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SH Raza centenary: Unpacking the universal appeal of artist SH Raza's works

The first physical exhibition mounted by the Piramal Art Museum celebrates five decades of Raza's work, with some special paintings from its collection.

March 20, 2022 / 08:32 PM IST
Artist S.H. Raza moved to Bombay (Mumbai) in 1943, a year after the Quit India Movement, and developed a language that was autobiographical and yet global. (Photo taken in 2011 by Chetan Nikam/Wikimedia Commons 4.0)

Artist S.H. Raza moved to Bombay (Mumbai) in 1943, a year after the Quit India Movement, and developed a language that was autobiographical and yet global. (Photo taken in 2011 by Chetan Nikam/Wikimedia Commons 4.0)

Ashvin E. Rajagopalan, director of the Piramal Art Foundation, recently curated in Mumbai an exhibition of 40 ‘never-before-seen’ works showcasing S.H. Raza’s artistic journey from 1944 to 2005. Of particular interest are the works done by Raza from his time in Bombay from 1943 to 1950, doubly significant because the artist was one of the members of the Progressive Artists Group along with F.N. Souza, M.F. Husain, V.S. Gaitonde, Akbar Padamsee, S.K. Bakre, Ram Kumar, Tyeb Mehta and others.

These artists were on the brink of creating new pluralistic art for a new India, borrowing from other styles, especially Western, and reflecting the politics of the land. Raza, who had moved to Bombay in 1943, a year after the Quit India Movement, developed a language that was autobiographical and yet, global.

Talking of the ‘universality’ of a Raza painting, Rajagopalan said, “Raza constantly pursued a global understanding of modern art. He opened a gateway and created a continuous dialogue between people in India and Europe. This is a lesson young artists today should learn. You may paint something that resonated with you in your village, but how will I explain it to a collector in Mumbai, Iran or London? You should learn to expand your ability to communicate beyond your own little bubble. That’s why a Picasso resonates with the world. Or a Raza. They speak a global language. You don’t need to explain circles and squares and tantra and bindu.”

'Surya Namaskar' by S.H. Raza. 'Surya Namaskar' by S.H. Raza.

Also read: From Madhya Pradesh's forest village to his Parisian home, artist SH Raza represented the plurality of India

Raza the artist

How does one describe an artist who has given the world the concept of ‘bindu’ or as he had called, the ‘seed that contains all life’?

Rajagopalan, whose book on Raza’s Bombay years is near completion, describes the artist as being at the forefront of artistic protest. A colourist and into landscapes, the early Raza was moving towards abstraction “as early as in the 60s”. Although he had been influenced by works of the Rajasthan court style and western artists like Cezanne. On display was a painting done in the cubist style, a la Picasso, after he saw a work by Picasso in an exhibition sent by the MoMA in 1947.

It may have been an urge to look at the western style of painting first hand that in 1956, made Raza move to Paris. He won the Prix de la Critique, a critics’ award, a testimony to his talent. Based in Paris, Raza forged a strong bond with the spiritual India and a love for Sanskrit, Urdu and Hindi poetry. Watercolours, like Sawan 1961, often had text in Hindi or Urdu.

Talking of the early years, Rajagopalan says that he found a calendar, circa 1947, for a Swedish company, Volkart Brothers, with 12 paintings by Raza. He researched Raza’s life in Bombay and realised that the artist was employed as a commercial artist. An almost ‘day-by-day’ recall of the artist’s life is the book that Rajagopalan is now writing.

'Saprem' is one of S.H. Raza's later works. 'Saprem' by S.H. Raza.

The Piramal Collection

The paintings are in the collection of the Piramal Art Foundation. Chairman of the Piramal Group, Ajay Piramal, an art connoisseur, said, “S.H. Raza’s work echoes across the globe and his work on Mumbai capturing the vibrancy, signifies the hope and optimism we have as we move towards normalcy.” On the 100th birth anniversary of the artist, the India Post unveiled a special postal cover as well.

Also read: Finding Raza: The science of building an art collection

Jayanthi Madhukar is a Bengaluru-based freelance journalist.
first published: Mar 20, 2022 08:24 pm