10 things to know about Sayed Haider Raza
A primer on the Indian Modernist whose richly coloured canvases fused Western avant-garde ideas with the spirituality of his homeland. Illustrated with works offered at Christie’s
The son of a forest ranger, Sayed Haider Raza was born in 1922 in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. He would go on to become one of his country’s most important 20th-century painters.
‘The most tenacious memory of my childhood is the fear and fascination of Indian forests,’ Raza said in 2001. ‘We lived near the source of the Narmada river in the centre of the dense forests of Madhya Pradesh. Nights in the forests were hallucinating; sometimes the only humanising influence was the dancing of the Gond tribes. Daybreak brought back a sentiment of security and wellbeing. 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.’
What is he best known for?
Raza experimented with a number of Modernist styles, but it’s probably his works in Abstract Expressionism and, later, Geometric Abstraction, for which he is most famous. What remained constant throughout his career, however, was his engagement with nature and the landscape, and his mastery of colour, which he deployed in variously rich combinations.
Is it true he founded India’s most radical art movement?
Yes, Raza co-founded the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) in Mumbai in 1947, the same year that India gained independence. He had moved to the city in 1943, and his early paintings include watercolours of its busy streets at different times of day and in different weathers.
Raza, who studied at the prestigious Sir J.J. School of Art in Mumbai, felt that Indian painting needed to advance to ensure that it kept up with European trends, and formed the group with fellow artists Francis Newton Souza, Krishnaji Howlaji Ara and Maqbool Fida Husain.
Broadly speaking, its adherents advocated combining an avant-garde style (Fauvist colours, Cubist forms and/or Expressionist brushwork) with Indian subject matter.
Why did Raza leave his homeland for France?
He accepted a painting scholarship at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1950. He would live in Paris for the next 60 years, using it as a base from which to take painting trips across France (Brittany and Provence were favourite destinations).
From the mid-1950s to mid-1960s, French landscape scenes dominated his work, characterised by gestural brushstrokes and an impasto application of paint. He saw the paintings of Post-Impressionists like Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh, and began to use colour as a tool of construction, switching from gouache and watercolour to more tactile oil-based pigments.
Over time, his landscapes would become increasingly abstract. Rooted in Raza’s childhood memories of life growing up in small and densely forested villages,
Tapovan — meaning forest of meditation — fuses abstract, symbolic forms into a powerful expression of the mood and atmosphere of the Indian nightscape. Painted in 1972, Tapovan is a seminal work that belongs to a key period in Raza’s career, when his artistic path brought him full circle and he began to integrate vital elements of his Indian childhood and cultural heritage into his paintings.
Raza married a French artist, Janine Mongillat, and returned to live in India only after her death in 2010.
What is the concept of ‘bindu’ and why was it so crucial to Raza’s work?
In Sanskrit, the word ‘bindu’ literally means point, or dot. It has the related connotation in Indian philosophy of being the point of all creation; the source of space, time and consciousness.
By the 1970s, Raza was seeking a new artistic direction, and turned to his homeland for inspiration. He made numerous visits to India, immersing himself in the metaphysical ideas of its historic texts.
Eventually, he hit upon the bindu as a motif. It took the form of a perfect circle, which appeared regularly in his paintings thereafter. The bindu is now widely regarded as Raza’s trademark. ‘It’s the centre of my life,’ he said in 2010.
Did Raza’s work bridge traditions of Indian and Western art?
Very much so. His Geometric Abstract works are a good example. They are sometimes compared to the paintings of American Abstractionist Frank Stella, renowned for his simple shapes, methodical repetition and minimalistic patterns. Raza saw these during a stint as an art lecturer in the United States in the early 1960s, and greatly admired them.
Where Stella wanted to eradicate any sense of the spiritual from his work, however, Raza looked to infuse his with it. As well as the bindu, he rendered other aspects of Indian cosmology with geometric shapes: the complementary forces of male (purush) and female (prakriti) energy, for instance, represented by upright and inverted triangles.
Is it true that he was a big admirer of Rothko?
Yes. In 1962, Raza was invited to teach at the University of California in Berkeley, where he worked with Sam Francis and fell in love with the work of American Abstract Expressionists, particularly Mark Rothko. ‘Rothko’s work opened up lots of interesting associations for me,’ he said. ‘It was so different from the insipid realism of the European School. It was like a door that opened to another interior vision.’
Has he been the subject of major international exhibitions?
In addition to numerous solo shows in galleries around the world, his work has been included in international exhibitions in cities such as New York, Washington D.C., and Oxford, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and at the Lalit Kala Akademi in New Delhi, and in the Biennales of Venice, Sao Paulo and Menton (France). In 2023, the Centre Pompidou in Paris will present nearly 100 of Raza’s paintings in a major retrospective (15 February to 15 May).
No, he passed away in 2016, aged 94. By the end of his life he had received many awards, including the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan (three of the four highest civilian honours from the Indian state). He had also been awarded the French Legion of Honour.
Is there a robust market for Raza’s work?
Yes. More than a dozen of his works have surpassed the $1 million mark at auction, including Tapovan from 1972, which broke the artist’s world auction record when it sold for more than $4.5 million at Christie’s in New York in March 2018 and remains the highest price paid for his work at auction. ‘The market recognises that this was a special artist who produced a number of first-rate works in a number of different styles across a long career,’ says Nishad Avari, Christie’s head of sale in the South Asian Art department.
‘Prices are strong for the work of all founding members of the Progressive Artists’ Group, actually, because there's an awareness that this was a bold new movement founded in a momentous year for the country. No serious collection of South Asian art is complete without a healthy Progressive Artists’ Group contingent — and without Raza, certainly.’