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Mystifying Raza

Painting as prayer

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THE JOURNEY WITHIN: 'Matheran', oil on canvas

In Raza's recent paintings, one can feel the presence of the river, the flow embodying the transience of samsara.

SH Raza's presence among us is a token of continuity in a time of dramatic, often disorienting change. At 90, Raza forms a link connecting the Indian art world of the present with its origins in the faraway debates and excitements of the 1940s, when empire was still a reality and independence still a dream. With his colleagues in the Progressive Artists Group, including F N Souza, M F Husain, K H Ara and their associates Akbar Padamsee, Krishen Khanna, Tyeb Mehta and V S Gaitonde, Raza embraced the exhilarating yet precarious vocation of the artist around the same time that he received the breathtaking but vertigo-inducing entitlement of citizenship in a newly liberated nation-state. As they embarked on their various journeys across the globe, the members of this pioneering generation were to wrestle with their complex and unpredictable fate as artistcitizens participating in, and helping to shape, an Indian national modernity.

Today, Raza can look back over seven decades of artistic practice, and a life that has straddled the substantially different cultures and topographies of India and France. Significantly, it is synthesis, and not contradiction, that has been the leitmotif of his work. If his art is replenished by a continuing engagement with Indic philosophical tradition, with the Upanishads, Yoga and Tantra on the one hand, his paintings also glow with the legacy of an abstractionist lineage within Euro-American modernism, testifying to Raza's robust assimilation of the Orphist Sonia Delaunay and the masters of the Schools of Paris and New York. And yet, Raza's life-project has been sustained by a deep awareness of the anchorage, the home, the point of departure and return, the source of spiritual replenishment to which the questor must come back after his voyages and adventures. He has memorialised his childhood in the idyllic forests of Madhya Pradesh, his youth as a student at the Sir J J School of Art in the turbulent Bombay of the 1940s, and the febrile, fertile phase of defiant creativity that defined him and his fellow Progressives. In revisiting these psychogeographies, Raza retrospects over a trajectory of self-fashioning and experiment.

In his paintings, he tests out various propositions concerning the relationships between image and resonance, poetry and abstraction, colour and memory, sensuous knowledge and spiritual gnosis. His art-making has been informed and rendered expansive, even as it dealt with the necessarily finite materials and surfaces at the painter's disposal, by the Indic conceptions of vision, darsana, and of infinity, ananta. The logic of Raza's quest has led him, repeatedly, to the mandala, the image of the cosmos, and to the bindu, the dark core of energy from which the cosmos emanates at the beginning of its cycle of existence, and to which it returns, at the close.

Working constantly between dream and realisation, tentative drawing and finished composition, the artist is keenly aware of the dynamic interplay of formation and dissolution. In Raza's paintings, that interplay finds its complex articulation in the recurrent image of the bindu, and the forms that emerge from and will eventually be re-absorbed into it. Around that core of blackness, a seeming absence that is in fact the source of plenitude, the artist gathers a series of fragments together into a choreography of yellow and grey, red and blue, mustard-orange and green. If home and anchorage in a particular psychogeography hold a talismanic significance for Raza, so, too, does his gift for worlding his consciousness, tuning his faculties to the mandate of belonging in a larger context than that conferred by birth, ethnicity, religion or national identity.

* * *

We may trace the unfolding inner logic of Raza's practice in the transition he made from the formally accomplished Kashmir landscapes and French townscapes of the 1950s and 1960s to the vital and pulsating symbolism that has come to distinguish the art of his maturity, its lavish textural sensuality held in counterpoint by an austere geometry. In many of his paintings of the 1980s and 1990s, the eye dwells on a series of concentric circles that build into mandalas;on interlocking triangular formations that expand into yantras;on the double helix, which signifies both the closely intertwined serpents of India's chthonic fertility religions as well as the abiding symbol of the human DNA;on the cobalt flow of the river, laid against the umbers and sienna of the terraced and furrowed earth;and on the rising arrow of stacked herringbones, marking the symbiosis and synergy linking earth, prithvi, with the empyrean, akasha.

In a number of Raza's recent paintings, we see and feel the presence of the river. It appears as physical onrush, as flow of thought, as channel of spirit, as freight of detritus. This flow, in Raza's art, embodies the transience of samsara, the play of forms, sensations and provisional conclusions that defines our world. At the same time, it is a special sign in the artist's hieroglyphic codex: it represents the understanding that, all that we are, make and do is generated in that flux and will be swept away by it. There is no turning away from the river.

It is in what I like to think of as his 'distillates', paintings in which all colour fades away to the lightest impression of grey or white, that I suspect Raza signals the secret objective of his quest. In consonance with the philosophers Bharata, Abhinavagupta and Anandavardhana, he believes that at the acme of colour we pass beyond colour, that all pleasure and anguish culminate in a transcendence of opposites and an awakening to freedom from polarities. Staring into the light of such a canvas, detecting in it the vestigial remnants of image and script, we are struck by their intense quality of prayerfulness. Perhaps, all of Raza's paintings are, in fact, prayers: articulations of love, hope and an abiding faith in all that is most valuable in the human quest, even against the evidence of the cruelty, betrayal and terror of which humankind is capable.


SH Raza's works are on display at the Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, till December 3, and at Art Musings, Mumbai, from December 4 to January 10, 2013

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