When I had met SH Raza last summer, just after his much-hyped return from Paris after nearly six decades, the grand old man of Indian art was recuperating from a hip surgery. He was wheelchair bound and his voice was an inaudible whisper. But what was still intact was the passion with which he spoke about his journey from being the co-founder of the revolutionary Progressive Artists Group to his Parisian experiences till he came back to India to become ‘a tax-paying citizen’ of India.
True to this undying spirit, his living room was strewn with canvases, some that he was still working on. ‘I try to paint two hours in the morning and for some time in the afternoon. I want to continue doing good shows,’ said the artist who has made the Indian mystical form of bindus and mandalas his signature metaphor since the 80s.
A year later, Raza has kept that promise. He is showing 14 new paintings, in a show titled SH Raza: Bindu Vistaar with Grosvenor Vadehra in London from 9 June, all executed in 2011 and 2012 and painted especially for the exhibition. This will be the first solo show of the artist’s work in London since 2006 and the first in Europe since 2010.
It was a childhood incident, that Raza still remembers vividly, which introduced him to the bindu. ‘I had great difficulty in focusing in class. My teacher once drew a bindu on the blackboard and asked me to concentrate on it for hours without thinking anything else. Later, in art colleges, like other artists of my time, I too was trained in European realism but when I began to ask myself in the 80s where India was in my work, it was this bindu that resurfaced in my consciousness, along with the pancha tattwa.’
While his early expressionistic landscapes were heavily influenced by his childhood spent in proximity to River Narmada surrounded by the Satpura and Vindhyachal mountain ranges, his oeuvre underwent a dramatic change to discover abstraction when he moved to France in 1950, first to study at Ecole Des Beuax Arts in Paris and then to ‘settle down’ as a married man. He also began to explore elements of tantric symbolism from Indian scriptures and by the late 70s, Raza had begun making frequent trips to India in order to find a ‘new direction’ and move away from what he calls ‘plastic art’. ‘I visited caves of Ajanta-Ellora, Benaras, Gujarat and Rajasthan, spent years researching my Indian roots and culture. The Hindu language, dharma, philosophy and sanskriti moved me deeply.’
The result was bindu, which signified his rebirth as a painter and which Raza perceives as the centre of creation as well as energy, sound, space and time. Over time, Raza has added newer dimensions to his work — the Tribhuj (Triangle), Prakriti-Purusha (male-female energy) and more recently since 2000, Kundalini, nagas and the Mahabharata. What also set his canvases ablaze were the choice of colours — dark reds, greens, maroons and yellows.
The exhibition is the latest working of the artist’s long held aesthetic ideals, the paintings from which contain a great deal of vigour, vibrancy and a strong connection to India and its religious heritage. The hindi word vistaar can be translated in many ways and can refer to the terms ‘range’, ‘scope’, ‘detail’ and ‘magnitude’. The exhibition intends to display the development and range of styles in which Raza has depicted his characteristic subject matter in recent times.