Raza was a founder member of the Progressive Artists’ Group
Raza was a founder member of the Progressive Artists’ Group

Dalmia: Raza’s vibrant works with underlying meanings made him better known

Yashodhara Dalmia’s biography on the legendary artist opens up a side to him which was never previously explored
By Navneet Vyasan
UPDATED ON MAR 05, 2021 06:24 PM IST

In 2010, Saurashtra, Sayed Haider Raza’s exquisite work crated in the early 1980s, was sold for 16.47 Crores at an auction at Christie’s. This was just one of the many instances when artists from the iconic Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group made their mark in the international world. Of them, Raza, born in 1922, in Mandala, a small town in Madhya Pradesh, had in him, a queer assimilation of various cultures and values that he was somehow able to express in his canvas. Distinctive in his style and adaptive to the newer techniques, Raza’s work stood out among his contemporaries. Art curator Yashodhara Dalmia, who previously penned the acclaimed biography on Amrita Sher-Gil, in her latest work, Raza, uses the evocative letters he wrote and received to chart his life. Excerpts from an interview:

Of all the modernists, why was SH Raza’s life and career that of particular interest to you?

First of all Raza was a master painter who made brilliant paintings, full of emotions and thought, which were very inspiring. Along with this was the fact that he came from very humble origins and rose to great fame and made a mark internationally.

Dalmia: Raza’s vibrant works with underlying meanings made him better known
Dalmia: Raza’s vibrant works with underlying meanings made him better known

Through Raza, you are also able to bring out a lot about the other modernists by the letters they wrote to him. It seems he was an important link that helped bind all of them together.

Raza was a founder member of the Progressive Artists’ Group which included artists like Souza and Husain. What is more he was in constant touch with other modernists like Tyeb Mehta, Krishen Khanna, Akbar Padamsee and others who were his friends. He not only participated in the whole group and its activities which was in the forefront of modernism but also engaged with their works individually.

The Bindu is essentially considered as his rebirth as a painter. It seems that from that period onwards, he was undoubtedly the only artist who understood Indian culture and history more than any of his contemporaries. According to you, was that the moment when he rose above Hussain and Gaitonde and Souza, and became secure in his art?

The Bindu was a pivotal moment in his work and from then onwards his art became seminal and international though rooted in Indian aesthetics and philosophy. He became secure in his art with the Bindu and was in the league of artists like Souza, Husain and Gaitonde. At times he became better known than his colleagues because of his vibrant works and his articulation of their underlying meaning.

(Photo: RAJANISH KAKADE)
(Photo: RAJANISH KAKADE)

What was the research process like? How was it analysing the letters that he wrote and received?

It was fascinating to delve into his life and see his development from an unknown artist who rose from very little means at his disposal to becoming one of the most sought after artists in India and also internationally. He was very articulate as a writer as well as an artist and his letters were very thoughtful and inspiring and helped understand this process.

Another important aspect of the book remains the 50s and 60s, especially the Bombay of the era. It seems compared to today, art was an important part in everyone’s day-to-day life…

The ’50s and ’60s was a period when a young India was rebuilding itself. Much of the formative period of art took place then and was centred in Bombay which was the city par excellence for art. Leading this movement were artists like Raza, Souza and Husain who became household names. In that period art was much more a part of everyone’s life as there was a legacy of art consciousness which had been handed down. There were also frequent lectures and exhibitions on art which created the right cultural atmosphere.

(Back row; L to R) M.F. Husain, S.K. Bakre and S.H. Raza; (front row) F.N. Souza, K.H. Ara and H.A. Gade
(Back row; L to R) M.F. Husain, S.K. Bakre and S.H. Raza; (front row) F.N. Souza, K.H. Ara and H.A. Gade

You’ve been a curator for a while. Have you met Mr Raza? After interacting with him was writing about him difficult since the 20-35 year old Raza was not the same man you met. Did the research reveal to you sides of him that you had no idea existed…

To my amazement when I interacted with Raza, he was in his late years, but I found that his memory was intact and he remembered even the smallest detail of his life and the processes of his art. What is more he spoke with great passion and intensity which made the whole experience memorable.

Author Yashodhara Dalmia (Photo: Facebook
Author Yashodhara Dalmia (Photo: Facebook
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