The year 1950 would be a defining moment for the artist Sayed Haider Raza in more ways than one. In leaving for Paris, not only was his painterly expression to acquire great transformations but it was also to lead to an acquaintance with his French artist wife, Janine Mongillat, and a subsequent stay in the city for several decades which would catapult him to the international art world and society. The young artist who had left the shores of Mumbai with little to equip him was to reach the peak of his achievement here where his work acquired a magnetic presence. For Raza, Paris had given him le sens plastique, the sense of the painterly surface and its plastic components in form and color. “I recall to have cried in front of the portrait of Van Gogh. Cezanne led me away from the emotive approach to the rational approach in art.” (S.H. Raza quoted in Itinerary Carnets series, New Delhi, 2015) The empowering of his painterly armament would lead not only to powerful expression but forefront him as a formidable votary of modern art in India.
The fifties signal a feverish intensity in Raza’s paintings where he traverses the lush terrains of Southern France to suddenly come upon a row of medieval houses or a white church. These would be placed in a timeless space in his works, devoid of human presence under a burning sun interfacing with a cataclysmic reality. The perspective in these works were both aerial and frontal and the townscapes, which did not reflect any known reality, would glow in their own presence. The artist painted with a raw immediacy, embalming his canvases with the primaries, the raw red of the earth set off by the green of the vegetation and the charred black glimmering heights behind.
Though timeless and ahistorical, these works were at the same time layered with time resonating the arc of his journey from a small village of a few hamlets in Madhya Pradesh to the vast universe of a cosmopolitan city. Inspired by Cézanne in Provence and Van Gogh in Arles he would set the world aflame, for the space was his for the taking, and the colors were conjured from the rich palette of his (both native and adopted) countries. The vibrant tones would set the landscape on fire and the contours of houses and churches dissected the plane to interface with myriad energies. The artist skillfully melded the careful structuring of compositions inspired by École de Paris with the glowing tonal variations of the Rajasthani and Pahari miniatures drawn from Indian aesthetic traditions.
The Ville Provençale (1956), made in thick impasto was created as if in a hallucinatory state. A garland of houses in flickering orange, steaming red, sienna and indigo seem to stem from dark undulating land as if in a dream. Their uneven shapes and towering spires create the only sign of life, while all else lies still and asleep. The wedges of colors segue into each other and their burnished surfaces create a gem like effluence illuminating the darkness. Are these the houses which bewitched the artist when he traversed the lush terrains of Southern France? “The French landscape became a dominant theme of my work from 1954 to ’65 ... I went to Brittany where I painted French churches and villages ... I went to the central part of France … and to the southern part called Provence: in the villages dating back to the middle ages the houses were beautiful. The look they gave to furniture and architecture was a subject of study… The wonderful thing is existence, which should be understood, to be enjoyed.” (A. Vajpeyi and S. H. Raza, Passion: Life and Art of Raza, Rajkamal, New Delhi, 2005) Later, Raza along with his artist wife, Janine, would create a summer residence at Gorbio, a picturesque 12th century village with cobbled streets, sandwiched between the Maritime Alps and the Mediterranean Sea.
Initially Raza had worked according to the aesthetics imbibed in Mumbai where under the influence of artists such as V.S. Gaitonde, Shankar Palsikar and J.M.Ahiwasi, he had painted on paper with gouache and rubbed cowrie shell onto this to instill colors in a manner similar to Rajasthani and Jain miniatures. After two years in Paris, however he changed to oil painting which would mark his period of the fifties. Thick paint loaded his palette knife or brush embalming his canvas with residual memories.
The night haunted him, as did the morning. The germinating world of forests and rivers which had driven the restless child away from his studies, comes alive in the painting Ville Provençale (1956). A daub of orange here, a flash of green elsewhere demarcate the area between the dark of the night and glowing colors of daylight. These could be his experience of a once known space while growing up in the forests of Madhya Pradesh in central India. The stillness of the night with its eerie sounds and shapes would come alive for the young boy in all its darkness. In the daytime the enthralling spectacle of the village with its diversity and colors would weave a spell. As the artist stated, “The most tenacious memory of my childhood is the fear and fascination of Indian forests…Nights in the forests were hallucinating; sometimes the only humanizing influence was the dancing of the Gond tribes. Daybreak brought back a sentiment of security and well-being. On market-day, under the radiant sun, the village was a fairyland of colors. And then, the night again. Even today I find that these two aspects of my life dominate me and are an integral part of my paintings.” (G. Sen, ‘Genesis’, Raza Anthology: 1980-90, Gallery Chemould, Mumbai, 1991)
In Ville Provençale we have the emergence of brilliant colors and shapes from the enveloping somber tones where the two are juxtaposed and interconnected implicating a perpetual co-existence of dualities. This wholly contained unity of diametric opposites serves to create the spellbinding effect of the painting. And the bewitching dualities of light and darkness, epiphany and despair, stillness and movement would mark the artist’s oeuvre in the ensuing years.
