“S.H. Raza: Traversing Terrains” is the first major exhibition of the artist’s work since his death in 2016, showcasing five decades of his oeuvre at the Piramal Museum of Art.
Art Radar also talks to the exhibition’s curators Vaishnavi Ramanathan and Ashvin E. Rajagopalan.
Evolving a new Indian aesthetic
Born in 1922, Sayed Haider Raza is one of India’s most renowned modern painters. He first studied at the Nagpur School of Art and then at the J.J. School of Art in Mumbai and the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. As his artistic career evolved, Raza was deeply influenced by different tides of Western modernism and the emerging trends in American abstraction, and he shifted gradually from a figurative painting style to more abstract forms. His canvases of the 1950s and 1960s incorporate picturesque, bucolic French villages, the epitome of Expressionist landscapes. He is one of the few Indian artists of the 20th century to have worked in the West for a significant part of his life, achieving success and recognition in both Europe and the United States. In 1956, he became the first non-French artist to be awarded the prestigious Prix de la Critique and six years later, he became a visiting lecturer at the University of California in Berkeley. By this point in his career, Raza had moved into greater abstraction.
Raza also was a founding member of The Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group along with other prominent artists like F.N. Souza, K.H. Ara, H.A. Gade, M.F. Husain and S.K. Bakre. The group rebelled against the revivalist nationalism of the Bengal School of Art and ignited a new Indian avant-garde movement engaging closely with contemporary currents in international art. The Government of India awarded Raza the Padma Bhushan in 2007 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2013. He was conferred the Commandeur de la Legion d’Honneur (The Legion of Honour) by the Government of France just before his death in 2015.
Celebrating India’s visual language on canvas
“S.H. Raza: Traversing Terrains” at the Piramal Museum of Art is an exhibition that demonstrates the unique amalgamation of Raza’s classical French training and his exposure to post-war American Abstract Expressionism. The works on display are imbued with the visual language of his Indian heritage, celebrating the country’s iconography, nature, philosophy, music and poetry. It showcases five decades of Raza’s work from the early 1940s to the late 1990s. Spanning from his early days in Mumbai and his travels around India, to his years in France and his metaphorical return to his Indian roots, the exhibition traces his development as an artist and philosopher, whilst offering insights into his contributions to post-Independence Indian abstraction. The artworks on display highlight Raza’s significant influence on his peers, the Bombay Progressives Group and the generations of Indian artists that followed in the latter half of the 20th century.
Curated by art historian Vaishnavi Ramanathan, Curator and Ashvin E. Rajagopalan, Director of the Piramal Museum of Art, “S.H. Raza: Traversing Terrains” invites the viewer to witness the dynamic urban context in which Raza worked by taking a sweeping view of his rich artistic journey across continents, styles and philosophical musings. It also explores the role played by the city of Mumbai as a meeting ground for artists of diverse, avant-garde energies, which acted as an important catalyst in the evolution of Raza’s practice. Commenting on the show’s significance, Vaishnavi Ramanathan tells Art Radar:
We thought it was important to present this exhibition not only because of the significance of Raza’s works but also because he arrived in the Indian art scene at a very critical juncture. Though he lived in France, his works were deeply rooted in India and are result of a life-long quest to get to the essence of the visible world around.
Conceptualised and designed to highlight the Piramal Museum of Art’s unique approach to art display, the exhibition space has been custom designed by Gallagher & Associates with an objective of showcasing the artist’s work in an immersive and engaging context for the visitor. Featuring key works from the Piramal Art Collection, “S.H. Raza: Traversing Terrains” has interactive displays, special programming and custom-designed lighting so as to offer diverse audiences various opportunities to engage with the art. This one-of-a-kind exhibition is a compelling homage to Raza’s legacy, allowing audiences to navigate an exhibition space that physically and aesthetically mimics the distinct visual language of the artworks. When viewed from above, the entire gallery space and installation looks like a monumental Raza painting.
Speaking about this unique event, Ashvin E. Rajagopalan says:
The show is not just about Raza’s paintings, but explores a larger narrative of his life and his relationships with his peers, contemporaries, patrons, galleries and friends. A museum visitor will find some of his landmark artworks bolstered by letters, publications, critiques of his work and other documents, drawing a human story amidst the aesthetic pleasures of viewing over 30 artworks by this Master. This exhibition is designed to resonate with the Indian audience that is typically receptive to storytelling, gaining knowledge and exploring culture.
Art Radar spoke with Ramanathan and Rajagopalan to better understand the artist and the exhibition.
Could you share with Art Radar a little bit about the genesis of such a major exhibition – one that is being considered to be the first major showing of S.H. Raza’s work since his death in 2016?
The Piramal Museum of Art has presented exhibitions on different aspects of Indian art – a solo show on Ravi Varma, an exhibition of paintings from the Piramal Collection of art titled “Smriti”, an exhibition on the relationship between ecology and art making in Indian craft traditions and on the issue of fakes and forgeries. Having done such diverse shows, we thought it is important to present the work of an artist who is well-known, yet to delve deeper and present the unknown within the known. In some ways, it emerged from our desire to reconfigure and question our understanding of Indian art and present this in a way that is both intellectually and visually engaging.
