“Black is the mother of all colours,” said Syed Haider Raza. “It is the point from where all energy in the universe emanates as well as the point into which the energy converges.” The iconic Indian painter who passed away on July 23, 2016, at the age of 94 was referring to the bindu, the primordial source of all creation as described in Tantric and Yogic texts. The bindu is the point from where the notion of Self originates and into which it ultimately collapses.

In his Bindu series, concentric circles, squares, rectangles and triangles in blue, yellow, red, orange and green are arranged around deep black circles, reminiscent of yantras and mandalas used for meditative visualisation. The interlocking geometric patterns symbolise the polarity of male and female energy, the yin and yang of manifested reality. “Bindu is a source of energy, source of life,” said Raza. “Life begins here, attains infinity here.”

S.H. Raza, Bindu Naad, 1995, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy: Piramal Museum of Art.

Born in the Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh in 1922, Raza began painting at the age of 12. He went on to study at the Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai before moving to France in 1950 to attend the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts on a government scholarship. He remained in France till the death of his wife Janine Mongillat – also an accomplished artist – in 2002.

Raza was one of the founding members of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group along with KH Ara, FN Souza and MF Husain, who were all seduced by the abstract and modernist wave sweeping the world of art. Influenced by Cezanne, Picasso and Kokoschka, Raza’s early work largely comprised of expressionist landscapes and townscapes set in Bombay, Benares and Kashmir.

Some of his notable abstract works are currently on display in an exhibition titled S.H. Raza: Traversing Terrains at the Piramal Art Museum in Mumbai. The show traces his evolution as an artist from his early days at the JJ School to his French period, during which he honed his skills as an abstract expressionist, leading eventually to his spiritual phase beginning in the late 1970s.

S.H. Raza, Benares, 1944, watercolour on paper. Image courtesy: Piramal Museum of Art

Indian modernism

Feeling the pull of his roots after being abroad for a long time, Raza was seeking an authentically Indian modernism. He was drawn to the aniconic (non-figurative) tantric tradition that employed art as a device – a yantra – to catalyse the transformation of consciousness. “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,” he said. The painting titled Bindu Bija Mantra, for instance, is made up of 25 square tiles in primary colours – red, blue, yellow, white and black – each signifying the fundamental elements, or tattwas, of creation: fire, water, earth, sky and air/space, which in turn correspond to the five senses.

Bija, or seed, mantras are one-syllable sounds – the building blocks of speech – designed to vibrate at specific frequencies in resonance with the subtle body to bring about transformation. Each of the seed syllables has a visual correlate depicted by Raza on his canvas. In this way he maps out, deconstructs and reassembles the world of name and form or namarupa. Yogic practice is thus the process of tracing consciousness back to its source – the bindu.

S.H. Raza, Village, 1959, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy: Piramal Museum of Art.

Though enamoured of India’s profound spiritual traditions, he was disturbed by the religious bigotry and fanaticism he saw all around and Raza emphasised the need for compassion and harmony. “Admonish me if I call myself a Hindu or a Muslim, I am the child of five elements” he said, quoting from the Guru Granth Sahib.

New movement

The tradition was also practiced by a group of artists who came to be known as the Neo-Tantrics and its leading lights were Ghulam Rasool Santosh, Biren De, KV Haridasan, Sohan Qadri and PT Reddy. Born into a Kashmiri Muslim family in the Habba Kadal neighborhood of old Srinagar, Ghulam Rasool bucked tradition by marrying his childhood sweetheart, a Kashmiri Pandit woman named Santosh, and assumed her name. He began his career painting landscapes until he was discovered by Raza himself who pushed him to go to Baroda for further studies at Maharaja Sayajirao University.

Santosh’s art, and that of his fellow travellers, extensively used the metaphor of the yoni-linga as the union of male-female sexual energies signifying the merging of cosmic polarities embodied in the sexual act. It is this union that gives birth to the universe and in turn all of Creation.

S.H. Raza, Surya Namaskar, 1993, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy: Piramal Museum of Art.

“For both neo-tantric artists and Western modernists, the tension between the spiritual and the material found expression through symbols that defied particular iconographic or culturally-grounded systems and instead evoked broader universal expressions of spirituality, patterns in the universe, and sense perception” writes Rebecca Brown, a scholar of South Asian art history in an essay on the art of another Neo-Tantric, PT Reddy. “Reddy’s use of symbols, connection to a spiritual system in tantra, and interpretation of sound all play into similar ideas. Articulating the relationship between spiritualism and materialism forms one major part of the modernist struggle; this relationship is in many ways resolved by tantric thought, one reason that it held such appeal for both Western and Indian culture of the 1960s and 1970s.”

Image courtesy: Piramal Museum of Art.

The ongoing Raza retrospective in Mumbai seeks to articulate the tension between the spiritual and material by mirroring it in the artist’s personal journey. The gallery space is arranged like his paintings – open to interpretation but imbued with an intrinsic order. As we walk through the stages in his life, we witness the evolution of his creative process as an artist attempting to understand the world and finding new ways of interpreting it through his medium.

When we reach the last chamber, we are greeted with a massive rectangular canvas covering an entire wall. Smack in the middle of the canvas sits a big black dot surrounded by concentric white and grey circles. Gazing at the image from a distance it felt like the circles had taken on a life of their own. They were converging towards the centre and pulling me into the void. The cacophony of thoughts in my head ceased till only the dot remained. The TS Eliot line came to mind: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” An apt summation of Raza’s life and work.

S.H. Raza, Portrait, Photographer Unknown, circa 1960. Image courtesy: Galerie Lara Vincy, Paris.

S.H. Raza: Traversing Terrains is on display at Piramal Museum of Art, Mumbai, until October 28.