SH RAZA (1922 - 2016): The Bindu breathes its last

Updated: Jul 25, 2016, 11:50 IST | Benita Fernando |

Artists and gallerists remember the last surviving co-founder of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, SH Raza, who passed away at the age of 94 yesterday

It was the late 1940s when artist Krishen Khanna and his friend saw a man seated in a cubbyhole at Warden Road in Breach Candy, making a painting of a house opposite. Little did Khanna know then that the seated artist was Raza, with whom he would have a lifelong friendship. Raza, one of the co-founders of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, passed away yesterday at the age of 94 after a prolonged illness. The last rites will be conducted in Mandala in Madhya Pradesh, according to his wishes.

Syed Haider Raza. Pic/Art Musings
Syed Haider Raza. Pic/Art Musings

The legendary artist, who is well-known for his stark geometric shapes and Indian iconography, kept returning to Mumbai often for his shows even while living in Paris after his marriage to artist Janine Mongillat. Mumbai’s art community remembers him as a friend, whom they often met on their travels to Paris, staying at his 16th century house and vice-versa. Gallerist Kalpana Shah, who owns a vast collection of his works, calls him “a secular artist”.

“There was a lady who kept talking on a visit to the Dargah, and Raza asked her to stop talking. ‘Keep quiet and feel the silence,’ he said.”

Raza depicted religious and philosophical concepts like bindu, purush-prakriti and nari in his works. In 1947, he co-founded the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group along with five others, including MF Husain, KH Ara and FN Souza.

Pundole Art Gallery hosted group exhibitions including Raza's works and Dadiba Pundole, its owner, recalls their more than “just professional association". “There was a strong camaraderie between dealers and artists in those days. I would often point out that his works had very repetitive motifs. In order to prove that point, I showed him a catalogue of works by a Japanese painter, who, in his later years, only photographed the sky and the sea — horizons, essentially. Raza shot back saying that I did not understand ‘jabba’ (chant). That shut me up for some years to come,” says Pundole.

From the 1960s on, Raza made routine visits to Mumbai to exhibit at Chemould. Raza was a loyal Gallery Chemould artist who shared an association with the Gandhys that went far beyond a professional relationship. Raza was Khorshed Gandhy’s “unequivocal sounding board" says Shireen Gandhy, their daughter now running the gallery.

On frequent visits to Paris, Raza would take her to exhibitions. On one occasion, she remembers visiting an erotic Piccasso exhibition. When asked what she thought of it, “hot” was her response. Raza was thrilled. “That’s a perfect emotion!” he replied.

Gandhy grew up feasting on Raza’s paintings of the 80s, calling him the “ultimate colourist” — Raza defining her aesthetic in many ways.

It was in the late 90s when Raza started drifting away from the gallery — probably due to the differing choices of artists that Gandhy made. “Just as galleries are choosy about their artists, artists also make choices of what they like to show in galleries,” said Shireen.

94 years with Raza

1922: Born in Babaria, Madhya Pradesh

1939-43: Studied at Nagpur School of Art

1943-47: Studied at Sir JJ School of Art

1946: First solo show at Bombay Art Society Salon

1947: Co-founded Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group 1950s: Moves to France. Paints expressionist landscapes, geometric representations of French towns and villages. Won the pretigious Prix de la Critique, Paris, and married artist Janine Mongillat

Late 1970s: Focus turned to pure geometrical forms

1981: Awarded Padma Shri

2002: Wife Janine passes away; he shifts to New Delhi

2014: His work La Terre becomes the fifth most expensive work by an Indian artist. Made in 1973, it sold for Rs 18.61 crore at Christies

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