Raza’s art is an example of how simple geometric shapes can convey powerful ideas. Here’s a deeper look into the art and philosophy of S.H Raza : India’s most famous contemporary abstract artist including activities for children !"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication" – Leonardo Da Vinci Click To Tweet
The above quote is true for S.H Raza. When you think of Raza, you instantly think of circles, triangles, squares and lines, in all shades of primary colours. It is these geometrical motifs that make him so relatable to even those who get intimidated by the thought of visiting a museum or art gallery. If you are introducing the art of S.H Raza to children, you might wonder how 6-8 year olds would interpret “abstract art”. Instead, Raza’s artworks make for the most fascinating introduction into the world of Indian history and art.
Raza was born in a village of Madhya Pradesh and from a young age was drawn to art. Although he lived much of his life in France, his works were inspired by Indian religious imagery and philosophical concepts including the Panchatatva (five elements of Nature) and the Bindu (the dot or the epicenter). Not only did his colour palette borrow from India, but he also started inscribing Sanskrit prayers / chants, Urdu and Hindi verses onto his canvas; just the way the Ragmala Miniature paintings have calligraphed verses on them; Kabir, Ghalib and contemporary poets such as Ashok Vajpayee would often be quoted on Raza’s artworks, thus bringing music, poetry and art together, co-existing in a beautiful harmonious manner. In doing this, he successfully communicated feeling and emotion.
Ideas & Themes in Raza’s art:
In his art, Raza explored themes of Prakriti (nature), Kundalini (primal energy), Tribhuj (triangle) and Bindu (circle/dot).
The most celebrated of Raza art series has been the ‘Bindu’. Derived from the Indian concept of “Shunya”, meaning the abstract of nothingness and yet that which has the ability to add value to whatever it is affixed to."The Bindu or cosmic egg is a symbol of primordial genesis from which, in Hindu mythology, all Creation is born" – SH Raza Click To Tweet
Raza perceived the Bindu as the centre of all creation and existence, stating that “Bindu is a source of energy, source of life. Life begins here, attains infinity here”. Interestingly, Raza’s art and creation also began with the Bindu.
After the introduction of the Bindu, Raza added newer dimensions to his work in the following decades, focusing on many different metaphysical ideas.
Everything begins and ends with a dot and that’s the precise lesson to learn from the art of SH Raza (like this sentence!). Raza’a art is as simple – and as complicated as this observation.
For young kids, his art can be understood in the context of how dots make our world – how kids themselves begin with join-the-dots, how a series of dots make a line, and finally what a dot means to them. What innumerable possibilities does the dot represent? One of my favourite responses comes from my 5-year old nephew. To him, the “Bindu” represents the Navel – which he associates with the killing of Ravana (his favourite story).
Activity Suggestion :
For the small kids, you could let them cut paper-circles of different sizes. Then have them paste the circles on top of each other according to size – the smallest being on top. For the older kids (6-10 years), draw a circle in the within a square such that it touches each side of the square. Divide the borders into 4 squares, so you have 12 small squares surrounding the big one (refer to the image below). Fill in the squares with different shapes (circles, triangles and more squares)!
Panch-Tatva or the Five Elements
This activity is a straight hit with really small children – and you’d probably love to see how they express their answers. I believe it’s really important to let the children connect with their bodies at an early age. Looking at Raza’s Panchatatva, ask them to point out where the Earth in their body is (muscles, bones), or where the water is (blood-flow), and the Air element (lungs). The tricky part is Space and Fire. Fire basically should be the tummy – the centre from where they draw energy and space is everything where all the other elements are not.
Make a start with this simple colouring sheet and fill it with as many triangles as possible. You could also get your child a lot of magazines to cut colourful shapes from, and work on a collage inspired by the painting.
The Surya Namaskar is by far one of the largest of the variations that Raza painted in salutation to the sun. The forty-six tiles, laid in a geometric grid, represent the different phases of the sun. The singular black circle in the centre evokes the absolute, life-giving oneness of the sun.
This activity is fun for families or classrooms (and even teams!)- basically any time there are more people involved. First, spend some time making a replica of the smaller squares. In the end, make the central black circle within square lines around. Keep the paintings facing down, shuffle and then try to re-arrange the painting from memory. Want to make this more fun? Try this without talking! If anything, it’s a great way to build patience and understanding.
The Kundalini is an awakening of dormant energy and its principle is manifested in painting as a pair of coiled snakes. It refers to the energy flowing in whirls at the base of the spine, whereby practicing asceticism, it ascends the body, eventually leading to enlightenment. The upper part of the work, which is brighter, suggests the ascending movement of the circle.
Mahatma Gandhi & S.H Raza
As a young child, Raza was influenced by Gandhi who visited his village during the struggle for India’s Independence. It is therefore no surprise that some of his works also reflect the Gandhian philosophy of “Peace”.
There cannot be a better way to teach your child about Gandhi. Every school makes it a point on October 2 to work on a “special event”, and this could be a wonderful opportunity to integrate art learning with Gandhi’s teachings. Let students choose their favourite Gandhi quote, turn it into a poem and use a line on their art. In this lesson, raise questions on how colour can communicate mood. What is a colour palette that students associate with Peace?
Understanding Raza’s art is to understand the deep-rooted spiritual philosophies that India has always propagated to the world. The time for manuscripts and palm-leaf stories is gone by, but Raza’s manifestation of these philosophies will last forever.
Raza was awarded the Padma Shri (1981), the Padma Bhushan (2007) and the Padma Vibhushan (2013) by government of India. He is also the recipient of the Prix De La Critique in the year 1956 by the French government and the Legion Of Honor (Commandeur de la Legion d’Honneur) (2015) which is the highest French civilian honour for his contribution to the field of art.
Raza & Poetry :
While reading poetry, prose or anything thoughtful, Raza usually wrote down whatever inspired him. He wrote these notations in his paintings. Some of his important works in which he used such inscriptions are ‘Kaliyan’ , ‘Sansara’, ‘Amar Jiva’, ‘Aparna’ and ‘Bharata’
Have young learners write down their favourite lines from the stories or poems they read; then ask them to quote it in a painting they make!
The art of S.H Raza at Museums & Galleries
You can find Raza’s paintings in the collections of : Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, and DAG Modern. Internationally, Raza paintings are owned by 19 museums including SanJose Museum of Art, Tao Art Gallery and Grosvenor Art Gallery.