Learning from a master: The art of S. H. Raza

Chintan Girish Modi

Title of the book: Sayed Haider Raza: The Journey of an Iconic Artist

Author: Yashodhara Dalmia

Publisher: HarperCollins

Year of publication: 2021

Number of pages: 264

Price: Rs. 899

When I was a child, our art teachers at school concerned themselves only with subject and skill. If my memory serves me well, they never introduced us to the work of Indian artists that we might enjoy or learn from. This sounds bizarre in retrospect but I must be gentle in my critique since they also had fewer resources at their disposal. I guess they did the best that they could. It makes me happy to see that art teachers and art students of today have a plethora of books to plunge into.

Yashodhara Dalmia’s new book, Sayed Haider Raza: The Journey of an Iconic Artist (2021), would certainly make a valuable addition to any school library, if the people using it read in English. It is about an Indian painter who was born in 1922 in what is called Madhya Pradesh today but was termed Central Provinces under the British rule. He led a vibrant creative life until 2016, a large part of which was spent in Paris where he studied, got married and earned international acclaim.

Dalmia, the author of this book, is an art historian and independent curator based in New Delhi. She writes, “My long acquaintance with Sayed Haider Raza and his work is the primary inspiration for this book. I would like to thank him first of all for this engagement and exposure, which has allowed me to map his remarkable journey, and learn in the process.” She was commissioned to write this biography by the Raza Foundation, which had been set up by the artist himself in his last few years.

This volume has not been written specifically for school teachers. It is meant for any reader interested in art, especially Indian art and South Asian art. However, teachers would appreciate how early exposure to form, symbol, nature, storytelling and performance can have a lasting impact. Raza grew up watching Gonds and Bhils sing and dance. He would spend time with birds and cattle. He was encouraged to learn about religious traditions other than the one he was born in.

Dalmia writes, “In his exploration of colour and its emotive qualities, Raza was to stumble upon his childhood memories and the vast universe of inchoate experience.” His father worked as a forest ranger, so he had multiple opportunities to soak in the lush landscape. Rivers and hills were his regular haunts as a child. By his own admission in the book, his mind used to wander a lot. He was often distracted during his classes at school. His teacher Nandlal Jharia came to his rescue.

Raza is extensively quoted in this book. He says, “Noticing my restlessness, it was he who made me wait behind suddenly one evening, facing one of the whitewashed walls of the classroom. On this he drew carefully with firm, strong hands, a large, dark circle. Just that, stark against its clear background. “Is bindu par dhyaan do” (concentrate on this round spot), he instructed. I tried that.”

The child struggled with stilling his mind at first but he was earnest and was able to eventually turn away from distractions to follow his teacher’s helpful guidance. Raza says, “Gradually, blotting out much else, my mind settled down to focus solely at that centre. It was uncanny. Savouring every one of its essential requisited colour, line, tone, texture and space, I found myself riveted.”

The Bindu is now considered to be an inseparable part of Raza’s work. To him, it symbolized the genesis of life, the source of energy, and a cosmic union that went beyond all dualities. Teachers who are interested in exploring this concept further, especially in the context of Raza’s art, might want to look up Ritu Khoda and Vanita Pai’s book titled Raza’s Bindu (2016), which has been illustrated by Kundan Shanbhag and published by Art1st. It also contains games and activities. Geeti Sen’s book Bindu: Space and Time in Raza’s Vision (2020), published by Mapin, is another resource.

I seem to have wandered off just like Raza. Let us get back to what Dalmia has to say about Raza’s childhood in the Central Provinces. She writes, “In this region, the oldest rock formation in India, the rugged Vindhya mountains with their red laterite slopes form an awesome natural barrier and create a sense of the majesty of nature. As a child, Raza would witness the gushing waterfalls that would spring from these formations and hide in holes and crannies here and there.”

These experiences left a deep imprint on Raza’s heart. Even when he lived in France, he thought of these memories. This helped him fortify his connection with India, his childhood home and his cultural heritage, though he was located elsewhere. Dalmia writes, “On the banks of the Narmada, right from its source in the Amarkantak, would be lined richly carved temples and mosques as a tribute to its mighty swell.” Raza’s interest in faith and philosophy kept showing up in his art.

Dalmia reveals that Raza often started his day with “a remembrance of Islamic, Hindu and Christian teachings” or began painting after reading a verse by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. He considered his studio a temple and liked to work alone without any disturbance or distraction. Teachers who share these details about Raza with their students can invite them to reflect on how external conditions influence their mind. However, having a room of their own is not something everyone can afford.

Dalmia’s book has several paintings made by Raza, which art teachers can use to design exercises that help students engage with his style, recurrent images, themes, and choice of colour palette.

Art teachers who are open to collaborative teaching with language teachers can also find other ways to use Dalmia’s book. She points out that Raza actively engaged with the verses of Kabir, Ghalib, Mahadevi Varma, Agyeya, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Nirala, Kedarnath Singh and Gajanan Madhave Muktibodh. Sometimes, words, lines and entire poems became part of Raza’s paintings. Students could be assigned poems as prompts, and asked to respond through paintings of their own.

Art teachers who are interested in collaborating with history teachers would also find some useful references in this book to come up with exciting lessons, projects and assignments. Raza was personally affected by the Partition of 1947. Most of his family members moved to Pakistan. His agony during this time found expression in his art. He also articulated his anguish over the destruction of human life in the Bangladesh Liberation War that took place in 1971.

Dalmia also writes about the profound influence of M. K. Gandhi on Raza. Every time Raza travelled from France to India, he would “unfailingly visit Gandhi’s samadhi.” Raza first encountered Gandhi when the leader came to Mandla in the Central Provinces to attend a public meeting. Raza was only 11 years old at the time. When Raza moved back to India after the death of his wife Janine Mongillat, he made several paintings to pay homage to Gandhi and all that he stood for.

In Dalmia’s book, Raza says, “My greatest disappointments, akin to unhappiness, were in 1948 when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated…Mahatma Gandhi had mobilized the country as one magnificent source of power. The British with all their might had to leave India and it was independent. And then the father of the nation was killed. No other incident had this acute pain and distress in my life.” The book is filled with many such anecdotes, and is certainly a treasure worth exploring with students.

The reviewer is a lifelong learner who enjoys reading, writing and teaching. He can be reached at chintan.prajnya@gmail.com.

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