Sayed Haider Raza (22 February 1922 – 23 July 2016) was an Indian painter who lived and worked in France since 1950, while maintaining strong ties with India. He was born in Kakkaiya (District Mandla), Central Provinces, British India, which is now present-day Madhya Pradesh.
He was a renowned Indian artist. He was awarded the Padma Shri and Fellowship of the Lalit Kala Academi in 1981, Padma Bhushan in 2007, and Padma Vibhushan in 2013. He was conferred with the Commandeur de la Legion d'honneur (Legion of Honour) on 14 July 2015.
His seminal work Saurashtra sold for ₹16.42 crore ($3,486,965) at a Christie's auction in 2010.
In 1959 he married the French artist Janine Mongillat, who died of cancer in 2002. In 2010 he decided to return to India.
Sayed Haider Raza was born in Kakkaiya where he spent his early years, completed primary education and took to drawing at the age of 12. He moved to Damoh (also in Madhya Pradesh) at 13; where he completed his high school education from Government High School, Damoh.
After high school, he studied further at the Nagpur School of Art, Nagpur (1939–43), followed by Sir J. J. School of Art, Bombay (1943–47), before moving to France in October 1950 to study at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts (ENSB-A), Paris (1950-1953) on a Government of France scholarship. After his studies, he travelled across Europe, and continued to live and exhibit his work in Paris. He was later awarded the Prix de la critique in Paris in 1956, becoming the first non-French artist to receive the honour.
Sayed Haider Raza, had his first solo show when he was 24 in 1946 at Bombay Art Society Salon, and was awarded the Silver Medal of the society.
His work evolved from painting expressionistic landscapes to abstract ones. From his fluent water colours of landscapes and townscapes executed in the early 1940s, he moved toward a more expressive language, painting landscapes of the mind.
Raza carefully crafted his career to become an inspiration to two generations of artists. The year of 1947 proved to be a very important year for him. First, his mother died. Then, he co-founded the revolutionary Bombay Progressive Artists' Group (PAG) (1947–1956) along with K. H. Ara and F. N. Souza. This group set out to break free from the influences of European realism in Indian art and bring Indian inner vision (Antar gyan) into the art. The group had its first show in 1948. A revolutionary amount of art was created by the people in this group from 1940 to 1990. Raza's father died the same year his mother had died in Mandla. The majority of his four brothers and sister, migrated to Pakistan, after the partition of India. In the early years, the group continued its close rapport. Krishen Khanna speaks of the first exhibition Raza, Akbar Padamsee and F.N. Souza mounted together at the Gallery Cruz in Paris. "Souza and Padamsee painted in a quasi-modern fashion. Raza, however, made a throwback to the Mughal period, creating jewel-like water colours, with the pigment rubbed in with a shell. He was vastly successful and acquired by important collectors."
Once in France, he continued to experiment with currents of Western Modernism, moving from Expressionist modes towards greater abstraction and eventually incorporating elements of Tantrism from Indian scriptures. Whereas his fellow contemporaries dealt with more figural subjects, Raza chose to focus on landscapes in the 1940s and 50s, inspired in part by a move to France. In 1956, he was awarded the prestigious Prix de la Critique, this was a monumental award to the art scene in India.
In 1962, he became a visiting lecturer at the University of California in Berkeley, USA. Raza was initially enamored of the bucolic countryside of rural France. Eglise is part of a series which captures the rolling terrain and quaint village architecture of this region. Showing a tumultuous church engulfed by an inky blue night sky, Raza uses gestural brushstrokes and a heavily impasto-ed application of paint, stylistic devices which hint at his later 1970s abstractions.
The "Bindu" and beyond
By the 1970s Raza had grown increasingly unhappy and restless with his own work and wanted to find a new direction and deeper authenticity in his work, and move away from what he called the 'plastic art'. His trips to India, especially to caves of Ajanta - Ellora, followed by those to Varanasi, Gujarat and Rajasthan, made him realize his role and study Indian culture more closely, the result was "Bindu", which signified his rebirth as a painter.] The Bindu came forth in 1980, and took his work deeper and brought in, his new-found Indian vision and Indian ethnography. One of the reasons he attributes to the origin of the "Bindu", have been his elementary school teacher, who on finding him lacking adequate concentration, drew a dot on the blackboard and asked him to concentrate on it. The "Bindu" is related to Indian philosophy of being the point of all creation. The reason this interested Raza so much is because he was looking for new inspiration for his art and this created a new point of creation for himself.
After the introduction of "Bindu" (a point or the source of energy), he added newer dimensions to his thematic oeuvre in the following decades, with the inclusion of themes around the Tribhuj (Triangle), which bolstered Indian concepts of space and time, as well as that of "prakriti-purusha" (the female and the male energy), his transformation from an expressionist to a master of abstraction and profundity, was complete. His multiple works of art with the bindu is what truly tied him to his Indian roots and culture. This art created a sense of pride for his culture. The bindu is now widely regarded as a trademark for Raza and he said in 2010 that "It's the centre of my life".
"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".
- S. H. Raza
Raza abandoned the expressionistic landscape for a geometric abstraction and the "Bindu". Raza perceived the Bindu as the center of creation and existence progressing towards forms and color as well as energy, sound, space and time.
His work took another leap in 2000, when he began to express his increasingly deepened insights and thoughts on Indian spiritual, and created works around the Kundalini, Nagas, and the Mahabharat.