Before the ‘bindu’, there was Bombay

As a rare watercolour of Bombay by Raza goes on auction in June, we look at how the city influenced and inspired the artist.


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One of India’s leading modernists, Sayed Haider Raza is best known for the iconic bindu, which was the predominating element in his art later in his career. Through “the seed bearing the potential of all life,” he explored his spiritual quest for understanding profound concepts of Hindu metaphysics.

But before the bindu, there was Bombay.

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Bombay from Malabar Hill, 1948, sold for Rs. 1 crore at Saffronart’s Evening Sale in February 2017

In his early years, Raza painted mainly landscapes and cityscapes. These were his forays into a lifelong exploration of nature. A recent graduate of the Nagpur School of Art, Raza moved to Bombay in 1943. At twenty-five, a budding artist with immense potential, Raza was to join the J J School of Art, but arrived too late for the admissions. He decided to stay on and pursue his art, while working as a designer at the Express Block Studio, in the central business district of Flora Fountain. From his window, Raza would take in scenes of the busy metropolis, recreating them in his lyrical watercolours.

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Flora Fountain, watercolour on paper

 

“The face of the city became an obsession with the young painter and he tried to recapture it in a hundred and more different moods; at twilight, in the blaze of an Indian summer sky, or in the flooding rains of the monsoon.”
—Rudy von Leyden

His paintings attracted the attention of influential critic Rudi von Leyden, one of his first promoters. In a 1959 publication in the Sadanga series, Leyden wrote, “I remember that it was at a rather dark and dull exhibition of the Art Society of India at the Cama Hall in November 1943, that I first saw Raza’s paintings. And I remember distinctly the thrill of recognition with which I responded to a new talent that revealed itself modestly yet with a most convincing air of certainty and determination.”

In the 1940s, Bombay was an endlessly fascinating subject for the young artist. In an interview with Ashok Vajpeyi in Passion: Life and Art of Raza, the artist has said:

“I loved Bombay and I painted its street scenes, Ferozeshah Mehta Road or the Parsi temple from the Express Block Studios where I was working from 10 to 6…
I painted the city because there was no time to go out to nature. The expression was limited to cityscapes.”

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Flora Fountain in Monsoon, 1945
“I remember one of his paintings at Flora Fountain in the Monsoon, in which the whole universe seemed to dissolve in pouring rain and the artist’s fluid colours washed out all firm shapes of houses and prodding elephantine buses.” —Rudy von Leyden

These rare, early works are among Raza’s finest, and are sought out by serious collectors. Bombay from Malabar Hill, an unusually large watercolour painted in 1948, was auctioned at Saffronart’s Evening Sale in Mumbai earlier this year and sold for Rs. 1 crore, five times its original estimate. It was originally commissioned by Emil Weber, a Swiss automotive company man, and won the Gold Medal at the Bombay Art Society’s Diamond Jubilee exhibition in December 1948.

A similar landscape (shown above), most likely depicting the tower of the Railway Hospital in Byculla, is on offer in the upcoming Summer Online Auction on 6-7 June 2017 on saffronart.com. View other works by Raza in this sale here.

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