourite authors at the time. Dalmia devotes an entire segment to his letters to Mongillat, sharing the blossoming of their romance and their conversations on art.

Raza is known as the artist who introduced the world to the mystic symbolism and the energy of the bindu. In the biography, Dalmia delves into personal details that run parallel with his evolution as an artist. While the rest of his family, including his first wife Fatima, left for Pakistan after the Partition, Raza was the only one who stayed back in India. In the years to come, he continued to support his brothers financially and otherwise. Several pages detail his initial years of struggle in Mumbai and Paris, as Dalmia attempts to build up a sequence of his work — the street scenes of the ’40s that gave way to the intense and thick oils of the ’50s and Raza’s engagement with the circle in the ’70s, that the artist initially refused to associate with Neo-Tantric philosophy.

Dalmia notes how “Raza’s own preoccupations were akin to much of Tantra’s symbolism, primarily that of the Bindu.” Acknowledging how the artist became repetitive during his last years, Dalmia writes: “By the late ’90s, however, a saturation seems to have been reached. His transition to symmetrical works acquired a humdrum predictability.” This is also where the voice of the artist begins to fade in Dalmia’s narrative — perhaps, because by the time Raza returned to India in 2010, he was rather frail. As readers, however, we still yearn to hear more of his thoughts

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