Remembering the legend that was Raza
On the 23rd July 2016, we lost Raza saab. It was a sad day in the artworld and will forever be remembered so.
Raza Saab was born in 1922 in Mandla, Madhya Pradesh, India. He was one of the founding members of the PAG (Progressive Artists Group) formed in 1947. PAG members rejected the Nationalist art practised by the Bengal School and instead turned to the Expressionist, Surrealist and Cubist styles of the international avant-garde for inspiration.
He is best known for his ‘Bindu’ series, which are marked by geometric abstraction and bold experimentation with colour. In 1950, he won a French government scholarship and went to study painting at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Inspired by Cezanne, he continued to experiment with his painting style and went on to produce landmark artworks that he is best remembered for. He returned to India in 2011.
Of the beginning of the Bindu series, Mr. Ashok Vajpeyi, the renowned Indian poet and trustee of the Raza Foundation, told me that the Bindu originally came into Raza’s life from his schoolteacher, who told a young restless Raza to concentrate on a Bindu he had drawn on the blackboard to remedy the fact that the young boy lacked concentration. In the late 70’s, when he had grown restless with his style and was looking to add more meaning to his work/ paintings, this exercise came back to him and the Bindu returned to his work.
Of his work he had said “My work is my own inner experience and involvement with the mysteries of nature and form which is expressed in colour, line, space and light”. When asked to elaborate further he had said “The Bindu, Tribhuj and Prakriti-Purush, all come from the Indian repertoire of spirituality and reflection of essence. They are significant as ideas, but painting them, I hope, transforms them into visual images. Ideas into images; that is the secret, you may even call it the magic.”
A friend & a fellow PAG member, artist Krishen Khanna remembers him as a man very serious about his work and one who would take a keen interest in the work and learning of his fellow PAG members.
He remembers the time he met Raza saab in Paris. Khanna told him he wanted to visit the Louvre, Raza made him wear a blind folded and took him through the museum and asked him to open his eyes in front of the Pietà of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. Raza saab wanted Krishen Khanna to view only this work on his first visit to the Louvre, as according to Raza it was one of the greatest masterpieces in the Louvre, in terms of composition and colour, and indeed, it left a lasting impression on Krishen Khanna.
Krishen Khanna also remembers Raza saab as a man of great kindness. Raza saab & his wife Janine Mongillat took in a young aspiring artist called Manuel Frenades who landed up at their door in Paris. Manuel was someone Raza saab had met in India and in passing had said to him ‘ we might see you in Paris soon’. So when he landed up in Paris, they took him in, supported him financially and encouraged him in his work as well.
Coming back to his work, it was and remains an art market favourite. In 2010, 'Saurashtra' was sold at a Christie's auction for INR 16.42 crore and 'La Terre' was sold for INR 18.61 crore in in 2014.
About ‘Saurashtra’ he had said “It is always intriguing for an artist, how a particular work receives more attention than others. This work drew the highest ever price for an Indian artwork of modern times. The attention has something to do with this. But, on the other hand, it is an important work, where all the elements, colours, shapes, geometry and the bhaav all come together in an almost perfect orchestration. I usually start with a certain idea or concept and pursue it, discovering on the way, many surprises and consonances. A real work of art is a constant surprise for the artist as well.”
In 1981, he was awarded the Padma Shri and in 2013, a Padma Vibhushan by the Government of India. In 2015, the Government of France conferred on him Commandeur de la Legion d’Honneur (the Legion of Honour).
Raza saab will be greatly missed but we have all the wonderful work he has left behind for us to enjoy. In fact, the Raza Foundation is working on creating a catalogue raisonné of his works, and also documenting the letters written by him to his fellow PAG members.
Jyotsna Sharma is the Editor of The Wall. The Wall has been India's most well read art magazine for the last five years, subscribe and get access to premium content for free. Subscribe or read the magazine at thewallartmag.com