When he was a child, his teacher adopted numerous tactics to discipline him. Until, one day, the teacher drew a bindu on a blackboard and asked the nine-year-old to stare at it to correct his restlessness. Syed Haider Raza was mesmerised, and never forgot that lesson. The bindu was to become central to his oeuvre, one that he described as “the force that awakened a latent energy inside”.
That force was extinguished on Saturday. Raza, who had been admitted to Delhi’s Max Hospital for over a month and had been on ventilator support for the last few weeks, died after a heart attack. “He had this amazing ability to bounce back every time, but this time he just could not. He fought hard, though,” says Ashok Vajpeyi, trustee of the Raza Foundation and a close associate.
At the 94-year-old’s studio in Safdarjung Enclave, an unfinished canvas is on the easel, with a sketch of the bindu, from where the journey began. It had travelled with him from the forests of Mandla to Nagpur, Mumbai, Paris and California, his several homes over the years. India, though, was where he belonged, and came back in 2010, after living in France for more than six decades.
“He never gave up his Indian passport. That was his identity,” says artist and friend Krishen Khanna, who was a member of the formidable Progressive Artists’ Group that included Raza, M F Husain and F N Souza among others. The then Mumbai-based artists had come together in the 1940s to draw a language for Indian art post- Independence. “With his death we have lost one of India’s best colourists. He was a magnificent artist and we should be proud of the fact that this country produced him,” Khanna said.
Born in Babaria, Madhya Pradesh, to a forest officer and his wife in 1922, Raza took to drawing before his teens and studied at the Nagpur School of Art and Sir J J School of Art in Mumbai, followed by Paris, where he studied at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts on a scholarship. By then, he was already an artist of repute in India, with a couple of solos and awards to his credit.
Known for his expressionist landscapes, he often painted the Kashmir Valley. The mountainscapes though turned to more structural representations of the French towns and countryside after he moved to France, eventually turning to geometric forms and the bindu that became the very essence of his art from the 1970s.
“He always emphasised on perspective. One of his favourite quotes was Maanoh toh Shankar, Nah Maanoh toh Kankar and that thought held true for everything, including art,” recalls Arun Vadehra, director of Vadehra Art Gallery that represented the artist. He said Raza was at his studio till the very last, with his most recent show held in January this year, titled Nirantar (Continuous). Ironically, his show in 2015 was titled Aarambh, and Raza described it as “the beginning of a new vision”.
“Since I first began painting the bindu, it has transformed. Like people do Ram jaap, I do the same with the bindu, going deeper into the subject. Of course there are times I feel it is enough, I have said what I wanted to through my work,” Raza had said in an interview to The Indian Express.
“He was working with the same enthusiasm. He had great honesty towards his work,” Vadehra said. Later this month, the gallery will release a Catalogue Raisonne of Raza’s work from 1952 to 1971. “It will be the first for an Indian art. There will be more volumes” says Vadehra.
Awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 2013, Raza was the first non-French artist to win the prestigious Prix de la Critique award in 1956. In 2010, his 1983 abstract, Saurashtra, set a new record for Indian art when it sold at a Christie’s auction for $3.4 million. “He was one of the foremost Indian artists. Rooted, he always wanted to give back and was an icon for us,” says Akhilesh, the first recipient of the Raza award in 2004.
Back in India after the demise of his wife and fellow artist Janine Mongillat in 2002, Raza donated several of his works and his collection of artifacts to a museum in Gorbio, France. In Delhi, he hoped to build a museum to promote young talent but later fulfilled the endeavor through the Raza Foundation.
While Khanna hopes that a national institution will pay homage to the artist, Raza will take the last journey back home to Mandla, where he will be buried next to the grave of his father. “That was his last wish, to buried where it began,” Vajpeyi said.