S.H. Raza had such a long and illustrious career which was replete with explorations and experimentations. Did this make your job as a curator easier or more challenging, while showcasing his body of work?
It was challenging since Raza had a large output. So the exhibition had to reflect the different directions his works took without becoming too unwieldy in terms of number or nature of works. Also, since most people associate Raza with the ‘Bindu’, it was important for us to present his journey that took him to that point. This meant focusing as much on his early works as on his later creations. So though we have his important works from the period when he began painting his Bindus, we decided not to present his later explorations.
The exhibition is called “Traversing Terrains”, which can have a multiplicity of meanings. What is the thinking that went behind this title and how does it relate to S.H. Raza and his body of work?
A true artist is an explorer since s/he has a constant inner restlessness to explore new intellectual and artistic terrains. We believe Raza belonged to this breed of artists who, even after achieving fame, was not content to stay with only that visual language. He was ready to explore the unknown. He constantly sought to explore new visual languages and this is evident in the varied transitions in his work. Hence the title. Furthermore, Raza was also a traveller in the physical sense. He moved from Madhya Pradesh to Mumbai, then to Paris and back to India again, so a title that resonated with the idea of a journey seemed apt.
As curators and as part of the Mumbai-based Piramal Museum of Art that is growing from strength to strength since its inception in 2015, what in your opinion is the change in the artistic environment and the culture of art of the city of Mumbai, since the time of the Progressives? How do you think the Mumbai art scene has developed almost 70 years after Raza passed out of the J.J. School of Art?
We are a Mumbai-based museum but our curatorial practice is not Mumbai-centric. If you look at our past exhibitions, be it “Mutable”, which focused on over 70 artists from all over India, or “Nature to Culture: Crafts of India”, the Museum’s curatorial practice is pan-India. It showcases neutral telling of history and large narratives based on Indian culture. We have not bracketed groups such as the ‘Progressives’, nor isolated them or identified them as ‘Bombay’. The Museum is looking to develop this ‘Bombay’ narrative in the next few years. It will explore this narrative and provide a retold picture that is not specific to the J.J. School or to the Progressives, instead to the art that showcases the erstwhile Bombay Presidency as a whole.
What was your personal curatorial vision in the conceptualisation of “Traversing Terrains” and was it very different from other experiences of organising showings of living artists who have their own artistic vision and inputs?
Our vision was to conceptually and visually show the work of an artist and through him view and even question the way we perceive the times he lived in. As an artist belonging to the Progressive Artists’ Group that has often been given prime importance in Indian art history, this exhibition gave us the critical space to think about how and why this place was accorded. It made us think about how much power rests in the work of art itself and how much of it lies in factors like patronage and the artist’s own ability to articulate aspects of their work. It was possible for us to do this, since the artist is deceased and this brings a relative stability to his body of works and the factors surrounding its perception.
The idea of creating an immersive experience for visitors is a novel approach and has not been used by many galleries and museums in India. How has it impacted public engagement? Also, what was the experience of working with exhibition designers to create the exhibition environment at “Traversing Terrains” like?
Our museum is unconventional in terms of its space and its location, since it functions within a corporate complex. Hence, our audience is also very different. This meant evolving strategies that would draw a typical office-goer into the exhibition and make him/her stand, pause and appreciate the beauty of art in the middle of a busy work day. So we came up with a spatial arrangement that would entice the viewer, as s/he used the museum space to go from one side of the building to the other, to explore and journey through the twists and turns of Raza’s work and life.
Furthermore, the entire design mimics the geometrical forms of a Raza painting. This means the viewer gets the sense that s/he is within the painting and not outside it. To heighten this, the colours used are accents derived from the paintings themselves. We also encourage viewers to go up several floors and view the space from above. This helps them understand and see for themselves its similarity with the paintings on display. This interactive element stimulates viewers and helps them perceive a given space in a very different way – much like art itself that presents itself in different ways at different moments.
There are several community engagement activities and outreach programmes planned to coincide with the exhibition. What have these been so far and how have they helped the Piramal Museum of Art make art more accessible to the public, as is your intention?
We have an activity corner where visitors can create their own Raza painting with magnetic shapes. This has proved to be a great hit among visitors. People working within the office complex create designs together or build upon the design their colleagues have already created. It has been a great creative outlet for them and in some ways, it has temporarily erased the social hierarchies of the world in which they live. We also have a tactile corner where there are tactile replicas of some of Raza’s key works. This along with the audio guide is designed to help visually challenged visitors also experience art. Furthermore, we have also organised seminars, poetry sessions and panel discussions on aspects related to Raza’s work and his place in history.
What is next on the anvil for the Piramal Museum of Art? Are there any plans that you can share with Art Radar readers, for them to look forward to in 2018-2019?
We are opening up a gallery space in the suburb of Mulund in Mumbai, in 2018. The Piramal Museum of Art – Mulund will focus on emerging young, contemporary artists who are alumni of the Piramal Art Residency programme. It will emphasise the neighbourhood of Thane and Mulund, while working with artists from those suburbs of the city in order to enrich that circuit of art.
“S.H. Raza: Traversing Terrains” is on view from 24 June to 15 November 2018 at the Piramal Museum of Art, Piramal Tower, Peninsula Corporate Park, Lower Parel, Mumbai 400013.
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