Sayed Haider Raza, better known by his initials, S. H. Raza; was one of the most well-known and distinguished painter from India, who settled down in France in the early 1950s, yet continued to represent Indian art by incorporating Indian philosophy and Indian cosmology in his works. He worked on oil and acrylics which highlighted Indian ethnography and incorporated the Indian concepts of space and time, which was a hugely appreciated by art lovers worldwide, and especially the French. He was known as the “Bindu” artist for using Indian symbols in his modernist paintings.
In 2010, his seminal work titled ‘Saurashtra’ was sold at a Christie’s auction for an incredible $3,486,965 or almost Rs. 18 crores, making him one of the most expensive modern artists of India. For his immense contribution in the field of art, he was awarded the Padma Shri and Fellowship of the Lalit Kala Akademi in 1981, Padma Bhushan in 2007, and Padma Vibhushan in 2013. He was also conferred with the highest French civilian honour, the Commandeur de la Legion d’honneur (Legion of Honour) in 2015. In 1959, he married the French artist Janine Mongillat, who died of cancer in 2002. In 2010, Raza returned to India.
Sayed Haider Raza was born on February 22, 1922 in Babaria, Narsinghpur district, Madhya Pradesh, to Sayed Mohammed Razi who was the Deputy Forest Ranger of the district, and Tahira Begum.
He took to drawing and painting at the age of 12, and later moved to Damoh from where he completed his school education from Government High School. He later studied at the Nagpur School of Art, Nagpur from 1939 to 1943. Then he took admission in Sir J. J. School of Art, Bombay in 1943 and passed out in 1947.
In 1950, he went to France to study the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts (ENSB-A) in Paris, on a Govt. of France scholarship. He continued to live and exhibit his work in Paris. In 1956, he was awarded the Prix de la critique in Paris, and became the first non-French artist to receive the honour.
Professional Career in Arts
In 1946, Sayed Haider Raza had his first solo show at Bombay Art Society Salon, and was awarded the Silver Medal. In his next exhibition he won the Gold Medal. His art ranged from expressionistic landscapes to abstract ones; and he moved from his early 1940’s style of landscapes in water colors, to painting landscapes of the mind.
During 1947, his mother died, and he co-founded the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group along with K. H. Ara and F.N. Souza. The group was formed with the aim of moving away from the influences of European realism in Indian art, and to bring Indian inner vision into the art. In 1948, the group had its first exhibition. In the same year Raza’s father died and his four brothers and sister migrated to Pakistan, during the Partition.
From 1950 onwards, in France, he continued to experiment with the Western Modernism, moving from Expressionist art form to greater abstraction. He was initially enamoured by the rural French countryside and painted a series with the rolling terrain and quaint village architecture; and churches engulfed by an inky blue night sky. Raza used gestural brushstrokes and a heavy application of paint, which were later carried to his late 1970s abstractions.
In 1962, he became a visiting lecturer at the University of California in USA. After the 1970s, Raza had become increasingly unhappy and restless; and made trips to India. He visited the caves of Ajanta – Ellora, Benaras, Gujarat and Rajasthan, and he studied Indian culture more closely.
After the introduction of ‘Bindu’ or Point, he added newer dimensions to his themes in the next decades, with the inclusion of themes around the Tribhuj or Triangle which was about the Indian concepts of space and time. With Prakriti-purusha or the female and the male energy, he transformed from an expressionist landscape painter to a master of geometric abstraction and profundity. He later incorporated elements of Tantra from Indian scriptures.
In 2000, he began to express his insights on Indian spirituality, and created works around the Kundalini, Nagas and the Mahabharata.
He founded the ‘Raza Foundation’ in India for promotion of art among Indian youth, and the Annual Raza Foundation Award are given to young artists in India.
On 23 July 2016, S. H. Raza breathed his last at a local hospital in New Delhi. He was 94. His death left a huge void in the world of art and he remains one of India’s most celebrated painters. After his death, Raza Committee was created in Paris to promote, save and protect his work.
Quotes by S. H. Raza
“India is always in my heart and I put that in my paintings and sometimes in my diaries and letters.”
“My work is my own inner experience and involvement with the mysteries of nature and form which is expressed in colour, line, space and light.”
“I didn’t become a French painter or a European one. I remained an Indian painter through the years. That was always in my heart and I am very glad that I was able to come back here again.”
“Young painters are amazingly involved in their own research and are coming into their own personal perceptions. There is great hope for the future of art here. We will be the most vital art expression in the world.”
“France has been very good to me, but i am still an Indian citizen.”
“Hard work with reflection and thought would ultimately get results. And this is not forced labour but what you impose on yourself.”
“I am very attached to my memories, to my civilization, our extraordinary tradition.”
Written By: Raj Kumar Hansdah