Sayed Haidar Raza, better known as S. H. Raza (1922 – 2016) was one of the founders of the Progressive Artists’ Group in Bombay. With its bold expressions, geometric shapes and the ubiquitous bindu motif, Raza’s art has travelled far and wide to become one of the most easily recognizable, even for the untrained eye.
Raza grew up in a forest in Madhya Pradesh and unsurprisingly, his earliest works are rooted in his memories and impressions of nature. It was only much later in his life that he turned to the abstract expressionism now characteristic of him. In his early days, he painted landscapes and townscapes, translating the world around him onto his canvas in bold and beautiful strokes.
Chance encounters often shape our lives in ways we didn’t think possible. For Raza too, his evolution and transformation of style could be attributed to serendipities. In the early 1940s, Raza was a regular visitor to Kashmir where he painted a series of watercolours. It is here that he first met the French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, in 1948. Cartier-Bresson not only gave him pointed critique but also nudged him to move to France where he would go on to live for almost six decades.
In France, he evolved his style further, moving from authentic depiction of natural landscapes to focus on translating structure. Later, in the 1970s and 80s, he turned his artistic gaze inwards–an inner spiritual landscape rooted in the ethos of his homeland. He abandoned the figure and gave into lines and the circle: the bindi, a Sanskrit term meaning a point or dot. The most significant form, Raza would say, was a point, adding that, “[t]he Bindu symbolizes the seed, bearing the potential of all life.”
As a young student of nine, his teacher drew a point on a wall and made him stare at it to check his restlessness. It is this incident he returned to much later in life to make it a central theme of his work. His style transformed from realist landscapes to spiritual abstractions manifest in the geometric all the while retaining his characteristic emphasis on colour and emotion.