Indian Modernist Painter AA Raiba Dies at Age 94
By Sylvia Tsai
Abdul Aziz Raiba (also known as AA Raiba), an early member of India’s modern art collective Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG), died on April 15 in Nala Sopara, a northern suburb of Mumbai. He was 94 years old.
Respected for his ochre-toned paintings on jute canvas, which portrayed thickly outlined landscapes and voluptuous yet minimal figuration, Raiba worked among influential artists such as MF Hussain, SH Raza and FN Souza. However, unlike his contemporaries, Raiba is relatively unknown in India’s art history due to his early disassociation with the PAG.
Born in 1922 in Mumbai to a family of tailors, Raiba came from modest means. His path into art began at an early age, when his teacher noticed his natural talent for drawing and calligraphy and suggested that Raiba attend art school. After receiving a scholarship to a local art school where he gained foundational training, Raiba was offered the opportunity to study at the esteemed Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai in 1942. Over the next four years, Raiba would often sketch his environment, creating vignettes of nature and architecture, while also exploring mural and miniature painting.
In 1947, a year after graduating from Sir JJ School of Art, Raiba was granted a one-year fellowship in the painting department at the same institution. At this time, outside of the university campus, India was undergoing transformations. That year, India gained its independence from the British Empire, which sparked local artists to find a means of expression that would represent where their country stood, as a modern nation rooted in its Indian identity. This prompted artist FN Souza to establish the PAG in 1947, an informal artist group that would propel modern art in India by exploring styles that moved beyond the rigidity seen in academic realism. Artists of PAG often times blended together folk and tribal art inspirations, as well as classical Indian and Western art.
Raiba exhibited with the PAG on several occasions, but, according to the artist, he began to distance himself from the group on the advice of Walter Langhammer—a former art teacher from Austria who had immigrated to India and later became the artistic director of the local magazine The Times of India. In an online interview with Art India in 2011, Raiba said, “Langhammer felt that [PAG] was not very serious about their work; he advised me to leave the Group and find my own way.” However, other sources have cited other reasons for Raiba’s departure. Some have reported that there was tension between MF Husain and Raiba that caused the latter to part ways with the group. Husain allegedly wanted to oust Raiba for being a miniature painter, while others say that Raiba had never accepted the invitation to join the PAG in the first place, as he did not see the collective as being experimental enough. Nevertheless, the PAG itself soon disbanded in 1956.
Raiba would go on to win a gold medal from the Bombay Art Society in 1956 and subsequently, again taking Langhammer’s suggestion, travel to the scenic region of Kashmir, where he would stay for five years. Raiba’s Kashmir years were a turning point in his artistic career. Inspired by the vast landscape, Raiba was prompted to move away from miniature painting to large-scale watercolors to capture its monumentality, leading to further experimentation with portraiture—he frequently depicted the nomadic Gurjar tribe—and still life on cloth.
Upon his move back to Mumbai in the early 1960s, Raiba continued to paint on cloth. Strapped for cash, he resolved the issue by creating his paintings on jute canvas, an affordable material that was also resilient against humid conditions. After returning to Mumbai and starting a family, Raiba eventually settled in Nala Sopara, in the outskirts of the city.
In 2011, it was Sumesh Sharma and Zasha Colah, curators and co-founders of Mumbai’s nonprofit research platform Clark House Initiative, who brought interest back to Raiba’s work. In an interview with The Indian Express, Sharma noted that “[Raiba] was never studied the way that he should have been, and it was only recently that he started getting the attention that he deserved.” Since then, Clark House Initiative has been actively supporting and promoting the artist. In 2011, Sharma and Colah organized Raiba’s first solo exhibition in 12 years at the Nehru Centre Auditorium in Mumbai. Rabia’s latest solo exhibition was held in 2013 at the Sir JJ School of Art.
At the height of his career, Raiba received several accolades and exhibited in shows internationally. However, throughout his life, the artist continuously struggled to maintain a steady income despite efforts such as Clark House Initiative’s 2012 project “AA Raiba: Droit de Suite: Artists’ Resale Rights,” which promised to the artist 20 percent of his artwork sales price. Raiba’s life ended in a one-room apartment that he shared with his family. Perhaps now, posthumously, Raiba and his contributions to India’s narrative will finally get the spotlight.
Sylvia Tsai is associate editor at ArtAsiaPacific.