S H Raza: Understanding His Great Abstract Art and Life

S H Raza traveled the epic journey of abstractionism. The artist who was known for Bindu terminology. Learn about his life and art.

S H Raza

It is the slightest drop of the paint that is capable of telling a story. The evidence of numerous historical events, art is a subject that gives the learner and the viewer a vision of circumstances. It might throw you into the well of reality or carry you with the thoughts one comes across in a lifetime. Sir S H Raza directed the stroke of the latter.

Life of the Artist: Sayed Haider Raza.

Born on 22 February 1922, Sayed Haider Raza was an Indian painter who belonged to Kakkaiya (District Mandla), Central Provinces, British India, now present-day Madhya Pradesh. His father, Sayed Mohammed Razi, was a Deputy Forest Ranger of the District, while his mother, Tahira Begum, was a housemaker. S H Raza took to drawing at age 12 and moved to Damoh, also in Madhya Pradesh, at 13. He completed his high school at the Government High School, Damoh, and continued studies at the Nagpur School of Art, Nagpur (1939–43), followed by Sir J. J. School of Art, Mumbai (1943–47).

Sir J. J. School of Art
Sir J. J. School of Art | Source: Official Website

The Indian abstract artist held his first solo show in 1946 at the Bombay Art Society Salon and won a Silver medal. In 1947, when India gained Independence from the British Colonial Raj, Raza was 25 years old. The changes in society were rapid, and it was then that a new identity had to establish. The artist was aware of the same. With the help of his artist friends, Souza & Husain, Raza held their first exhibition in Bombay the following year. He recalls the mood,

“We could move mountains! We were in the process of becoming ourselves!”

The same year (1948), he co-founded the revolutionary Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) (1947–1956) along with K. H. Ara and F. N. Souza. The group wanted to break free from European realism in Indian art forms and bring the inner vision of Indian art, which means Antar Gyan.

Bombay Progressive Artist's Group, 1938
A press clipping of the Bombay Progressive Artist’s Group, 1948. Front row, from left: F.N. Souza, K.H. Ara, H.A. Gade. Seated behind, from left: M.F. Husain, S.K. Bakre and S.H. Raza | Source: ArtIndia Magazine

These couple of years proved crucial to him, as he also lost his mother in 1947 in Mandla, followed by his father. Most of his four brothers and sisters moved to Pakistan after the partition.

S H Raza, Souza & Husain used the human condition (landscapes of mind) to make statements. The paintings changed and were not similar to Raza watercolor landscapes and townscapes from the early 1940s.

In 1950, the artist moved to France to study at the École Nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts (ENSB-A), Paris, 1950-1953, on a Govt. of France scholarship. His training focused on formal orders, which he describes as “the pictorial logic of form“.

While he came into the introduction of the structure by Cartier-Bresson, the discoveries of Cezanne, and the pursuit of modern European sensibility, his preoccupation with pure geometry returned him to the Indian tradition of visual abstraction practised in diagrams of yantra and the mandala. When his fellow contemporaries made figural subjects, he chose landscapes in the 1940s and 50s. In 1956, Sir S H Raza became the first non-french artist to receive the prestigious Prix de la Critique.

Traditionally, Westerners believed abstract artists create art with no meaning. It was a thought that even S H Raza had to fight. However, in the east, geometric art forms or symbols have existed since ancient times, making them legitimate art forms.

In 1959, Sayed Haider Raza married french artist Janine Mongillat, and three years later, in 1962, he became a visiting lecturer at the University of California in Berkeley, USA.

Syed Haider Raza with his wife and French artist Janine Mongillat
Syed Haider Raza with his wife and French artist Janine Mongillat | Source: PTI Photo

The artist returned to India in 2011- a few years after (2002) his wife died of cancer.

ArtistSayed Haider Raza
Birth22 February, 1922
Death23 July, 2016
PeriodModern India

Famous Awards Won by S H Raza.

Then Indian President, Shri Pranab Mukherjee presenting the Padma Vibhushan Award to Shri Sayed Haider Raza, at an Investiture Ceremony-II, at Rashtrapati Bhavan, in New Delhi on April 20, 2013
Then Indian President, Shri Pranab Mukherjee presenting the Padma Vibhushan Award to Shri Sayed Haider Raza, at an Investiture Ceremony-II, at Rashtrapati Bhavan, in New Delhi on April 20, 2013 | Source: President’s Secretariat (GODL-India), via Wikimedia Commons
  • 1946: Silver Medal, Bombay Art Society, Mumbai
  • 1948: Gold Medal, Bombay Art Society, Mumbai
  • 1956: Prix de la critique, Paris
  • 1981: Padma Shri; the Government of India
  • 1984: Fellowship of the Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi
  • 1992–1993: Kalidas Samman, Government of Madhya Pradesh
  • 2004: Lalit Kala Ratna Puraskar, Lalit Kala Academy, New Delhi
  • 2007: Padma Bhushan; the Government of India
  • 2013: Padma Vibhushan; the Government of India
  • 2013: one of the greatest living global Indian legends. NDTV INDIA
  • 2014: D. Litt (Honoris Causa), Indira Kala Sangit Vishwavidyalaya, Khairagarh, Chhattisgarh
  • 2015: Commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur (the Legion of Honour); Republic of France
  • 2015: D. Litt (Honoris Causa), Shiv Nadar University, Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh

The Extraordinary Artworks of Sayed Haider Raza.

