By: John Elliott

India has lost one of its greatest modern painters with the death at 94 of Syed Haidar Raza. He was a leading member of the Bombay-based Progressives Artists’ Group of the late 1940s and 1950s that now dominates the top end of the Indian art market, and his passing marks the gradual closing of a chapter in the country’s post-independence art history.

Other famous members of the group such as V.S. Gaitonde, F.N.Souza, Tyeb Mehta and M.F. Husain have died in the past 15 years, most of them painting continuously till just before their deaths, as did Raza with his familiar canvas works of brightly colored squares, triangles and circles. 

In June 2010, his massive 79in x 79in acrylic on canvas, Saurashtra, painted in 1983, hit a record price for Indian works at a Christie’s London auction.

It was bought for £2.4 million (US$3.5 million) by Kiran Nadar, a prominent collector for her Delhi museum. In 2014, his La Terre reached UD$12.79 million) at a Saffronart auction in Delhi.

He will be most remembered for his frequent use of the bindu, Sanskrit for dot or point, which represents cosmic power in Hindu tantric philosophy. It also leads to the name bindi for the small mark worn by Hindu women in their forehead 

He once said that, when he was nine, his teacher drew a bindu on a white wall and made him stare at it to check his restlessness. “The bindu awakened a latent energy inside me,” Raza has said. “It is a source of energy, a still center and a point from which everything radiates.”

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S.H. Raza, Krishen Khanna (behind him) and Ashok Vajpeyi (right) at the January 2016 Vadehra exhibition

His last exhibition, at Delhi’s Vadehra gallery in January this year, was astonishing because it consisted of more than 20 large acrylic on canvas works, and several smaller ones, all of which he had painted and were dated in 2015 (left, and Bindu below).

He came to the opening, frail and in a wheelchair, and I asked him whether he painted every day. “Yes almost,” he replied

I arranged with his friend Ashok Vajpeyi to go to his studio and watch him at work, but he became ill and that sadly never happened. Two artist assistants helped him I was told, as assistants and students have often done for leading artists down the centuries.

They drew the shapes that Raza wanted, and held a palate for him to select the paints with a slightly wavering brush. Large canvases were raised and lowered so he could reach them. The works still had their appeal of dramatic colors, tying together in a theme, though with less sharpness than before.

“He has a particular ability to weave together a canvas with different chromatic sequences all clustered together without injuring each other,” Krishen Khanna, 91, one of the few surviving Progressives told me, standing in the gallery alongside his old friend. “Look at the strong red which doesn’t interfere with the rest of the work,” he said, pointing to a particularly striking painting.

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Bindu in the Vadehra exhibition of 2015 works