At his home in Gurugram, artist Krishen Khanna recalls one of his first interactions with MF Husain in 1948. The latter had seen his work at an exhibition at the Bombay Art Society organized by SB Palsikar and wanted to invite him to exhibit alongside members of Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) at their upcoming exhibition at the Bombay Art Society hall. Husain, a young artist, was already making quite an impression within the artistic fraternity, as were the other founding members of the PAG: KH Ara, HA Gade, SH Race, FN Souza and SK Bakre.
“It was a small artistic community then. I had seen their works and met them before,” says Khanna. Although he was later accepted as a member of the group, his association began shortly after the 1948 meeting with Husain at his Churchgate home. “Sab dost the (we were all friends). We talked about everything from art to family to politics to anything that bothered or interested us. Now, I am the only survivor of that group, all my friends are gone,” says Khanna.
In the month that marks the 75th anniversary of the PAG, Khanna, 97, is cautiously hopeful about the future of Indian art. “One thing about art is that it is not limited to one person. It is multidimensional. It’s still alive more than anything else… I don’t go much but I hope there will be discussions between artists because that’s what keeps the candle burning,” says Khanna.
The most celebrated names in Indian art, which produced some of its most recognizable works and continue to lead auction records, could hardly have imagined their worldwide fame when the six young artists met in December 1947 at Mumbai, with the desire to develop avant-garde art in independent India. They aspired to break with the renovating nationalism espoused by the Bengal College of Art, as well as the course prescribed by the cultural institutions founded by the colonial rulers. The pluralistic perspective they fostered was reported by various sources, from Mughal and pahari miniatures to works by Western masters such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet and Paul Klee. His name, inspired by the Progressive Writers Association which had been producing Socialist Realism literature since the 1930s, was revealing. In the catalog of the group’s first exhibition in 1949, Souza wrote: “Today we paint with absolute freedom of content and almost anarchic techniques… We have no pretensions to making insipid revivals of any school or movement in art. We have studied the various schools of painting and sculpture to arrive at a vigorous synthesis”.
The group’s aesthetic was informed by the crossroads art was at in India at the time. In the 58th volume of Art Journal, in the essay titled “Modern Indian Art: A Brief Overview” (1999), art historian and curator R Siva Kumar writes: “The 1940s marked a turning point in the Indian attitude towards modernism. This decade saw the rise of a group of artists… who doubted the wisdom of fighting for an indigenous modernism that bypassed modern Western art… The Bombay Progressive Group (1947) was the last to form, but represented the modernist statement of this generation in its clearest form”.
Art historian Dr. Zehra Jumabhoy, who co-curated “The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India,” a 2018 exhibition at the Asia Society in New York, dedicated to the PAG, notes how the group also posed a “counterpoint visual to the foundation”. Prime Minister Jawaharlal NehruThe plea for unity in diversity”. “It was a time of great intellectual ferment, and these artists genuinely embodied Nehru’s vision of a secular India that was multi-religious and inclusive… For Muslim artists such as MF Husain and SH Raza, it is particularly important to consider their commitment to the idea. from India. Raza’s family moved to Pakistan and his brother, Ali Imam, was instrumental in the formation of the Lahore Art Circle. Why did you decide to join the Indian national dialogue, to form a captcha for this notion of an inclusive Indian character? Isn’t there something we can learn from them today?” she asks.
It was, perhaps, Raza himself who best described the vision of the PAG founders in a 1984 interview in Bombay Magazine. He said: “What we had in common besides our youth and lack of means was that we hoped for a better understanding of art…”
Hailing from different parts of India and coming from diverse backgrounds, the progressives were unified in their vision of modernism but sought independent artistic vocabularies. While Gade was one of India’s pioneering abstract expressionists, Ara is known for his landscapes and female nudes. If Souza’s bold strokes borrowed from Goan people, primitivism, cubism and expressionism, race work it included idyllic, abstract landscapes and geometric shapes. Bakre, the only sculptor-painter in the group, moved from academic realism to abstraction. Meanwhile, Husain’s works were a confluence of his varied interests, from cubism to symbolism, mythology, folk and tribal art, and the very spirit of India. “The group was truly representative of the Indian social fabric. Each of them had a distinctive aesthetic vision and style, but that didn’t interfere with his warm camaraderie. This is remarkable and has not been seen before or since,” says Ashok Vajpeyi, trustee of the Raza Foundation.
