RAZA: LIVING IN COLOR
Born in Central India in 1922, Syed Haider Raza studied at the Nagpur School of Art before moving to Bombay in 1943 to study at the renowned Sir J.J. School of Art. Following his graduation, and with the support of mentors and patrons like Rudolf von Leyden, Walter Langhammer, Kekoo Gandhy and Emanuel Schlesinger, Raza discovered and nurtured the primary artistic inspiration that would reverberate throughout his career: the land and nature around him.
In 1947, the year of Indian independence, Raza joined the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) in Bombay, striving to establish a unique painterly language for himself and to help define what modern Indian art should stand for. In this period of intense searching and experimentation, Raza was already masterfully deploying light and color in his work to express the ways in which the landscape resonated with him.
Reviewing Raza’s work in 1948, Rudy von Leyden wrote, “Colours have deepened, washes have changed into rich juicy pigment with an endless play of tones [...] There are paintings in which the colour structure seems to be too centrifugal to contain the composition.” (R. von Leyden, ‘Paintings by Mr. S.H. Raza, Bombay Exhibition’, The Times of India, 23 October, 1948) Watercolors fluidly pooled into each other in paintings like Flora Fountain in Monsoon (1945) and Benares (1946), evoking the essence of the scene and flagging off the artist’s discovery of the emotive potential of pigment, a quality he would
relentlessly mine in his later work.
While the oeuvres of the other founding members of the PAG, Maqbool Fida Husain and Francis Newton Souza are most often related to form and line respectively, it is not surprising that Raza’s body of work is closely associated with color. Over the course of his artistic career, which lasted well over six decades, the artist came to understand and manipulate paint in the most
accomplished ways to achieve truly unique ends.
After moving to France in 1950, Raza began to work in the styles of the École de Paris. He saw the paintings of Post-Impressionists like Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh and began to use color as a tool of construction, switching from gouache and watercolor to more tactile oil-based pigments. Soon, however, color overtook construction, and Raza’s landscapes of the French countryside
became less about tangible representation and more about the mood they evoked in the artist. The easiest way to express this – the slow creeping of twilight, an angry summer tempest, villages tumbling down forested hills – was through thick swathes of vivid primary colors.
Another artist who moved to Paris the same time as Raza was Zao Wou-Ki. Like Raza, he would also negotiate a dialogue between the Western avant-garde and his traditional training in Chinese painting and calligraphy, and by the mid-1950s, his colorful abstract landscapes were skillfully bridging East and West, expressing dynamic movement and balance. Foudre, painted in 1955, is a defining example of Wou-Ki’s interpretation of nature through color. Meaning ‘lightning’ in French, one can distinguish in Foudre a luminosity in the brilliant hues of red, blue, and orange, and the emotion that both he and Raza sought to distill from the natural environs. These two artists, who met in Paris, became central figures of the Second École de Paris, a generation which defined itself by a relentless determination and willingness to engage in struggle in order to transcend tradition and Western artistic idioms.
As the pictorial space in Raza's paintings became less structured, exploring the play of light and color in nature, it was as if Raza had redefined the genre of landscape to center pigment as its main premise. This stylistic turn was reinforced in 1962, when the artist spent a summer teaching at the University of California, Berkeley. During his time in the United States, Raza was deeply impacted by the work of Abstract Expressionists Sam Francis, Hans Hoffman and Mark Rothko. Speaking about this encounter, he noted, “Rothko's work opened up lots of interesting associations for me. It was so different from the insipid realism of the European School. It was like a door that opened to another interior vision. Yes, I felt that I was awakening to the music of another forest, one of subliminal energy. Rothko’s works brought back the images of japmala, where the repetition of a word continues till you achieve a state of elated consciousness. Rothko’s works made me understand the feel for spatial perception.” (Artist statement, Raza: Celebrating 85 Years, exhibition catalogue, New Delhi, 2007)
To allow his brushstrokes and use of space to become freer and even more expressive, Raza began to use quick-drying acrylic paints. It was also in this period of gestural expression, sometimes termed ‘lyrical abstraction’, that the artist turned to his homeland, India, for inspiration. Not only did Raza draw on his memories of growing up in the forests of central India, but also on traditional Indian theories of color and aesthetics, Sanskrit and Urdu poetry, and teachings on visually-guided meditation. The use of color in Indian miniature paintings, particularly those from Pahari and Rajasthani schools, became an important point of reference for the artist.
