An artist’s death — no matter how unexpected or premature — lends a sense of closure to his body of work. For critics and admirers, this final point of reference is crucial if they are to understand that great art is as much about breaking the norms, as it is about upholding a set of more or less consistent aesthetic principles. And this consistency of vision only becomes apparent in the light of an artist’s death. But can we say the same thing about S.H. Raza, whose artistic output — in its themes and formal preoccupations — could together be seen as some kind of supreme embodiment of creative consistency?
Raza’s passing, last week at the age of 94, leaves us none the wiser about the “meaning” of his art. It was appropriate that he belonged to a generation of artists that didn’t care at all about conveying meaningful messages or saying anything important through their works. As a critic once said about Raza’s contemporary V.S. Gaitonde, “He tried very hard all his life not to say anything through his art.” Raza’s great strength, too, lies in the mute and contentless music of his paintings.
When we close our eyes and think of Raza, we think in tones of reds and blues; we think in circles, squares, triangles; in straight lines and curves. His paintings render well in digital prints and photographs.
Elevating all forms to the level of music was the idée fixe of 20th-century art. Wassily Kandinsky’s manifesto aimed at upending the European tradition, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, summoned all artists to, as it were, create music with colour and patterns - and to do so mainly by embracing and inventing newer forms of abstraction. As an arts student in Paris, Raza was much taken by Kandinsky’s theories of colour. He found in them a liberating energy lacking at the time in academic art. And he put Kandinsky’s ideas to good use, even lived by them, throughout his prolific career—perhaps the only Indian artist to have done so.
The European modernists, including Kandinsky, were interested in ancient art, particularly in the non-representational—or in Kandinsky’s phrase, “non-objective” —spirit of tribal painting and sculpture. Raza, of course, had to find his own way back in time and trace his own cultural roots. His fascination with ancient Indian tantrik art— in which the bindu (Raza’s favourite symbol) is among the central motifs - has always reflected in his paintings. But rather than add another layer of complexity, this spiritual dimension has to some extent limited the scope of Raza’s work in my view.
For one thing, this sort of cheap symbolism rids a painting of its mystique, making it easy to discern, or rather, easily liable to be misread. Perhaps Raza himself encouraged such a view of his work. In interviews, he would often spell out the symbolic significance of a circle or a triangle in Hindu mythology. It’s possible that he wanted his paintings to be located within a specific cultural and traditional context. But then, not all artists are necessarily great critics or explicators of their own works. And there’s no reason why one should take Raza at face value in regard to the spiritual leanings he purportedly expressed in his paintings.
In Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky used the term “spiritual” in a strictly secular sense. Quite like modern poets self-consciously employed the word “soul” to refer to some essential part of the self. To my mind, the spirituality of Raza’s paintings has more in common with the European Expressionists than with the New-Age claptrap that has come to obscure the true worth of so much great Indian art, not least some of Raza’s own best paintings.
Among the many deceptive qualities of Raza’s art is its surface simplicity: its recurrent use of geometric forms, sharp angles, symmtery. Even the colours tend to travel from one canvas to another. When we close our eyes and think of Raza, we think in tones of reds and blues; we think in circles, squares, triangles; in straight lines and curves. His paintings render well in digital prints and photographs. I have seen them imprinted on pillow cushions, coffee mugs, wall-hangings and coasters. You can’t think of doing that to a Souza or a Husain.
There are clear advantages of this level of popularity: people see your paintings; even those people who never really visit museums or art galleries. One doesn’t need to seek out a Raza painting. Chances are, the painting will itself seek you: there will be enough Raza coffee mugs, for instance, coming your way over the years. But to appreciate the real genius of Raza, you must settle for nothing less than the real deal.
Head to an art gallery and look closely at the first Raza canvas you come across. Now look at the painting not just as a complete work, but as a collection of specific, interconnected segments. Consider his use of colours and how contrasting colours are sometimes made to complement each other in his paintings. Also regard the brushwork very carefully, those thick, impressive strokes that were characteristic of Raza. It’s only when you pay close attention to these elements, that the painting will finally begin to speak to you. It’s only then that the painting will finally begin to sing.