Forest greens, throbbing yellows, flecks of blood red, glowing glimmers of yellow-white. Black divisions slash the surface of the canvas, so that coloured shards of light appear to float and shimmer. This is Sayed Haider Raza’s Zamin (1971), a giant work (189 x 300cm) of acrylic on canvas; the title in Hindi or Urdu translates as ‘land’ or ‘earth’—or again, as a recent commemoration in Mumbai suggests, ‘homeland’. Raza’s work has been at the centre of debates about Indian Modernism, in which both terms, national and aesthetic, as well as the meanings of their conjunction, have been put in question.footnote1 On one view, Zamin pulses with the hues of the Indian tricolour, its saffron-gold, green and white emblematic of the painter’s standing as one of the country’s ‘secular’ heroes, the proud founding father of its very own Modernist school, marrying the most advanced Western forms to the riches of the Subcontinent’s visual-art and popular-cultural traditions. Zamin’s levitating rectangular shapes recall the formal qualities of Jain and Rajasthani miniatures, their bands of black framing a central image. Glimmers of colour conjure the landscapes of Raza’s youth, the hot hues of the forests of Central India where he grew up, the dazzling spectacle of the traditional Gond tribal dances he used to watch as a child in Mandla, a village in Maharashtra. On this reading, Zamin’s play of opposites—blackness interspersed with illumination—gestures to a primal past: the battle between light and dark is imbued with a sacred significance. The land, the earth, is suffused with the spirit of the nation, Zamin seems to propose; India is eternal.footnote2
The painting was the centrepiece of an exhibition held at the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation in Mumbai last year to mark the centenary of Raza’s birth. For Puja Vaish, the jnaf’s director, ‘S. H. Raza—Zamin: Homelands’ was an opportunity to take stock of Raza’s place in the national canon, his journey to becoming a ‘Master of the Indian Modern’. The show’s framing proposed to chart the artist’s lifelong pursuit of an ‘Indian modern sensibility’—how he broke free from European influence to bring an ‘Indian inner vision’ into art—while also affirming notions of what home, land and belonging might mean, seventy-five years after India and Pakistan attained their freedom from British rule. A sense of the artist’s international reputation can be gleaned from the Sayed Haider Raza retrospective currently showing at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, as well as the sums for which his works change hands at auction.footnote3 In India, where citizenship and the ‘right to belong’ have always been highly political questions, especially for Muslims in the militarized border zones, the terms of his canonization are overdue reassessment. Zamin, a painting devoted to Raza’s ‘earthly’ abode—made in the fraught year of Bangladesh’s birth—is a good place to start.
Raza was born in 1922 in rural Madhya Pradesh, the son of a forest ranger. ‘The most tenacious memory of my childhood is the fear and fascination of Indian forests’, he would say:
We lived near the source of the Narmada River in the centre of the dense forests of Madhya Pradesh. Nights in the forest were hallucinating; sometimes the only humanizing influence was the dancing of the Gond tribes. Daybreak brought back a sentiment of security and well-being. On market day, under the radiant sun, the village was a fairyland of colours. And then, the night again.footnote4
After studying at the Nagpur School of Art, Raza moved to Bombay to take up a place at the jj School of Art. There, he was a founder of the Progressive Artists’ Group, which was formed just after the Partition of the Subcontinent. In its first iteration, the pag was composed of a motley crew of six artists, hailing from India’s various castes and creeds: the Shia Raza, the Goan-Christian Francis Newton Souza, Dalit Krishnaji Howlaji Ara, Bohra Maqbool Fida Husain and the Brahmins Sadanand Bakre and Hari Ambadas Gade. Taking inspiration from the Progressive Writers’ Association, the pag’s early meetings were held in the offices of the Friends of the Soviet Union, thanks to a connection of Souza’s; but any allegiance to the Indian Communist Party was fleeting. In Raza’s retrospect, of foremost importance was ‘a sense of freedom and experimentation in what we were doing . . . the real common denominator for us was significant form.’footnote5
A multi-religious group, forged in Bombay—a port city known for its cosmopolitanismfootnote6— the pag artists came to be seen as standard bearers for the new Republic, incarnating the plural possibilities of Nehruvian secularism, with its claim to ‘unity in diversity’. The group’s members, especially the ‘Muslims’, Raza and Husain, have been cast as poster boys of the Indian Modern, whose retrospective construction was made to align with the syncretic ideals of the burgeoning nation. In Raza’s case, this identification was soon complicated, though not negated, by his status as a diasporic artist. In 1950, a scholarship to the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts took him to Paris, followed by years in Brittany and Provence. The impact of this relocation was profound: ‘The French landscape became a dominant theme of my work’, he recalled.footnote7 On occasion, Raza’s delicate early gouache works blazed with a dark sun: in Le Soleil Noir (1953), toy-like, higgledy-piggledy buildings huddle in vertical rows on a glowing amber-gold plane, below a black orb ensconced in a pale green sky.
While he absorbed the structural principles of Cézanne—as in Ville Provençale (1956), where heavily impastoed surfaces mimic the knobbly cobblestones of medieval streets—Raza maintained his attachment to the pag. Members of the group—Souza, Krishen Khanna—and close associates like Ram Kumar and Akbar Padamsee would continue to visit. The Indian artists traversed the French countryside together, using it as inspiration for paintings that seemed to radiate an unearthly light, as if illuminated by the gem-like hues of the stained-glass windows of ancient cathedrals. Another vital influence for Raza was the Abstract Expressionism of the New York School. A Rockefeller Fellowship took him to the us and in 1962 he was invited to teach for a year at the University of California in Berkeley. Rothko’s work was a vital source of inspiration—‘It was like a door that opened to another interior vision.’ These American encounters would encourage Raza’s move from gouache to acrylic, the expansion of his canvases and his explorations of myth, archetype and memory in the coming decades.