“More importantly, he continued to explore further possibilities of colour, making colour rather than any geometrical design or division the pivotal element around which his paintings moved. Also, colours were not being used as merely formal elements: they were emotionally charged. Their movements or consonances on the canvases seemed more and more to be provoked by emotions, reflecting or embodying emotive content. The earlier objectivity, or perhaps the distance started getting replaced or at least modified by an emergent subjectivity – colours started to carry the light load of emotions more than ever before.” (A. Vajpeyi, A Life in Art: S.H. Raza, New Delhi, 2007, p. 78) It was during this period that Raza painted magnum opuses like Zamin (1971), Tapovan (1972) and La Terre (1973), paeans to the sensuousness of nature and to the living landscape of his childhood home.
In these works, primary pigments were balanced against black as their ultimate source. “For black was the mother of all colours and the one from which all others were born. It was also the void from which sprang the manifest universe [...] Some of the most haunting works of this period are those which evoke the night [...] where the liminal sheaths of black are illuminated by sparks of white light [...] As with Mark Rothko, black is one of the richest colours in Raza’s palette and signifies a state of fulsomeness. However, for both painters, colours plumb the depths and are not simply used for their own sake.” (Y. Dalmia, ‘The Subliminal World of Raza’, A Life in Art: S.H. Raza, New Delhi, 2007, p. 197)
Developing from his gestural masterpieces of the 1970s, in Raza’s works from the 1980s, regimented form began to take over from the artist’s expressive strokes, and geometry emerged as the main organizing principle. Much like tantric mandalas, Raza started using diagonals, triangles, squares and circles to symbolize natural phenomena and the cycles of the universe. Color remained central, gaining an additional symbolic dimension, with the primary hues now representing the five foundational elements of Nature – earth, sky, water, fire and ether. At the heart of these compositions was the opaque black bindu, representing the beginning and end of all energy and creation in the cosmos, and the source of all color.
Although its significance evolved from decade to decade through Raza’s career, color remained the most important component of his work till the very end of his life. An understanding of the aesthetic relevance of color, thus, is of the utmost importance to engage with Raza’s work. “We see that his colour cycles are matched by a conceptual stream which continuously archives deeper ravines. This restless craving for a renewal of means and methods is the essential aspect of the works of Raza.” (Y. Dalmia, ‘The Subliminal World of Raza’, A Life in Art: S.H. Raza, New Delhi, 2007, p. 199)
I opened my eyes in the village of Kakaiya, in Madhya Pradesh. My most vivid memories are those of the forest of Mandla. It is there that I began to see.
- S.H. Raza
It was the search for the intangible. My quest to create the tangible altered during the seventies. I tried to find ways to capture the moods of places and people. I had a preoccupation with evoking the essence of emotions and moods more than a visual sight. Elementary experiences of night and day, joy and anguish, summer and winter became my subjects for the fact that they were felt more than seen. From that gestural period of tones and expression, I moved to a new period in the eighties.
- S.H. Raza
The son of a forest ranger, Syed Haider Raza was born in a village in Central India, in 1922. Growing up in the lush Narmada River valley, nature played a central role in the artist’s life from a very young age. It is not surprising, then, that throughout his career, Raza explored and developed on the intimate connection he shared with the natural world and would go on to revolutionize the genre of modernist landscape in ways that continue to reverberate through the contemporary art world today.
