“Like one who has travelled distant oceans Am I among those who are forever home.”
- Rainer Maria Rilke, The Loner

The cosmopolitan abstractions of Sayed Haider Raza (1922 – 2016) reveal his long itinerant life that cuts across many important phases of transnational modernism; evolving a distinct language in which the artist tried to express both the indigenous and the universal, the contingent and the eternal. In a world divided by borders and rising insularities of different kinds, it is inspiring to engage Raza’s intense and luminous corpus of works that challenges many of the prevailing assumptions of the present. Raza grew up to recite the Quran and cite the Gita with equal passion. He venerated forms of Nature (river, land/bhoomi, air) that stretched his interest back to the ancient Vedic traditions, embraced Sufic thought, performed surya namaskar and practiced dhyana (meditation). This internalization made Raza receptive to spiritual knowledge without being rigid and regimented in his religious practice. He remained inspired by the poetry of Kabir, Ghalib, Mir, Rainer Maria Rilke and writings of Mahatma Gandhi.
Raza’s early paintings, traversing across terrains and rivers, rural habitats, small towns and metropolises, were rooted within varied landscapes from India and beyond. They are replete with colours befitting to the shifting geographic and cultural topographies, and bearing on the shifts in the artist’s pictorial conception. Young Raza painted with a frenzy, the spontaneity of his brushwork creating energy and movement, and capturing the hustle-bustle of everyday life in market places, streets and narrow alleys as well as the river ghats.
Academically trained, Raza moved ahead to become one of the founding stalwart figures of modernism in India. He initiated the historic Progressive Artists’ Group in 1947 along with FN Souza and MF Husain, but unlike them was committed to a non-figural expression that was never empty of content.
From his exposure to modern masters in the West and his deep knowledge of Indian philosophies and miniature painting traditions, Raza started working on nature’s five primordial principles and elements (panchabhutas and panchatatvas), through his celebrated paintings such as La Terre, Germination and Saurashtra. This crucial period—described by the artist as a transition “from Nature to Seed”—also coincided with Raza’s increasing interest in the mystical notions and the spiritual dimensions of abstraction, and more importantly, the symbolism of the bindu (point) which became the central and consistent motif in the artist’s comprehension of the cosmos. Around the late-1970s, Raza moved from a nature-based to a symbolic/geometric abstraction, articulating his vocabulary in elementary shapes like the circle and the triangle, and embracing a space unbounded and infinite. The early sightings of the brooding, blazing and occasionally melanized sun in his cityscapes, a black hole, finally rises as the repository of all energies and life-giving forces. Bindu, the circle that represents the breath of the universe, in its concentric presence alluded to its expansion and contraction, creating a fine balance between spatial structures and the processes of time.
Raza’s life transited from a small village called Kakaiya in central India to the city of Nagpur, to metropolises like Mumbai and Paris to finally reside in the rural commune of Gorbio in southern France only to return to India to spend the last years of his life in Delhi, painting every single day until his passing at the age of 94 in New Delhi, 2016.
Raza’s art traversed the space between origin and return, between the here and the beyond, both literally and metaphorically. His simple yet complex manifestations iterate the impossibility of knowing reality, as the Absolute manifests itself in infinite ways.
~Roobina Karode