The main supporters of the group were expatriates. Mumbai-based German art critic Rudi von Leyden and Austrian painter Walter Langhammer introduced them to European art trends, and Austrian connoisseur Emmanuel Schlesinger and German art historian Hermann Goetz were among their early patrons. He provided a space to display his works by Kekoo Gandhy in his Chemould frame shop which later became an art gallery, the artists were described as the “heralds of a new dawn in the world of Indian art” by author Mulk Raj Anand. But not everyone congratulated him. In a 1992 interview with Yashodhara Dalmia, Husain recalled: “Some of the JJ (Sir JJ School of Art) teachers used to tell students ‘Don’t mix with these guys. They are destroying Indian art.’” The artists, however, were not discouraged. They would meet in regular places, from bustling Marine Drive to the Bombay Art Society and Chetana Restaurant, where Ara also had his first solo in 1942, and talk for hours.
While the group had held several informal exhibitions, their inaugural exhibition was staged at the Bombay Art Society hall in 1949. Critical acclaim and public interest followed, and gradually their numbers increased to include Khanna. , VS Gaitonde, Ram Kumar, Mohan Samant, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee, and its only female member, Bhanu Rajopadhye. There was also an enthusiasm to learn from the world. They traveled around India to explore artistic trends and in the early 1950s three founding members moved abroad. Souza and Bakre were in London and Raza was in Paris. Husain started traveling between Mumbai and Delhi. While that meant the gradual decentralization of the PAG, Khanna says it did not mean its dissolution. “It meant that people were going to different places looking for jobs, opportunities,” says Khanna.
As they worked and exhibited all over the world, they drew attention and praise not only for themselves but also for Indian art. The modernism they sought was realized and the bonds forged only strengthened over time. “We were always in touch, writing letters to each other, staying at each other’s houses when we traveled. Akbar and Husain stayed with me in Delhi and shimla. When I went to London for my first exhibition in 1959, race shared a list of people you should interact with. She took me on her scooter and introduced me to the people of Paris. Later, Akbar showed me Paris. He came to New York when I was on a Rockefeller fellowship in the United States, for which I recommended him, ”recalls Khanna.
In its active life, the PAG had only a handful of formal exhibitions, but its contribution to Indian art is enormous. “They created a unique Indian modernity that was full of plurality, having camaraderie with the West, but remaining deeply Indian. No other group has produced so many masters and their individual achievements are so staggeringly high that Indian art should be grateful,” says Vajpeyi.
Like his art, his generosity is also legendary. “They were worried about the younger generation. Remembering their own youthful days, when they had to take jobs to survive (Husain painted movie billboards and Raza printed blocks), they wanted to offer help to the youth,” says Vajpeyi. Husain would often indulge fans with a quick drawing on a paper ticket or napkin, and Raza’s house in Paris was always open to young Indian artists. Padamsee and Mehta were never shy about giving honest feedback. As a student at the Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai, Atul Dodiya remembers spending hours with Padamsee and Mehta in their studio and visiting Raza in Paris when he was on a scholarship at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in the early 1990s. me they were superstars who influenced generations of artists… Not only about art, Akbar and Tyeb talked about philosophy, about Italian writers, about cinema. Whenever Raza had a show in Mumbai, he would always invite young students to the opening. When he was in Paris, he would often invite me and (my wife) Anju to dinner. We discuss the Vedas, the Upanishads, and man’s relationship with the cosmos,” he says.
Although hailed as masters of indian art, his idea of modernity has been described by some as Western-derived, while the liberalism that progressives espoused was also challenged at numerous junctures. In 1954, Padamsee fought a landmark court battle, ending in an acquittal, to defend the nudes exhibited in his solo show at Mumbai’s Jehangir Art Gallery. In self-imposed exile following persistent death threats from Hindutva forces over his depiction of Hindu gods and goddesses, Husain died in London as a Qatari citizen in 2011.
However, nothing could overshadow the group’s artistic achievements. The group kept reinventing and experimenting. While Husain drew on various inspirations, Raza’s iconic bindu was born in the 1980s as a search for a deeper understanding of Hindu iconography. In 1969-71, Padamsee established an Art Vision Exchange Workshop, where artists and filmmakers could experiment across disciplines. “As an artist, I learned one of my best lessons from Tyeb, who told me that it’s important to know what to do, but what’s more important is to know what not to do,” says Dodiya.
This desire to explore still drives the nonagenarian Khanna to his studio. “I work every day and sometimes it’s hard, but I enjoy it,” says the artist. Last week, while he was interacting with the public at the Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi, where his works from the 1970s and 1980s are on display in the “Beyond the Beginning” exhibition alongside Kumar, Husain and race, he was also her voice. At home, she treasures the files containing the letters they exchanged. “There wasn’t a painting that happened between any of us that wasn’t discussed at the time. I was very lucky to have such wonderful people with such wonderful knowledge about art in my life,” says Khanna.