Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

Raza’s contemplative quest

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Column in Business Standard, July 29, 2016

It is only a small piece of canvas, 12 inches square, and at first glance, there isn’t much to it. The field is red and exactly in the centre is a large black dot. To fix the two-colour scheme, the artist has added a slim black border to the red background. In the lower right corner is his brisk sign-off in black: RAZA ’08.


My Raza, 2008

This little artwork has hung in a corner of my study for some years and raises a range of feelings – some inchoate, others precise, yet others indescribable.

Whatever I do in that room, work or read or nap or talk to someone, is intensified by its inanimate presence. It appears comforting and serene at moments of stress; at other times it emanates a forceful magnetic energy.

On closer scrutiny I observe that the painting is not so simple. The red paint is layered over a vivid orange. The under-paint is visible at the edges, and a thin white wavering line, solar eclipse-like, encircles the black dot. It may be the artist’s way of heightening the effect, as a classical singer introduces micro-notes to elevate a composition, or a writer italicises words for shades of emphasis. Whatever his notion, Syed Haider Raza’s gaze concentrates mine.

Like a favoured piece of music or passage in a book or a loved film sequence that reveals new mysteries and hidden meanings at each return, Raza’s contemplation of the bindu is a recurring, almost obsessive theme in his vast oeuvre. However plain or complex the geometry of his art, squaring the circle was often its commanding centre and philosophical abstraction.

Of the torrent of tributes since the death, at 94, of this leviathan of modern Indian art last Saturday, an astute perception comes from my former television colleague Sucharita Ghosh. Twenty years ago she produced for NDTV and BBC World a splendid documentary series on eminent Indians titled Out of India, and spent a good deal of time filming Raza at his homes in Paris and the hamlet of Gorbio in Provence. This week Ms Ghosh wrote to me describing the deep impression the intense encounter left on her. “Every time I see his work I can hear that slow, steady, pensive voice explaining the existential significance of the bindu. Many hours of filming, and even greater hours of editing, have seared it into my consciousness.”

The other response that sticks is from the artist who recounted that when, as a student at the in Mumbai, he was introduced to the revered elder visiting his alma mater, Raza bent down to touch the paving at the portals, saying “Let me feel these old stones first.” Yashodhara Dalmia, the art critic and friend of the artist, in her fine obituary in the Indian Express, reinforces the profound influence of his homeland on Raza’s life and art, despite his residence in France for over 60 years. She refers to his seminal canvas “Ma” where the still black centre is counterpointed by a line in calligraphic Devanagari that reads, “Ma, main ghar aaongaa to kya laaonga? (Mother, what shall I bring when I return home?)”

I remember seeing this large work at a Delhi Triennale many years ago and finding the exile’s cri de coeur cheesy and sentimental. Today I am not so sure. The irony hits deep and hard to think of Raza’s contemporary and close associate, M F Husain. driven from home by Hindu nationalists to die in a foreign land for his evocation of Mother India.

In his last years Raza came to live, as the crow flies, hardly a mile from my home in Delhi but I never knew him. His great aura placed a distance; yet his output remained prolific, and I looked on, wondrous, at his rocketing prices and glamorous acquirers. This week’s design bible Architectural Digest online provides ample views of his art as an expensive accoutrement. Indian-owned penthouses in Manhattan, Gurgaon and luxurious Belgravia display a range of Razas in their dazzling splendour.

Oddly, my modest picture was acquired as an expression of sentimental love. My wife, a textile designer with a keen sense of colour and composition, was a big fan but even his smallest works seemed prohibitively out of reach. One day, in a gallery manager’s office halfway up a staircase, I spotted it dwarfed by larger, grander artworks. The price was staggering – almost like buying a small car! The gallerist, an old friend, was both sympathetic and sensitive to the difference between big and small cheque books; he drew up a manageable instalment plan.

A fragment of Raza’s contemplative quest is now also mine. Perhaps because his empty dark spots surrounded by explosions of colour are a reflection of all our reflections.


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