The new S.H. Raza retrospective at Mumbai’s Piramal Museum of Art goes further than most exhibitions to contextualise the painter’s work with archival material relating to his life in India and France and his dialogues with other artists. As a result, says exhibition curator and museum director Ashvin Rajagopalan, the show captures Raza’s evolution as an artist, and helps viewers connect the stylistic shifts seen in his paintings.
Born in 1922, Raza was a contemporary of M.F. Husain and F.N. Souza, among other notable artists. Together, they founded the ‘Progressive Artists’ Group’ (PAG) in 1947, a short-lived association of artists now acknowledged for their path-breaking work. Their aim was to understand art from an independent perspective. When Raza moved to Paris for a scholarship with the Ecole des Beaux Arts, he was known for his post-impressionist landscapes and not the ‘bindu’ and other geometric motifs for which he’s famous today. This retrospective explains this stylistic shift.
“We accessed material from three archives: The Krishen Khanna Archive, the Galerie Lara Vincy archive and the Raza Foundation archive,” says co-curator Vaishnavi Ramanathan. Khanna, the Delhi-based artist and a member of the PAG, was also Raza’s close friend. On display are letters exchanged over 60 years of friendship between the two—a throwback to a time when artists exchanged informal notes about their work. “Raza would write to Khanna about his exhibitions, and would urge Khanna to do similar shows internationally,” says Ramanathan. The show features never-before-seen archives from Galerie Lara Vincy of Paris, with whom Raza worked for most of his career. Travelling through Europe between 1955 and 1970, Raza was in touch with Mme Vincy—discussing paintings and ideas.
Also included are Raza’s correspondence with photography great Henri Cartier-Bresson, who directed him towards post-impressionism and Cezanne, as well as a portrait Cartier-Bresson made of the Indian painter. The Raza Foundation, started by the artist along with former bureaucratpoet Ashok Vajpeyi, is the last stop for the archive. It shares moments from Raza’s time at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and charts out his associations with India, where he moved back for a few years before his death in 2016.