Discover the art of Indian artist S.H. Raza who durably marked Modern Art when, living in France, he applied his Indian visual and aesthetic vocabulary to French landscapes.
Would you say that this painting represents an Indian or a French landscape?
And what about this one?
Keep your impressions in mind while we discover who painted those and what is truly depicted on them!
Raza: An Artist Trained in Mumbai
These artworks are the creations of S.H. Raza whose artistic journey began in Mumbai during the late 1940s and 1950s, a period of fervent activity post-Independence. Studying at the Sir J.J. School of Arts, Raza absorbed the teachings of the Bengal School, which emphasised classical Indian art forms, from sculptures to miniatures. Such classical artforms profoundly influenced his subsequent works.
With a distinct artistic vision, Raza founded the Progressive Artists Group in 1947, uniting artists around the exploration of blending European avant-garde influences with classical Indian arts. Through this group, he aimed to embrace modernity while maintaining a strong Indian identity. It was also during this time that his interest in landscape painting emerged as a central theme in his oeuvre.
Raza’s Arrival in Paris
In India, Raza’s path intersected with that of the eminent French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, a major figure who urged him to delve into the works of Cézanne, whose revolutionary ideas influenced many French avant-gardes.
Raza secured a scholarship and embarked on a journey to Paris. There, he forged his own artistic identity, blending his classical Indian pictorial approach, inherited from Indian miniatures, with the influences of Piet Mondrian and Victor Vasarely.
This fusion takes form in the painting below. Although it depicts the village of Haut de Cagnes in France, one could be struck by the resemblance with the painting of the Dharavi area of Mumbai. Below Raza’s painting, the artwork by M Singh uses a similar composition, where warm tones and geometric precision converge, offering a two-dimensional vista of the landscape.
As Raza has lived in Mumbai, it is difficult not to assume that the landscapes of Dharavi have not influenced his vision of the urban landscape.
The painting rendered a French countryside landscape! Did you figure it out?
A Turning Point for Raza: the Use of Oil Painting.
A few years later, Raza transitioned to oil painting and adopted a technique that gradually propelled him towards abstraction. Much like his contemporaries in the School of Paris, a group of foreign artists who evolved in Paris and embraced abstraction, he built up layers of texture on his canvases. Yet, Raza stood out by staying true to his artistic trajectory, focusing solely on landscapes.
It was during this period that critical acclaim began to emerge. The piece “Paysage,” showcased below, serves as a prime example of this abstract turn in his body of work.
Raza’s Landscapes of the Spirit
However, the Indian influence remains paramount in his work. In the 1960s, he drew significant inspiration from the Rajput miniatures of the Mewar, Malwa, and Bundi schools, not merely replicating their themes but their compositions.
He coined the term “landscapes of the mind” to describe his creations. The artwork below, titled “Adho Man Naahi Dus Bees,” draws from a verse by the 16th-century poet Surdas, a prominent figure in bhakti poetry.
This verse, depicting the realisation of the gopis that Krishna will not return, serves as a catalyst for Raza’s abstract composition on the left side of the canvas, a fusion of his Parisian influences with the Indian spiritual traditions.
Raza’s Landscapes of the Earth
Raza grew up in the lush forests of Madhya Pradesh, where he roamed at night, trailing his father on his nocturnal patrols as a forest ranger. These nocturnal escapades inspired a series of paintings titled “La Terre” (The Earth), wherein warm, dark hues reconstruct the ambiance of those hot and humid nights, alive with the songs and dances of the Gond tribal community.
Through these artworks, Raza uses abstract compositions to recreate the lively landscapes of Madhya Pradesh. He portrays these nocturnal forests into a metaphor for the earth and the nurturing motherland, India.
This was an Indian landscape after all! Did you guess correctly?
Raza’s body of work is constituted of several periods, from his early geometric explorations to his final abstractions. Infused with spirituality, his work shows a profound connection to nature and poetry, manifested through landscapes, whether they be of the natural world, of the mind, or of the earth itself.
Raza once remarked, “How I paint I learned from France, but what I paint I get from India.” Thus, these landscapes are as much French as they are Indian, bearing witness to a vibrant era—the mid-20th century—defined by cultural exchange and creative dynamism.
Indo-French interculturality continues to thrive today, exemplified by Manish Pushkale’s current exhibition at one of Paris’s premier museums, the Musée Guimet. As a disciple of Raza, this not only underscores the enduring impact of Raza’s legacy but also highlights the creativity fostered by Indo-French cross-cultural connections.
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Written by Léa Joshi-Sharma, a museum professional based in Paris, France who specialises in Indian arts and archaeology.