'I have never left India. I love my country and I am proud of it, and it's not sentimental my friend. Don't think that it's only emotional. I have been linked with the profound spiritual, religious message that India has to give to Indians and to the world of which we are forgetful at times, even in India.' (Raza cited in 'A conversation with Raza', Raza A Retrospective exh. cat. New York, 2007, n.p)
One of India's leading modern masters, Syed Haider Raza was a founder member of the revolutionary Bombay Progressive Artist's group formed in the year of India's Independence in 1947. Now well established as an artist of international renown, he first came to worldwide prominence in Paris in the late 1950s and '60s after moving to the city in 1950. Painted in 1973 La Terre is an important work that belongs to a key period in Raza's career when, after many years working within the style of the École de Paris, his artistic path brought him full circle and he began to integrate vital elements of his Indian childhood and cultural heritage into his paintings.
'I needed ten years in Bombay and I needed thirty years here (in Paris) to understand what is 'plastic art' what the fundamental requirements of a 'vital painted work' were so that it could be called important', Raza has said. 'I did this in France, in Paris, and I am grateful...that I could come to a certain recognition in the art world in France and the rest of the world. But I was still unhappy. I said to myself: Yes, it is all right to be an important painter of the École de Paris, but where is your Indian background Raza? I asked myself and I started coming more and more regularly to India - for two to three months every year to study again what Indian culture was, what Indian sculpture was. I went to Ellora and Ajanta, I went to Benares, I went to Gujarat and Rajasthan. I looked at the sculptures and paintings, I read books and still I needed another twenty years to arrive where I am today. You know it's not very easy to give fifty years of one's life to the fundamental research of painting. It was a long period, a long wait, but I did it.' (Ibid)
La Terre is an holistic painting that invokes a deep sense of the land and the night by fusing both abstract, representational and even symbolic form into a powerful and mystic expression of the mood and atmosphere of the Indian night. Rooted in Raza's childhood memories of life growing up in the small and densely forested village of Kakaiya near the Narmada River valley in Madhya Pradesh, the painting is an evocative expression of the rich density and strong sensory life inherent with the deep, warm, blackness of the Indian night. 'Nights in the forest were hallucinating,' Raza recalled. Sometimes the only humanizing influence was the dancing of the Gond tribes. Daybreak brought back a sentiment of security and well being. On market-day under the radiant sun, the village was a fairyland of colours. And then, the night again. Even today I find that these two aspects of my life dominate me and are an integral part of my paintings.' (Raza, cited in Yashodhara Dalmia, The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives New Delhi, 2001, p. 155) Using essentially abstract colour and form to convey this unified sense of the rich life of the land nocturnally enveloped in the apparent nothingness of an all-pervasive darkness, La Terre is a picture that also stands as a metaphor for the whole of Creation itself.
For Raza, the colour black is 'the mother colour' from which all others are born. In this work, which takes a conventional landscape form with its suggestion of a high horizon line, Raza has focused the composition around a black bindu-like form at the top of the painting. The bindu - the cosmic egg or primordial seed of nothingness from which, in Hindu mythology, all Creation is born - here takes the role of a hole in the sky or a black sun - a mystical point of focus contrasting directly with the colour, form and animated gestural touches and splashes of colour all around it. This prototype bindu - anticipating Raza's later preoccupation with this ancient mystic symbol - is seemingly both the source and the negation of the sumptuous myriad of physical detail manifesting itself all around it.
In this way, in its persuasive delineation of a rich, animated landscape full of, energy, vitality and detail - a very painterly world of life - rooted around the mystical and minimalist dot representative of spiritual perception, La Terre also becomes an elemental work of art describing a conjunction of universal opposites. Its combination of the sensual enjoyment of physical detail and an almost tachist sense of painterliness with a fundamentally more mystic and conceptual imagery drawn from ancient Indian art establishes this work as one that moves beyond the merely representational into the realm of the spiritual.
'They talk about the prices of my paintings in New York,' Raza said in 2007, 'I am happy about that. I am not neglecting the logic of economics. But let them also say that Raza is a colourist. Let them say he has brought in a pictorial art expression of what is important in the last ten centuries of Indian culture. I am painting Nagas, I am painting Kundalini, I am painting the Prakriti Purush concept of male and female.' ('A Conversation with Raza', op. cit.)