art focus – traversing terrains – s.h. raza


Bindu (1984)

“You have to concentrate on one idea. I usually offer one advice to young men, concentrate on one woman. One woman gives everything. One idea, in the same way, is sufficient for an artist.”
~ S.H. Raza

For Sayed Haider Raza [1922 – 2016], his one idea was the Bindu. The dot. He never tired of exploring and expressing it. The brackish circle against a passionate red square hanging on the wall in front of me reiterated his words, sucking me in, into another world. A world which Raza saw and was determined to give a voice to.

An integral part of Indian philosophy, Raza’s Bindu is the smallest unit. The seed of all creative energy. A site of infinite possibility which can develop in the course of time into a living being. It is nothingness on its own yet when added to another, multiplies it manifold. It is, just as much, the end. The infinite point.

It also took a lifetime of questioning one’s existence, expression, and place in space for Raza to reach his Bindu. Once he found it, he did not stop there. He appended further geometric shapes representing other philosophical concepts to it to create a visual language that was uniquely his: An ability to see beyond the obvious and express the metaphysical by giving it a visual form seething in simplicity. His Saurashtra sold for US$3.5 million at a Christie’s auction in London in June 2010. Between 2006 and 2015, 12 of his paintings sold for over a million dollars apiece.

This journey took him from his childhood home on the fringes of Madhya Pradesh’s indigenous forests to urban Mumbai, to six decades in art-filled Paris, a teaching stint in the US and finally full circle—back to his roots, India. Back to a childhood memory which paved the way for his most iconic work and personal evolution.

One does not always get the opportunity to see Raza’s works traversing these various geographies and phases in his life, all under one roof, into one seamless whole. The most one can hope for is a canvas or two in some of the most prestigious galleries around the world. Those in private collections remain largely hidden.

When I visited the Piramal Museum of Art earlier this week to see a collection of a whopping 35 works spanning his life, I had to pinch myself. 35 works, all together. And what a treat it turned out to be!

Walking down the galleries which have been designed to simulate a Raza painting turned into a large-scale installation, I was first met by 21-year-old Raza, a village youth from Mandla. He had just arrived in Bombay where both great opportunities and losses awaited him. It was his inaugural exposure to urban life. Needless to say, he fell in love with the city’s energy. The year 1947 saw him graduate from Sir J.J. School of Art and co-found the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group. During the same year, he lost his parents one after the other, and his five siblings decided to move to the newly founded Pakistan. By 25 he was alone, completely, save for his watercolour landscapes.

Painted on the spot, as was, and still is the norm with art college instruction, Raza’s subjects comprised Bombay’s street scenes and the cityscapes of Benaras, Nashik, Indore, and Jaipur in this phase of his life. What set apart Raza’s paintings from those of his peers was a tendency to paint scenes repeatedly. Importantly, these watercolours are the only figurative paintings he did in his entire life.


Benares (1944). A painting made in his college days.


Srinagar (1949). Raza’s exposure to European art prints by Austrian emigrants Walter Langhammer and Rudolf von Leydenhad in Bombay played out as landscapes reduced to a play of light and colour, reminiscent of Impressionism.


Left: 44 Bomanji Lane (1948); Right: Rue des Fosses St. Jaques (1957). Two street scenes outside Raza’s homes painted over a gap of 10 years: One in Bombay, the other in Paris. A change in style brought about by the Parisian experience.

I next met 28-year-old Raza busy studying French and applying for a scholarship to study in France. A chance visit to an exhibition of French prints in 1948 had inspired him to apply at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts so as to see the originals. He reached Paris in 1950 and found a home, love [in the form of French artist Janine Mongillat], and a new expression for his art in the city of lights.

Watercolours now gave way to oils. Realism transformed into abstracts inspired by Cezanne, Picasso, and Mondrian, leading to his masterpieces Eglise et Calvaire Breton, Village, and Siene Port. His affinity for landscapes remained the one constant. Raza’s growth as an artist did not go unnoticed in his adopted country. In 1956 he was the first non-French artist to be awarded the Prix de la Critique award. A recognition which turned him into an overnight sensation with lucrative offers for his paintings.


Landscape and houses with trees (1956). Raza started working in oil paints in 1955 and was quick to master its use through overlapping and overlaying layers to create rich textures.


Eglise et Calvaire Breton (1956), one of the first paintings in which he worked in his new-found painterly language, is important for having been part of the exhibition organised by Gallerie Lara Vincy to publicize his receipt of the Prix de la Critique award.


Village (1959). Wherein every dab of paint is a logical part of the composition.


