The five elements dance through the late phase of S. H. Raza’s work, crossing the distance between emptiness and plenitude, restlessness and repose. They appear as themselves, symbolically rendered, as the Pancha-Tatva. In an incandescent exchange of attributes, they also appear as one another. Fire ripples like a river through some of Raza’s paintings of the second decade of the 21st century. In other paintings from this period, earth seems buoyant as air, while ether, invisible yet palpable, attunes all things and symbols to its shimmering aura. In crossing one element with another, Raza also invited us to experience the world through a crossing of the senses: synaesthesia, when a sensation addressed to one sense is registered by another. In Raza’s late paintings, colour comes through as sound, line as the memory of touch.
In the same spirit, we respond to the subtle interplay of visuality and language in Raza’s art, the symbiosis of image and text. Every now and again, a floating line from a poem, chant or scripture found habitation in one of his paintings. Sometimes, an entire text. As we gaze upon it, the text variously animates or illuminates the image, or holds it in dialogue or counterpoint. It gathers the energy of a mantra. Consider a painting that is vibrant with glowing reds, suggestive of the earth blazing in summer, fields of red chillies drying in the sun. Across its lower edge runs a line from Amir Khusro’s poetry: Badi kathin hai dagar panghat ki. It’s tricky, the path to the ghat where water awaits. A village topography is invoked: narrow track, grass, stone ghats, river. Through the simplest yet most sensuously rich means, we are pointed towards the arduous yet ardent quest for spiritual bliss.
We are drawn to the sonic dimension in Raza’s late work: the articulation of light as sound, the universe manifesting its presence as beat and cadence. Aalok, rendered as a concentric array of circles radiating outwards from a central source, is both radiance and resonance. Laya is a concentric array elaborated into an Orphist kaleidoscope of scintillating colour units, intuitively pointing us towards the circling and gathering patterns of dance.
In an epoch of displacement and migration, many of us are homeless under the sky. How do we find our way back to the consolation that Raza’s Neelambar offers, the blue mantle of the cosmos? In Raza’s late paintings, insistently, we find ourselves returned to the point of origin, Aarambh, and the process of descending into the world, Avtaran. What he celebrated in his paintings was the leela, the play, through which the One presented itself as the Many. Each of the Many was a valid and exquisite dimension of the One. Appearance, to the idealist philosopher, is a veil, a phantom, an ephemeral illusion. To the painter, appearance – however momentary and finite – is the most tangible token of infinity, the flower that speaks of the forest.
Text by Ranjit Hoskote