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EXHIBITION - S. H. Raza (Jun 16-Jul 30, 2005) : The seed and the fruit

THE SEED AND THE FRUIT ; Metaphors in Raza's Paintings

Painting is something alive as human beings in its different manifestations… it is a vital process of becoming. Just imagine how fascinating it is that the seed contains the total inherent forces of a plant, of animal life, and so on and so forth. And that could be the same process in Form too! font>

- S. H. RAZA, 1989

At the time when I began to meet Raza in the nineteen eighties, he and his wife Janine, would spend their summer months in Gorbio in the south of France. These months were a time of intense concentration for them in deep communion with nature.

A mile's walk from this 12th century village that overlooked the Cote d'Azur, the studio built by Raza and Janine was outlined in rough grey stone and dark oak wood. The windows of the atelier looked out to the forest on one side and to a stone patio with a garden on the other. This was a garden of paradise - planted with old olive trees, variegated bamboo greens, spiky palms and slender poplars. On summer nights the air was magical with the moon rising up from the sea into the mountains and in the daytime the sunshine cast shards of light on flowers of every conceivable colour - as Raza would take his easel out into the patio to work on his paintings. These details are not insignificant, for these colours and forms, this azure blue sea and these vibrant plants composed the environment in which he lived, and from which he imbibed inspiration. For him every form possesses meaning - even stones become a metaphor of life…

From India he had brought back a salagramafrom the sacred river Narmada to place below the olive tree - like the primordial stones found scattered under ancient trees in every Indian village. Another consisted stone formation of two circular pits joined together, to form a figure of eight. Delighted with this form, Raza had exclaimed: "these are the two polarities which complement each other, of life and death, pleasure and pain, man and woman, black and white!"

On one day this stone sprouted fresh shoots of tender sap green - This was birth — to become the source of his new paintings at the time, which are titled Ankuran (1986) Germination(1987) and Tree (1995) These pictures mark a new phase to celebrate this wondrous event - as a plant grows towards the central magnetic force of the sun which nourishes all life.They also marked a new phase in Raza's images. In Germination the bija/ bindu multiplies into tiny plants, resonating with colours like voices in a full orchestra - an epiphany to life and the living.

For Raza, nature has remained a primary source, indeed the only source of inspiration. In 1944 he had come to the metropolis of Bombay, then the centre of the progressive art world in India. The decade was a turning point not only for the nation but also for artists and writers, emboldened in their quest for "freedom" of expression. In 1947-8 he joined the dynamic group who called themselves the Bombay Progressives; but unlike his contemporaries F.N. Souza and M.F. Husain who turned to make their revolutionary statements through the human figure, "Raza painted only landscapes". He recalled from childhood the dark dense forests of Madhya Pradesh, the brilliant sun over scorched villages, the parched earth, the rivers, the mountains — these had left their impress from his youth. In fluid water colours he sketched the ghats of Nasik and Omkareshwar and waterfalls, then the landscapes of Kashmir exhibited in his first solo exhibition on 1948.

Who could have known that when in 1950 he was awarded a fellowship to Paris, he would spend the next fifty years and more in France! Open to experience, he was discovering a new cultural milieu—but what drew him most was the structure of Cezanne's paintings, the savage passion and raw colours of Van Gogh. His resulting works in gouache were unlike anything Raza had ever painted before - isolated townscapes purged of all inhabitants, with the black orb of the Black Sun (1953) or Haut de Cagnes (1951) or else a blackened church (Eglise , 1956)— suspended in a blazing sky of burnt sienna. These could be any time, any place — haunting pictures that signaled a 'transition of identity', if you like. Yet in their passion and symbolic language of colours they recall the Rajput and Jain miniature paintings which had so enchanted him in his Bombay years - a language which he could not renounce, and to which he would ultimately return.

