Strokes at Midnight

Strokes at Midnight

On August 15,1947,a handful of art galleries held the clue to the path Indian art was going to take.

It was a day the nation had been waiting for. Millions gathered on the streets of the Capital on August 15,1947,from India Gate to Red Fort and the busy Connaught Circle,then one of the few commercial districts in Delhi. It was also the address for one of the few art galleries in India,Dhoomimal Gallery started by art dealer and collector Ram Chander Jain in 1936. “On the day that India gained independence,the gallery was showing the works of Sushil Sarkar,Jamini Roy,Sailoz Mukherjee,KS Kulkarni and BC Sanyal,” informs Uday Jain,grandson of Ram Chander.

Dhoomimal Gallery had enabled artists to exhibit and discuss art. Even as Jawaharlal Nehru dwelt on the challenges before the new nation,the artists gathered at this gallery to brainstorm on developing an Indian identity for art,independent of the European masters. “Several artists used to work from Dhoomimal. There was shortage of space and art wasn’t lucrative then,” says Uday.

On the eve of Independence,Arun Vadehra,director of Vadehra Gallery in Delhi celebrated by visiting an exhibition organised by KH Ara in Matunga,a Mumbai suburb. “The focus of artists of that time was to be radical and reclaim our past without becoming sentimental about it. They looked towards modernism. In the images of Ram Kumar and MF Husain,we see a preoccupation with the real India,with the common man in the spotlight,” says Vadehra. A few kilometers away from Matunga,Taj Palace was hosting the solo shows of KK Hebber and Sri Lankan painter,George Keyt. Akbar Padamsee was an enthusiastic visitor. “I was a student of JJ School of Art. I used to paint but it wasn’t very mature. I remember being impressed with the works of Keyt and Hebber. Keyt moved to Bombay in 1947,” recalls Padamsee.

At a time when there were almost no venues for showing modernist art in India,Kekoo Gandhy displayed modernist canvases on the windows of his showroom,Chemould Frames.


“Opened in 1941,the showroom became a site for small,informal solo shows. We held exhibitions by Jamini Roy and Henri Cartier Bresson. MF Husain’s first solo was held here in 1951. 1947 was also significant for me because I was elected as the Honorary Secretary of the Bombay Art Society,” says Gandhy.

Space wasn’t the only problem. Artist Ram Kumar remembers that “there was no money in art. Imported stationary was available,but it was too expensive”. Back then,he was a student of Sharda Ukil School of Art in Janpath. “I was pursuing masters in economics from St Stephen’s and went for art classes in the evening,” adds Kumar,who later became a member of the Progressive Artists Group,one of the most influential artists group in India,established in 1947.

His co-member in the group,Krishen Khanna,meanwhile,heard Nehru’s speech in Shimla,where the artist’s family had moved from Lahore. “I was studying art in Lahore Art School,but had to flee with my family,” he says. “I listened to Panditji’s speech in awe. All I could bring myself to paint were landscapes. My first political painting came a year later. It was of people reading the newspaper after Gandhiji’s death and was exhibited by the Bombay Art Society.” He has painted several political paintings since. Indian art too has found a language of its own — one that is today recognised the world over.

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