The Bombay Progressive Artists Group and India's New Age of Modern Art

January 5, 2019

The history of India is in part linked to the British colonial rule, which lasted for more than three centuries. Throughout that time, the artistic production had its particular course, yet it was not entirely free from the constraints of tradition. That largely changed in 1947 after the proclamation of India's declaration of independence; a time when a new generation of art makers united to create the Progressive Artists' Group.

Currently on display at Asia Society Museum in New York is an exhibition called The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India, set to explore and present the ideological standpoints of the Group as well as their work in a broader social, cultural, and religious context.

The show features a number of revolutionary works produced between the 1940s until 1990s by artists such as K. H. Ara, S. K. Bakre, H. A. Gade, M. F. Husain, S. H. Raza, and F. N. Souza, along with later members and figures closely affiliated with the movement such as V. S. Gaitonde, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee, and Mohan Samant.

S H Raza - Haut de Cagnes
S. H. Raza - Haut de Cagnes, 1951. Gouache on paper. H. 27 x W. 28 1/2 in. (68.6 x 72.4 cm). The Darashaw Collection. Courtesy of the lender.

The Formation of the Bombay Progressive Artists Group

It was F. N. Souza, S. H. Raza, M. F. Husain, K. H. Ara, H. A. Gade, and S. K. Bakre (the only sculptor in the group) who formed The Progressive Artists' Group. Their main agenda was to put an end with the revivalist nationalism established by the Bengal school of art, although they adopted one of their strategies which was the recovery of older, pre-colonial art forms. The formation happened a couple of months prior to the official partition of India and Pakistan. While India chose the path of secularism proposed by its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Pakistan pursued a Muslim identity.

The founding fathers of the group used to underline that the partition caused a fire in them and so they wanted to embrace new ideas and incorporate them in art; the artists profoundly believed in the emancipatory power of art, secularism, unity, and internationalism.

The Group embraced European Modernism, and the members worked in different styles; by combining the personal and political, historical narratives and abstract principles, as well as the heritage of Indian aesthetics, they started producing highly innovative and aesthetically bold works regardless of the cannons of content and technique. They followed respectable laws of plasticity, aesthetic order, color, and composition.

Here, it is important to underline that all of the members of PAG came from different parts of the vast country and belonged to different class and caste - they were Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, which made them practically the propagators of the Nehruvian ideal of secularism.

Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, Krishen Khanna, Prafulla Dahanukar and Mohan Samant joined the Group in 1950. Sadly, after Souza and Raza went in exile, S.K. Bakre also left, and the group ultimately disbanded in 1954.

Left M F Husain - Peasant Couple Right F N Souza - Untitled
Left: M. F. Husain - Peasant Couple, 1950. Oil on canvas. H. 47 1/2 x W. 36 1/2 in. (120.7 x 92.7 cm). Peabody Essex Museum, Gift of the Chester and Davida Herwitz Collection, 2003 E301169. Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA. Photography by Walter Silver / Right: F. N. Souza - Untitled, 1962. Oil on canvas. H. 63 x W. 41 in. (160 x 104.1 cm). Blanca and Sunil Hirani Asian Art Collection. ©2010 Christie's Images Limited

The Installment

The exhibition is curated by Dr. Zehra Jumabhoy, Associate Lecturer, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London, and the Director of Asia Society Museum Boon Hui Tan. The works are complemented by pre-modern Asian objects from the collection of Blanchette and John D. Rockefeller, which formed the core of the Asia Society’s holdings. The objects such as a Pahari miniature, a Chola bronze, and a Japanese scroll, underline the connections with other cultures and provide a much complex reading of Indian art that is often exoticized.

Dazzled by their new and socially engaged paradigm, during the 1950s the artists depicted everyday life in order to critically articulate the sociopolitical landscape and its economic hardships. This exhibition offers an array of works, but perhaps the two examples sum up their artistic visions best.

The first one to mention was made by Krishen Khanna in 1948 and is called News of Gandhiji’s Death. It reflects a highly tragic event – the 1948 assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the spiritual father of the nation, by a Hindu right-wing zealot. The composition depicts Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians gathering under a street light reading the tragic news.

The second work on display is an oil painting produced by an artist Akbar Padamsee in 1952 titled Lovers. It is an eroticized and colorful depiction of a stylized man and woman seated atop a white bull. Although the painting was a modernized take on the divine couple Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati, the local authorities saw the work as immoral and offensive due to scenes of sex.

Krishen Khanna - News of Gandhijis Death
Krishen Khanna - News of Gandhiji's Death, 1948. Oil on canvas. H. 33 1/2 x W. 33 1/2 in. (85.1 x 85.1 cm). Radhika Chopra and Rajan Anandan. Photography by Richard Goodbody

The Indian Progressive Revolution at Asia Society

This exhibition is important since it is the first one representing Indian modernists on American soil. Furthermore, it reflects how this post-colonial society struggled to obtain the revolutionary ideals by sorting out the trauma of Partition and the question of national identity from the perspective of Progressive Artists Group, one of the most important art movements in India until today. Finally, the show offers a rare and valuable chance to see historically significant works of modern Indian masters together.

The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India will be on display at Asia Society Museum in New York until 20 January 2019.

Editors’ Tip: The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India

Formed just months after the 1947 Partition of India and during tremendous violence and protest, the Progressive Artists Group (PAG) included artists seeking a break with their country's past and its cultural constraints. For nearly a decade these painters and sculptors explored ideas about art for a new nation. Through lush illustrations and scholarly essays, this volume looks at the brand of modernism the group espoused and its relevance and importance to contemporary art. The careers of artists K.H. Ara, S.K. Bakre, H.A. Gade, V.S. Gaitonde, M.F. Husain, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee, S.H. Raza, Mohan Samant, and F.N. Souza are presented in three sections.

Featured image: M. F. Husain - Yatra, 1955. Oil on canvas. H. 33 1/2 x W. 42 1/2 in. (85.1 x 108 cm). Collection Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi. All images courtesy Asia Society Museum.