Syed Haider Raza (1922–2016)
By Sylvia Tsai
Syed Haider (SH) Raza, one of India’s most venerated modern painters, died on July 23 at the age of 94 in New Delhi. Known for his striking abstractions of landscapes as well as color-field and later geometric paintings, SH Raza was among the trailblazers who challenged the conventions of painting in India, introducing new ways of seeing the world. His strong use of color and forms with spiritual associations made him a well loved figure in cultural life throughout the second half of the 20th century.
Born in 1922, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, Raza began painting watercolor landscapes at a young age. His passion for the outdoors was instilled by his father, Sayed Mohammed Razi, who was the deputy forest ranger of the district he grew up in. Raza went on to study at the prestigious Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai from 1943 to 1947, and held his first solo show at the Bombay Art Society Salon in 1946. It was at Sir JJ School of Art, where he met FN Souza, MF Husain and KH Ara, who together would be among the six founding members of the short-lived yet influential collective Progressive Artists Group (PAG).
Formed in 1947, in the wake of Partition that separated India and Pakistan, the PAG defied the academic realism popular at the time and brought together various stylizations that included classical Indian art, folk and tribal art and European modernism, developing a vocabulary that uniquely represented India post-independence. As characterized by Souza in one of the PAG’s exhibition catalogs in 1949: “We have no pretensions of making vapid revivals of any school or movement in art. We have studied at various schools of painting and sculpture to arrive at a vigorous synthesis.” As the founding members began to travel abroad, the group disbanded in 1956.
In the meantime, Raza had moved to Paris to study at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in 1950. Inspired by his new surroundings, this period marks the artist’s experimentation in the medium of oil painting and le sens plastique, the pictorial elements in painting. In his landscapes of rural France during the ’50s, such as his depiction of Carcassonne (1951) a medieval hilltop town, geometric forms of churches and homes are staggered on top of one another, creating a flat image, a sharp contrast to his watercolors from the 1940s, where scenes are more realistically depicted. This transition points to Raza’s eye in developing shapes, as figures were absent in these later oil paintings.
While in Paris, in addition to painting, Raza taught Hindi and worked in the film industry. In 1955, he was shortlisted with 20 other artists for the prestigious Prix de La Critique award, a prize selected by 14 art critics. He won the award in July 1956, the first non-French artist to do so, which catapulted his career. Raza would continue to travel around France and Europe, where he would remain to live for the next five decades, but as he said in his autobiography: “It’s for almost 52 years that I have been living here. But I really believe that I never left India. India is in my heart and in my mind. I am constantly referring to the sources of Indian tradition.”
In 1962, Raza was invited as a visiting professor to teach at the University of California in Berkeley, where he first encountered the abstract paintings of Sam Francis, Mark Rothko and the contemporaneous abstract expressionism happening in the United States. Throughout the 1960s, he continued to experiment with modes of abstraction and with his own use of brilliant colors.
As Raza’s work evolved, and his desire to represent Indian culture grew, he began to reference the bindu, the Sanskrit word for “point,” to go beyond what can be imagined or represented. For Raza, the “void” of the bindu opened up infinite possibilities, which he experimented through vibrant tones—primarily red, orange, black, blue and yellow. He continued to make these geometrically patterned paintings, which he began in 1980, until his death.
Raza would go on to receive the Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian awards in India, in 1981, and was elected fellow of the Lalit Kala Academy, New Delhi in 1983. He moved back to New Delhi in 2002, after the passing of his wife, the sculptor Janine Mongillat (1929–2002). In 2007 he was awarded the Padma Bushan, the third-highest civilian award, and then the Padma Vibhushan, the secon-highest civilian award, in 2013.
Earlier this year, two other influential modern painters passed away: AA Raiba (1922–2016) and KG Subramanyan (1924–2016), making Raza the last surviving member of the PAG. As many commentators in India have noted, his death marks another broken link to the formative post-Partition period. Yet Raza's legacy will continue to resonate, as he is remembered as one of the pillars of modernist art in India.