A new Sayed Haider Raza biography makes sense of the abstract in him and his art.
Sayed Haider Raza: The Journey of an Iconic Artist by Yashodhara Dalmia Harper Collins
India’s first modern artists, born before Independence, faced a near-impossible challenge. They sought to attain modernity at an international not a parochial level, but at the same time were required (and some sincerely wished) not to forfeit their Indian identity. They ran the gauntlet between those critics who accused them of selling out and those who dismissed them as provincial. For Sayed Haider Raza, the dilemma had a geographical twist. Given a chance to visit Paris as a young man, he stayed on and made France his home for the next 60 years. He visited India frequently, but finally returned only in 2010, six years before his death. Despite his émigré status, India clearly mattered profoundly to him, as a source of both identity and inspiration.
But how to express it? Those who found their subjects in India’s enduring myths were not always thanked for it, especially if they were seen as “outsiders”. M.F. Husain is a case in point. Such an approach would not suit Raza, who from an early age was pulled towards abstraction. One major point of connection for him was Rajasthan: not its legends but the intense colours of its costumes and its art. But this brought its own tensions with modernism. The global modernist sensibility often focuses on the anguish and turmoil of the 20th century. One of the things that makes Raza’s art so appealing is that his default mood is celebratory.
Another point of connection was with the forms and symbols of Tantra, especially the bindu. Raza himself disliked the label Neo-Tantric and it would be a mistake to see his bindu paintings as gateways into the world of Tantric philosophy. But that does not make his engagement with it superficial. He was aiming at something universal.
Yashodhara Dalmia’s excellent and well-illustrated biography, Sayed Haider Raza: The Journey of an Iconic Artist, tells the story of his long (and seemingly rather simple) life, but it is also a fine introduction to his art because it reveals its essentially religious character. This is hard to grasp, not only because the art is abstract but because Raza’s sense of the sacred was eclectic. He identified as a Muslim, but when staying in his cottage in the south of France, he worshipped at the local village church daily. When in India, he visited temples as well as mosques. Throughout his life, he began his day’s work with prayer. His friend Ashok Vajpeyi, hearing Raza muttering at the easel, once asked him whether he was chanting a mantra, and was told, no, it was a line from the German poet Rilke. We should resist trying to decode or translate his icons back into words, but contemplating them unveils a broad range of compacted thought.Giles Tillotson
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