Banner image: S.H. Raza in his studio in Paris (courtesy: Raza Archives, the Raza Foundation, New Delhi)


Sayed Haider Raza: The Last of the Bombay Progressives


Born in Babaria, Madhya Pradesh, Sayed Haider Raza completed his primary education in Babaria and Damoh. His childhood was spent in the forests around the river Narmada and among the Gond tribe. His father, Mohammed Razi, was a forest ranger and his mother, Tahira Begum cared much about the education of their sons—Sayed Yusuf Raza, Sayed Imam Ali, Sayed Hassan Imam, Sayed Mohsin Raza—and their daughter Mohammadi Begum. A deep respect for nature in all the children was a result of their life in Damoh, Kakaiya and Mandala. While Islam was practiced at home, Raza also learnt about Hindu philosophy and the Vedas from his teachers at school. It was the headmaster, Shri Nandlal Jhariya at his primary school, who first initiated Raza into the concept of 'bindu' by drawing a small black dot on the school wall and by asking young, distracted Raza to concentrate upon this motif.


In 1939, he joined the Nagpur School of Artto begin his art education. He came to Mumbai to join the Sir J.J School of Art in 1943. He was spotted by the noted European art critic Rudolf von Leyden in 1943 at the Bombay Art Society. He came in contact with young artists, F.N. Souza, H.A. Gade and M.F. Husain through the art critic. They together with K.H. Ara, H.A. Gade and S.K. Bakre formed the Progressive Artist Group in 1947, whose manifesto rejected the nationalist tradition of the Bengal School of Art and embraced new European art movements in their attempt at creating a new identity for Indian art. Art historian Geeta Kapur, tracing the history of Indian modernism finds that 'of these the Bombay Progressives were the most "correctly" modernist, they worked with a mandatory set of transfer motifs of the dispossessed but they offered a formalist manifesto that was to help the first generation of artists in independent India to position themselves internationally' (Kapur 2000:304).


Raza’s visit to Kashmir in 1948 resulted in the first exhibition to be held in Kashmir after Independence and a chance meeting with the noted French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. Upon the advice of the French photographer, S.H. Raza decided to study the works of the French Impressionist master, Paul Cezanne (Vajpeyi and Issac 2016). The exhibition of prints of Matisse, Braque, Cezanne and Picasso organized by the French Consulate in 1948 further strengthened his desire to study the original works of these European masters (Vajpeyi and Issac 2015). The scholarship from the French Government in 1949 allowed him to study at the École Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts, Paris (1950–53). Before he left for France in 1950, his works had already been exhibited in four solo exhibitions and six group exhibitions in India and London.


He met his wife, Janine Mongillat, at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts, Paris, and they married in 1959. His first exhibition in France was held in 1952 at Galerie Saint Placide. This exhibition also showed the works of his friends F.N. Souza and Akbar Padamsee. His exhibitions in 1952 and then in 1953 at Galerie Creuze attracted the eye of the noted French critic Jacques Lassaigne, who incidentally also bought the much celebrated work of the artist, Le Soleil Noir (gouache on paper).  In 1955, he created a cover for the novel,  La Forêt Vierge of Castro de Ferreira, translated into French by translator and writer, Cendrars Blaise, and Histoires Extraordinaires of Edgar Allen Poe, translated into French by French poet and writer, Charles Baudelaire.


In 1956, Raza became the first foreign artist to win the coveted Prix de la Critique award. In 1958, he has his first solo exhibition in France at Galerie Lara Vincy. Jacques Lassaigne penned the preface for this catalogue. He was also a part of the School of Paris. His works were shown at the Venice Biennale, the Biennale 57 in Paris, the Bienal de São Paulo, Biennale de Brussels, the Salon de Mai, before his visit to the United States of America in 1960.


In 1960, Raza visited the University of Berkeley where he had been invited as a visiting lecturer for six months. During this period, he came in close contact with the artists from the School of New York and discovered the works of artists such as Mark Rothko and Hans Hoffman.


It was clear that his heart was in India though for when he made a breakthrough in his art, influenced to some extent by artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko during a residency at Berkeley University, it was with fluid, gestural strokes latent with memories and colours of home. (Dalmia 2016)


Upon his return, Raza went on to explore the use of colours in the fluid gestural strokes and Indian landscapes in his works. His repeated visits to India and to Madhya Pradesh strengthened the presence of the India on his canvas and in his thoughts. The emergence of Bindu was the result of this strong desire to connect with his motherland and mostly importantly, to his memories of the forests of Madhya Pradesh. As art historian Yashodhara Dalmiya explains in one of her essays, ‘Raza’s characteristic motif, the Bindu, the dark circle which denotes the still centre, generates immense movement through forms and colour harmonies’ (Dalmia 2007).


His works can be found in prestigious museums collections around the world like the Bibliothèque National, the Centre Pompidou, Musée Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in France, the British Museum in London, the Baroda Museum, National Gallery of Modern Art, Tate Institute of Fundamental Research and the Lalit Kala Akademi in India, the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan, the Louvre in Abu Dabi, the Asia Society and the Peabody Essex Museum in U.S.A. He received the Padma Bhushan in 2007 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2013. He was also the recipient of the Commandeur de l’Ordre Nationale de la Legion d’honneur award from the French government.


After living and working for 60 years in France, Raza returned to India in 2010 to live and work in New Delhi. He founded the Raza Foundation along with his poet friend, Ashok Vajpeyi, to help promote Indian art and culture through its various programmes such as Art Matters, memorial lectures and scholarships for young Indian artists, writers and art historians.   



Dalmia, Yashodhara. 2007. 'A Hybrid Legacy'. Seminar 578. Online at (viewed on August 2, 2016).


———. 2016. 'S.H. Raza's Journey'. Indian Express, July 26. Online at… (viewed on August 2, 2016).


Kapur, Geeta. 2000. When was Modernism? Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India. New Delhi: Tulika Books.


Vajpeyi, Ashok and Shruthi Issac. 2015. S.H. Raza: An Itinerary. New Delhi: Vadehra Art Gallery.


———. 2016. S.H. Raza: Seeing Beyond. New Delhi: Vadehra Art Gallery.