The painting made in 1956 was exhibited at the Venice Biennale that year which was more focused on four Indian artists who had garnered a favorable response in Europe — M.F. Husain, Dinkar Kowshik, Akbar Padamsee and S.H. Raza. This as well as the earlier show in 1954 had been initiated and organized by the late diplomat and UNESCO Ambassador, the intrepid Madanjeet Singh. Indeed 1954 marked a watershed year for the Indian art scene which saw both the National Gallery of Modern Art and the Lalit Kala Akademi being established and it was only seven years ago that the Progressive Artists’ Group had mounted their first exhibition in Bombay in 1948. Singh travelled to Bombay, Madras and Calcutta, collecting works from both private and public collections for the show where 32 Indian artists included iconic names such as Amrita Sher-Gil, Jamini Roy, M.F.Husain, S.H.Raza and F.N.Souza and 59 works were displayed. The Indian Pavilion in 1954 was inaugurated by Sir Ronald Adam, in the presence of Luther Evans, then director-general of UNESCO, and as many as forty Indian paintings were sold at a time when Indian artists were virtually unknown in Europe. The first ever exhibition of Indian art at the Venice Biennale had created a stir of interest but Singh himself had considerable difficulty acquiring the works from the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi which only agreed to part with them at the intervention of the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. (M. Singh, The Sasia Story, UNESCO Publications, Paris, 2005)
The 1958 Biennale included 11 artists and 43 works, including: Ram Kumar,Akbar Padamsee and Krishna Reddy and the 1962 featured Krishen Khanna. The 1958 London show organized by the well-known art critic, George Butcher, propelled seven Indian artists and was a climactic moment for art. These included the works of Husain, Raza, Padamsee, Ram Kumar and Mohan Samant. There was extensive press coverage in the London Times. In Bombay, Bal Chhabda’s Gallery 59 was established in the year 1959 and Raza’s works were exhibited as well and was regarded by him as a genuine ‘homecoming.’ In the same year, the first major book on Raza written by Rudolf von Leyden, was published. He mentioned that ‘..Raza is in India on his first visit after almost nine years. He has painted here but no distinctly new element is visible in his work as compared with what he had done lately in Paris. I am sure the new Indian experience will come out and express itself, if not now, then later.’ (R. von Leyden, Sayed Haider Raza, Sadanga Publications, Bombay, 1959)
The Venice Biennale booklet of 1956 introducing modern Indian art of the period mentions what was being manifested was virtually modernism in the making. The artists inspired by International modernism and harking back to their own traditions as well were rigorously re- inventing it for themselves and their fellow men. Their form, color and composition while tuned to plasticity was also informed by the brilliant colors, the two dimensionality and the calligraphic style of their country.
For the artists and particularly for Raza, the fifties was an effervescent period. His reputation grew in leaps and bounds with the very first show held along with Padamsee and Souza at Saint- Placide in 1952. Soon after Galerie La France which showed important artists such as Soulages, Menessier and the Chinese painter Zao Wou Ki, invited him to exhibit. Souza, Raza and Padamsee were to hold another show in 1953 at Galerie Creuz. After the first exhibition, Raza came into contact with Galerie Lara Vincy and from 1955 until 1971 entered into a contract where he would show exclusively with them. The year 1956 was significant in other ways as well for Raza received the coveted Prix de La Critique and was the first foreign artist to receive the prestigious award. In earning this trophy he had entered into the league of artists like Bernard Buffet. With this recognition he was not only invited to the Venice Biennale that year but began to show all over the world from the Tokyo Biennale in 1957 to U.K., Brussels, São Paulo, New York and other countries in the following years. Indeed the world became his oyster as shapes dissolved, sweeping strokes of brilliant colors lashed the canvas and the dark, still, center became more luminous than ever.
An art historian and independent curator based in New Delhi, Yashodhara Dalmia has curated many shows as well as written numerous books, essays, articles and reviews on Modern and Contemporary South Asian art. Her most recent publication is titled Buddha to Krishna: Life and Times of George Keyt, 2016.