A Tribute to the Legacy of Syed Haider Raza

An artist, a philanthropist, a person for whom art resided in his soul. A tribute to the ace artist by Surfaces Reporter

An artist, a philanthropist, a person for whom art resided in his soul. A tribute to the ace artist by Surfaces Reporter

With the demise of Syed Haider Raza, on July 23, 2016 in New Delhi, at the age of 94, India has lost one of its most globally-acclaimed artists and left a void in the creative space. Despite spending most part of his life in France, he was deeply associated with the Indian culture which was well reflected in all his paintings – more so towards the late 70s. He drew inspiration from Indian philosophy and spirituality.

Beyond all the accolades and awards, perhaps, his biggest contribution to Indian art was infusing modernist creativity rooted in our own culture, which led to resurgence of what we see now as Indian Contemporary art. He redefined the notion of modernism with his deeply spiritual and intellectual quest for artistic expression.

Initial Life

Born to a forest officer, based in Mandala district in Madhya Pradesh, he completed his schoolings at Damoh in Madhya Pradesh. Raza received his formal training in painting at the Nagpur School of Art (1939-1943) at Nagpur and Sir J. J. School of Art (1943-1947) in Mumbai. During his stay at the Sir J.J. School, he co-founded Progressive Artist Group (PAG) of Bombay in 1947. This group set out to break free from the influences of European realism in Indian art and bring Indian inner vision into the art. During those days, Raza experimented with the Western modernism, which was moving away from expressionism and towards abstraction.

In 1950, he shifted to France to pursue his studies at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts of Paris with a scholarship from the French government. He was already a well-known artist in India by then with a few solo show and some awards to his name. He had his first solo show in 1946 at Bombay Art Society Salon, and was awarded the Silver Medal of the society. After his studies, he travelled across Europe, and continued to live and exhibit his work in Paris, until 2010 when he came back to India. He became the first non-French artist to win the Prix de la critique in Paris in 1956. 

An interesting fact about Raza was, in 1947, after partition, his family moved to Pakistan. But the iconic painter chose to stay back, not just for the sake of his loyalty for his motherland, but for his admiration for Mahatma Gandhi.     

Raza’s work and the concept of the Bindu

His works, mainly abstracts in acrylic or oil, stands out for its rich use of colours. Till the 70s, his works were mainly in landscapes and he wanted to break free and create something unique with more depth and deeper authentication. He looked at his roots in India and Indian culture and the result was creation of Bindu. He changed his focus from the expressionistic landscape to a geometric abstraction. His interest in the Bindu stemmed from his childhood days when his primary school teacher had asked him to stare at a dot on the wall to calm his distracted mind. Raza believed the Bindu (dot) to be the centre of creation and existence and his works reflect this particular thinking. He later went on to add new dimensions to this and explored around the themes of prakriti and purush, kundalini and the tribhuj, which then became part of his signature style.

His post 2000 works like Nagas and the Mahabharat – which depicted his deeper spiritual realisation, received critical acclamation. Raza once 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."

He also reached the pinnacle of commercial success when one of his abstract ‘Saurashtra’ was sold for Rs.15.9 crore at Christie’s auction in 2010. Four years later he bettered this with ‘La Terre’ attracting a bid of about Rs.18.8 crore. But he remained largely unaffected by the attention.

Due to the popularity and high value, Raza's work had often been subjected to fakes in the past. The artist even inaugrated an exhibition in the past where most of his displayed works were fake. So now to combat the issue, Arun Vadehra, owner of the Delhi based Vadhera Art Gallery and a board member of his foundation is creating a catalogue of the Ace painter's work of the past six decades to combat any fakes. "We have prepared a catalogue of his work, a first of its kind in the country, which covers the 1958-1971 period. As we may have missed out a few works, we are inviting people to share information so that we can fill in the blanks," he said during an interview.

Raza’s Philanthrophical work

He didn’t forget about his early day’s struggle either and wanted to do something for the young and talented artists in India. In 2001, he set up Raza Foundation in New Delhi for promoting, supporting and honouring young artists from visual, performing and literary fields. Raza invested a substantial part of his earnings in the foundation. “Besides giving awards of Rs. 1 lakh each to visual artists, 1 poet, 1 musician and 1 dancer annually, the Foundation has supported a variety of creative projects, including publication of catalogues, books, journals, multi-disciplinary art camps, seminars on music and important visual artists, critical dialogues and discussion on the arts,” notes the foundation’s official website.

Artist & Poet Ashok Vajpayi, during a meet to pay tribute to the ace artist recalled about Raza's philanthropic ways.He quoted Raza saying, "I will get so much money, what will I do? I want to do something for others." And thus  suggested about creating a foundation.

"Throughout his lifetime he had given nearly Rs.20 crores and in his will too, he has given everything to the foundation. No other artist in the history of Indian art, has given such a great gift to others," Vajpeyi said.

syed haider raza

He has won several prestigious awards, including Padma Shri (1981), Padma Bhushan (2007), Padma Vibhushan (2013) and was also conferred the highest French civilian honour, the Commandeur de la Legion d'honneur (2015).

It is extremely difficult to pay tribute to a artist like Raza who remained so unfazed by the fame and accolades he has received and was highly dedicated to his works. Even during his last couple of years of his life, he had the same enthusiasm that he showcased in his earlier days. Truly, he lived for art and also art was his means of living.

Though he is no more; he will live eternally through his works. He will be remembered forever for his vibrant colours and the Bindu. He will serve as inspirations for generations to come! May his soul rest in peace!

Awards He Won in His Lifetime

1946: Silver Medal, Bombay Art Society, Mumbai

1948: Gold Medal, Bombay Art Society, Mumbai

1956: Prix de la critique, Paris

1981: Padma Shri; Government of India

1981: Fellowship of the Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi

1981: Kalidas Samman, Government of Madhya Pradesh

2007: Padma Bhushan, the Government of India

2013: Padma Vibhushan, the Government of India

2013: One of the greatest living global Indian legends ... NDTV INDIA

2015: Commandeur de la Legion d’Honneur (the Legion of Honour); the Government of France


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