1. Saurashtra (1983).

Saurashtra (सौराष्ट्र) is a region that has references in various Hindu Mythological books. However, the title of the painting takes its cue from Rajput Miniature Painting. When paid attention, one may notice the use of ochre yellow, saffron, crimson red, burnt sienna, pale greens, and black, colors that are essentially Indian. The mixture of gestural strokes and abstractionism showcases the elements of nature, one of the many memories Raza took inspiration from and laid upon the canvas. The lower part of this work shows fine linings of brush with more shapes intersecting each other to form a network. The upper portion dedicates itself to thicker smears of green and sienna.

Saurashtra painting by S H Raza
Saurashtra by S H Raza | Source: Artisera

Saurashtra sold for ₹16.42 crore ($3.48 million) at a Christie’s auction in June 2010.

2. The Bindu Series.

In the 1970s, Raza adopted more geometrical patterns for his artworks. The Bindu became the center point of many of his paintings after that.

While explaining his country India, the artist often traveled back to the Bindu. According to him, one of the attributes that originated Bindu was his elementary school teacher. Upon finding out about his lack of concentration, the teacher drew a black circle on the wall of a primary school. Years later, it became his inspiration, so much so that he left abstractionism to approach geometry and the Bindu.

Sayed Haider Raza painting Ankuran in his gallery
Sayed Haider Raza painting Ankuran in his gallery | Source: Unknown Author

In the words of S H Raza,

“Immense energy and potential was released by a simple yet essential form. It opened up a whole new vocabulary which corresponded in a sense to my training in Paris in formalism.”

Paintings that the Bindu propagated are:

1. Ma.

An invitation to participate in the Triennale in Delhi came in 1981. Raza sent two paintings, including the one titled Ma.

As you give attention to this work, you may instantly notice the black Bindu dominating the canvas, arranged in black and red border. It is a magnetic force compelling the attention of the viewer. Adjacent to it, subsidiary panels are present, similar to the narrative scenes found in paintings from Nathdwara in Rajasthan around the deity Sri Nath Ji. One could not find a better depiction of the love someone carries for their country, every belonging arranged inside a frame around a circle with a quote saying,

“माँ लौट कर जब पाउँगा क्या लाऊंगा?”

that means, “Mother when I come back what will I bring.”

Maa artwork by Sayed Haider Raza
Maa by Sayed Haider Raza | Source: Artisera

The inspiration for this painting came from a poem by Ashok Vajpeyi that inspired him to address,

“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.”

2. Bindu.

His second painting at the Triennale was the Bindu, drawn in 1980. A deep black circle within a square. With time, the Bindu overlapped with different structures and colors and formed the identity of conveying messages of Sir S H Raza.

Bindu artwork by S H Raza
Bindu by S H Raza | Source: Indian Culture

3. Earth.

The painting kept the idealogy of Bindu still. The image repeated itself in several forms, but the one from 1989 shows a dense black circle emerging from the triangles of ochres and black. It closely resembles Sri Yantra.

Earth by S H Raza The Bindu Series
Earth by SH Raza | Source: Indian Culture

4. Jala Bindu.

Another artwork from the same gallery with similar references, Jala Bindu, shows fine work of horizontal lines and triangles. It utilizes the shade of blue, dense black, and ochre. The circle drawn is depicted as the force of energy.

Jala Bindu SH Raza
Jala Bindu by S H Raza | Source: Art Intaglio

5. Germination or Ankuran.

There have been numerous titles for this painting over the years, including Germination (1987), Genesis (1989), Tree of Life (1989), Ankuran (1984), and Germination (1994). However, the concept essentially remained intact. The Bindu occupies the center of this artwork, representing the seed. The other forms on the canvas observe the importance of the Sun and the Earth that unite to let the birth take place. The similar form of plants with different colors represents the phases of life in harmony with the Earth’s resources.

Germination or Ankuran painting Sayed Haider Raza
Germination or Ankuran by SH Raza | Source: Indian Culture

This artwork uses different chapters of sciences, social sciences, and philosophy to identify the events that come together to create life.