A core member of the radical Bombay Progressive Artists’ group, Raza moved to Paris in 1950, where he rose to international prominence shortly after becoming the first international artist to win the coveted Prix de la Critique in 1956. Despite his achievements, however, the artist felt his practice lacked something, noting, “I am grateful [...] that I could come to 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". (Artist statement, ‘A conversation with Raza’, Raza: A Retrospective, New York, 2007, unpaginated)
While Raza spent over sixty years of his artistic career living in France, India and specifically the Indian landscape persisted and resonated within him and his practice. “[...] in nostalgia perhaps of the land he left behind when he settled in Paris, S.H. Raza opted wholeheartedly for the rhapsodic, nature based abstraction. The nostalgia was fierce and the earth was a conflagration of colours.” (G. Kapur, Understanding Raza: Many Ways of Looking at a Master, New Delhi, 2014, p. 172) Describing this turn in his oeuvre, Raza said, “I was inspired to conceive a painting which could be a letter to my mother country, India, revealing my experiences, discoveries and acquisitions. I hoped that the painting could be evidence that I was never cut off from my sources. The memories, conscious and unconscious, were ever present.” (Artist statement, S. H. RAZA, exhibition catalogue, London, 2005, unpaginated)
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. “I have never really left the deep rooted, wonderful world of forest and rambling river, hill and sparkling stream. The time spent as nature’s child. You see, we lived in the country’s core, in Barbaria, Madhya Pradesh, where my father was a forest ranger, in the Mandla afterwards. The lush Kanha thickets were my regular haunts. Highly impressionable at that tender age, I soaked in every single feature of that beautiful landscape.” (Artist statement, Y. Dalmia, The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives, New Delhi, 2001, pp. 156-157)
Tapovan, meaning forest of meditation, is a triumph of Raza’s mastery of landscape, his expressionistic use of color and his spiritual and symbolic engagement with nature. The painting invokes a powerful sense of the nature and the night by fusing abstract, symbolic forms into a powerful and mystic expression of the mood and atmosphere of the Indian nightscape. Rooted in Raza’s childhood memories of life growing up in small and densely forested villages, the painting is an evocative expression of the rich and strong sensory life inherent in the deep, pervasive darkness of the Indian night. A time of myth and magic, the night became profoundly spiritual for Raza.
Here, nature, represented by Raza’s sumptuously expressive application of color, becomes a source of power and inspiration that supersedes figurative representation. “Nature had become a pictorial metaphor: the forest, the river, the ravines, parched earth [...] these formed the essential components of [Raza's] work in the '60s and 70s". (G. Sen, 'Genesis', Understanding Raza: Many Ways of Looking at a Master, New Delhi, p. 74) All-encompassing and powerful, “Nature, for this artist, is something eternally alive. It is embedded in the cosmos as a whole and actually does not refer to the world we live in today, but is open to evolutionary questions such as the ‘where from’ and ‘where to’. What we see reminds us of many regions and worlds, which exist in the mind and imagination as well as in reality, and, therefore must be recognised. Raza believes that nature moves itself rather than being moved by the beholder.” (F. Mennekes, ‘Soft Polarity’, S. H. Raza, Paintings from 1966 to 2003, exhibition catalogue, Berlin, 2003, unpaginated)
Tapovan is an elemental painting, describing a conjunction of universal opposites. The tempestuous touches of color provide an incandescent contrast to the darkness they emerge from, endowing the painting with a depth that draws and holds viewers in its dominion. Flashes of vermillion, yellow, blue and green flicker across the surface, as if dancing through the undergrowth in the twilight. In the absence of discernible form, color becomes the legend for this landscape, at once subject and object, medium and form, figural and abstract. Raza’s combination of painterly detail with a fundamentally more mystic imagery transports this work into the realm of the spiritual. Tapovan stands as a metaphor for the whole of Creation itself, invoking a deep sense of the land that extends beyond the borders of the canvas approaching infinity. Within Raza’s oeuvre there are very few works of this impressive scale and caliber. As a seminal painting Tapovan stands testament to Raza’s great intellectual engagement with color and the landscape, as well as the artistic virtuosity that marked his entire career.