In 1956 he was awarded the Prix de la Critique in France. Yet, like other artists, he could not leave behind the India that he had already left. Waldemar George, a critic, defined his dilemma thus: "Raza has been living and working in Europe for many years. If he is Indian, it is in spirit. This man, to whom nothing human is alien, is moved by the latent desire to sustain a dialogue of civilisations". In 1959 Raza returned with his wife Janine to visit India: a 'homecoming' with his exhibition held at Bal Chhabda's newly opened Gallery Fifty-Nine. He returned then to the heart of Madhya Pradesh, to where he was born and nurtured — and in 1962 to visit the teacher in his native village. Other journeys followed through the years, when Janine and he delighted in collecting souvenirs from Gujarat and Rajasthan that would revive for them the vibrancy of Indian colours and textures.

In 1962 he was invited to California, where works by Sam Francis and Mark Rothko "came as a revelation" and he found affinities with the ideas of Hans Hofmann. The technique of working in acrylic rather than oil he found to be exhilirating - and liberating. This were the beginnings of a radical phase with new paintings raw and gestural in expression, like La Forge (1973) and La Mer (1974), evocative of a mood. As he put it:

Thereafter visual reality, the aim to construct a "tangible" world receded. In its place there was a preoccupation with evoking the essence, the mood of places and of people.

Memory began now to play an indispensable role in recalling the mood and experience, especially from India — with paintings evoking the mysterious light at Sikri (1969) , the vibrancy of colours in Rajasthan (1983) and Saurashtra(1983), the range of hills titled Satpura(1984). These works are defined his transition to depicting an Indian spirituality that held both nostalgia as well as a "greater truth". As a child he had grown up in the forests of Madhya Pradesh, exposed to the awesome forces of nature, at once fascinating and threatening. In an interview he recalled his childhood:

Mandla is "mandala": the sacred Narmada circuits the town, flowing around it just 300 kilometres from the source of the river, Amarkantha. It was beautiful with temples along the river and a fort built by the Gonds. A quiet river which became violent during the monsoons when the floods came.

Curiously embedded into this account is his reference to the mandala: of land that is circumscribed into a circle, defined and held sacred. The mandala has been used by the Jains, Hindus, Buddhists and Tibetans in their ritual imaging of the sacred. In using the circle as an indispensable motif in his paintings, as the Bindu or as beej, Raza is conceiving the universe as one holistic space, in sacred harmony. And again, through the Bindu he is referring to his motherland as space sanctified. When he was invited to exhibit at the Indian Triennale in 1981, he conceived a large painting titled Maa, inspired by a poem by Ashok Vajpeyi and addressed to his mother.. A large black Bindu occupies the central space in this canvas, surrounded by volatile, vibrating colours as in medieval paintings from Rajasthan. He explains:

I was inspired to conceive a painting which could be a letter to my mother country, India, revealing my experiences, discoveries and acquisitions. I hoped that the painting could be evidence that I was never cut off from my sources. The memories, conscious and unconscious, were ever present.

The Bindu was introduced to Raza when he was a young boy of eight, in his village of Kakaiya. It was drawn for him on the wall of the school verandah, as a focal point for meditation. It was a moment of initiation: bringing order into a world of mystery, directing him to one central source of energy. The concept became a tour de force in his work that stayed with him ever since - emerging as the Black Sun(1953), as Sourya (1977) as Beej (1984,) and Ankuran(1986) which can be most closely to Prabhat in this catalogue. In multiple versions of Bindu, Naad Bindu, Jala Bindu Shanti Bindu… As with a mantra hat increases manifold with repetition, so also the Bindu acquires latent forces of energies. The circle within a square, expanding in energy, radiant in primary colours, becomes an icon for meditation. This iconic representation has transformed into a language, a genre unto itself that allows Raza and his art to interpret the complexity and depth of an ancient philosophy. Raza comments: By very simple means, I am convinced, one can attain infinity!

- GEETI SEN
Delhi May 2005
Author of Bindu: Space and Time in Raza's vision