6. Bindu (Showing the 5 Fundamentals of Life).

Similar to the previous forms of Bindu, this artwork also composes itself around the use of warm colors. But, the message S H Raza is trying to deliver is different. A square frame carries a bigger black Bindu inside which we can see five differently-colored Bindus at similar distances. The colors represent Bhoomi (Earth), Jala (water), Agni (fire), Vayu (air), and Akash (sky). They are the five fundamentals of nature, and without their equal distribution, it cannot exist. Therefore, the depiction of similar distances of the five Bindus.

Bindu S H Raza
Bindu, Fundamentals of Life by SH Raza | Source: IndiaArt

7. Surya and Naga.

The cycle of life is how I describe this painting. It incorporates the elements that suggest germination, creation, rebirth, and life. On the left portion of the canvas, the Bindu in ochre yellow represents the sun (Surya)- an energizing organ that supports life on the planet. The blue horizontal line on the same panel represents water, a feminine entity, according to Raza, thus forming together a male and a female entity to generate life.

The central vertical portion shows black triangles pointing downwards that symbolize yoni, or the womb carrying the life. Whereas, the upward-facing triangles indicate the potential germination of life.

Now, as the second part of the name suggests, the right vertical portion shows a coiled serpent/ Naga, implying the birth, rejuvenation, and cycle of life. The circle in the middle expresses male and female polarity.

Surya and Naga artwork by Sayed Haider Raza
Surya and Naga by Sayed Haider Raza | Source: Artisera

The painting states the Hindu philosophy, where the circle or the Bindu is a masculine character, and it participates in the life formation with the feminine entity (the cosmic world).

S H Raza often displayed male-female energy through the use of triangles and a Sanskrit name. To identify the philosophy, the artist traveled between France and India on a usual basis.

3. The Village.

Truly a remark of how French Expressionism influenced the artist. The painting utilizes deep red tones to depict the summers of a French village. The use of white color on the buildings allows them to stand visible in the scene. The use of black and yellow colors is also present.

The Village by SH Raza
The Village by SH Raza | Source: Artisera

Living Legacy.

The temptation to give more is the element that makes you unforgettable. Sir Sayed Haider Raza carried and displayed it wonderfully until his last times. The spiritualism he carried so passionately has imprinted the books of Indian art. It is difficult for me to end this writing piece as there is so much we can talk about him. A heart that carried so many souls and did justice to each.

If you have one word to explain him, what would it be? Let me know in the comments.

Frequently Asked Questions.

What is SH Raza known for?

Sayed Haider Raza was a 20th-century Indian Abstract artist known for his art that used rich colours and spiritual lessons. He was the first non-french artist to win the prestigious Prix de la Critique in 1956 and was also honoured with the Padma Vibhushan on April 20, 2013. One of the crucial aspects of his later works was the Bindu, for which he gained global popularity.

What are Raza’s painting based on?

In the early 1940s, Raza used to create landscapes and townscapes easily identified by the use of rich colours and geometry inspired by Indian traditions. Some of his paintings are also from Hindu mythological books and life lessons. One of the focal points of his artworks after the 1970s is the Bindu which he described as a point with immense energy.

How much does a Raza painting cost?

Sayed Haider Raza is among the priciest Indian artists of all time since one of his paintings, Tapovan, sold for Rs. 29.3 crores ($4.5 million) at a Christie’s auction in March 2018.

When was SH Raza born?

Born on 22 February 1922, Sayed Haider Raza is among the most famous Indian painters of the 20th and 21st centuries. He was one of the few abstract artists whose art contained meaning and value.

What are the main characteristics of Raza painting?

Sayed Haider Raza used vibrant colours, simple geometry, and attractive compositions to create abstract artworks.

What legacy did Raza leave behind?

Since 1947, S H Raza alongside his artist friends worked to break free from European realism and dedicated their life to formulating Indian values in their art forms. He co-founded Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group in 1948, and his paintings are some of the most sensitive works that highlight his deep insights into spiritual sense.

How does Raza describe his work?

S H Raza once said while describing his work, “My work is my own inner experience and involvement with the mysteries of nature and form which is expressed in colour, line, space and light”.

When did SH Raza died?

After a prolonged illness and being admitted to ICU for two months, S H Raza died at age 94 on 23 July 2016.

Where was Raza born?

Sayed Haider Raza was born on 22 February 1922 in Kakkaiya, District Mandla, Central Provinces, British India, now present-day Madhya Pradesh. His father, Sayed Mohammed Razi, was a Deputy Forest Ranger of the District, while his mother, Tahira Begum, was a housemaker.

What makes Raza a unique artist?

Unlike most abstract artists, S H Raza’s artworks carried a meaning. His paintings Kundalini, Mahabharat, and the Nagas were an outcome of his deep insights into Indian culture and spiritual values.


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