Siene Port (1960). The town, like many others in France, inspired Raza with its colour and form. Raza wrote of the French landscape and its colouring “… it brings me to painting in its purest form.”

The third gallery brought me to the two-decade long period in Raza’s life in which he was both rich and famous, namely 1960 – 1980. Major exhibitions and a teaching spell in the US, where he met Mark Rothko and Hans Hoffman, were accompanied with extensive travels around the world. But as often happens, success makes one question one’s very identity and place in the universe. Raza was no different. Whilst on one hand his success grew, on the other he was torn with dissatisfaction and a disconnect with his inner self, leading to increased trips to India in search of answers.

His travels got him in touch not merely with Indian art, poetry, aesthetics, and philosophy, but also his own childhood memories as a 12-year-old village boy and son of a forest officer, deep in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh. He remembered being admonished by his teacher and told to stare at a dot to control his restless mind. He recalled the blackness of the forest around him and the brilliance of local village colours. He reminisced on the wild trees and realized they had lived on in him by way of his lifelong relationship with nature and persistent exploration of his relationship with it.

Whereas nature had taken the form of landscapes before, he now moved to painting it as a proclamation of his inner emotions and passions. Colour, likewise, became carriers of feelings rather than any reflection of the physical world. Acrylics, a thinner medium, slowly inched their way in to replace the oils. His art, in every essence, started turning from the outside inwards to inside outwards. It was in this state of creative energy and thought that Saurashtra, Rajasthan, and Trishna were born.


Untitled (1974). Filled with an organic quality, his paintings from the 1970s are gestural and expressionistic. In his own words, “I let the canvas grow.”


Trishna (1976). The dark nights alternating with the vibrant colours of daylight in the forest translated themselves into Raza’s palette and fascination with time.


Rajasthan (1983). Raza’s Rajasthan and Saurashtra painting series are not cities or the countryside as seen by the naked eye, but “products of the solitary imagination.” They are coloured capsules of memories of a landscape.

My visit culminated in the exhibition’s centre-piece: Raza’s work from 1980 till his death in June 2016, aged 94. A befitting centre-piece for in these years Raza’s work reached their highpoint, becoming a visual language depicting the metaphysical. He also received his greatest accolades for his creative genius in this period. The Padma Shri in 1981, Padma Bhushan in 2007, Padma Vibhushan in 2013, and the highest French civilian honour, the Commandeur de la Legion d’honneur [Legion of Honour] in 2015.

The crossover from the preceding inner struggle for self-realization to an artistic expression which encompassed his place in the cosmos and the energies governing it was a long-winded inner process. It took Raza five years, after being reminded of the dot on the blackboard on a visit to Bhopal, to finally introduce the Bindu in his creative expression as the ultimate cosmic energy. The year was 1980. Raza was 58.

Once he did, though, there was no looking back. Raza repeated the Bindu like a mantra. It became akin to a jaap for him which grew in the power it bestowed out of sheer repetition, canvas after canvas. To the all-powerful Bindu he subsequently added a plethora of other geometric shapes and colours loaded with meaning: the Panchatattvas [five elements represented by the five primary colours], the spiral Kundalini [primal energy], the triangular Tribhuj [depicting space and time], and Prakriti-Purusha [the female and male energy].

Raza’s journey as an artist, with this crucial closing chapter, was in his own eyes, now complete. For me, a walk-through of his life and works brought to the fore the philosophical depths art had the capacity to reach. All you need is one idea. ❤


Surya Namaskar (1993). From 1980 onward, the Bindu became the visual and conceptual centre of Raza’s paintings, repeated several times like a sacred verse.


Bindu Naad (1995)

“I painted Bindus that were black. I painted them when they were lighter … What is important is that, ultimately, I found that I had access to my childhood … I realized that in the end I came back to nature and expression not because the eyes would see, but because what seemed to be important was the seed or the unit which contains all the essential possibilities.” ~ S.H. Raza

– – –

“S.H. Raza: Traversing Terrains” is on display at the Piramal Museum of Art, Lower Parel West, Mumbai from 24 June to 28 October, 2018, 11 am to 8 pm on weekdays and 10 am to 10 pm on weekends. To listen to the exhibition audio guide, click here.

Curated by Vaishnavi Ramanathan and Ashvin E. Rajagopalan.
Exhibition and museum design by Gallagher & Associates.

[Images courtesy Piramal Museum of Art and Rama Arya]


View of the exhibition from the second floor of Piramal Tower. The museum is in Piramal Tower’s central lobby.

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