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Journalism of Courage

On the 75th anniversary of the Progressive Artists’ Group, remembering their seminal role in shaping Indian art

In their effort to synthesise tradition and modernity, the collaboration between artists such as KH Ara, HA Gade, SH Raza, FN Souza, MF Husain and others, has produced some of the most seminal works in Indian art

sh razaArtists (first from left) SH Raza, (second from left) FN Souza; (from right) Tyeb Mehta, MF Husain, Abbasi, KH Ara, VS Gaitonde (Credit: The Raza Foundation)

At his Gurugram home, artist Krishen Khanna recalls one of his earliest interactions with MF Husain in 1948. The latter had seen his work at an exhibition at the Bombay Art Society organised by SB Palsikar and wanted to invite him to exhibit alongside members of the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) at their upcoming exhibition at the Bombay Art Society salon. A young artist himself, Husain was already making an impression within the art fraternity, as were the other founding members of the PAG — KH Ara, HA Gade, SH Raza, FN Souza and SK Bakre.

“It was a small art community then. I had seen their works and met them before,” says Khanna. While he was accepted as a member of the group later, his association began soon after the 1948 meeting with Husain at his Churchgate home. “Sab dost the (we were all friends). We discussed everything, from art to family to politics or anything that bothered or interested us. Now, I am the lone 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’s multidimensional. It continues to live more than anything else… I don’t go around as much but I hope discussions between artists happen because that is what keeps the candle burning,” says Khanna.


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The most celebrated names of Indian art — who produced some of its most recognised works and continue to lead auction records — could have hardly imagined their global fame when the six young artists came together in December 1947 in Mumbai, with a desire to develop avant-garde art in independent India. They aspired to break away from the revivalist nationalism espoused by the Bengal School of Art as well as the course prescribed by cultural institutions founded by the colonial rulers. The pluralist perspective they nurtured was informed by diverse sources — from Mughal and Pahari miniatures to works of Western masters such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet and Paul Klee. Its name, inspired by the Progressive Writers’ Association which had been producing literature of socialist realism since the 1930s, was telling. In the catalogue for the group’s first exhibition in 1949, Souza wrote, “Today we paint with absolute freedom for content and techniques almost anarchic… We have no pretensions of making vapid 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 aesthetics of the group was informed by the crossroads at which art in India found itself at the time. In volume 58 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 to modernism. This decade saw the emergence of artists group… who doubted the wisdom of striving for an indigenous modernism that bypassed modern Western art… The Bombay Progressive Group (1947) was last to be formed but represented the modernist assertion of this generation at its clearest.”

Art historian Dr Zehra Jumabhoy, who co-curated “The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India”, a 2018 exhibition at Asia Society in New York, dedicated to the PAG, notes how the group also posed a “visual counterpoint to founding Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s 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 Muslims artists like MF Husain and SH Raza, it is particularly important to consider their commitment to the idea of India. Raza’s family moved to Pakistan and his brother, Ali Imam, was vital in the formation of the Lahore Art Circle. Why did they decide to throw their lot in with the Indian national dialogue, to form an image code for this notion of an inclusive Indian-ness. Is there not something we can learn from them today?” she asks.

SH Raza’s 1983 artwork Saurashtra (Credit: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art)

It was, perhaps, Raza himself who best described the vision of the founders of PAG 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… ”


Belonging to different parts of India and coming from varied backgrounds, the Progressives were unified in their vision for modernism but pursued 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 folk, primitivism, cubism and expressionism, Raza’s oeuvre included idyllic landscapes, abstracts and geometric forms. The only sculptor-painter in the group, Bakre moved from academic realism to abstraction. Husain’s works, meanwhile, were a confluence of his varied interests, from Cubism to symbolism to mythology, folk and tribal art and the very ethos of India. “The group was truly representative of the Indian social fabric. Each one of them had a distinctive aesthetic vision and style but that did not come in the way of their warm-hearted camaraderie. This is remarkable and has not been seen before or after,” says Ashok Vajpeyi, managing trustee, The Raza Foundation.

The group’s foremost supporters were expats. Mumbai-based German art critic Rudi von Leyden and Austrian painter Walter Langhammer introduced them to the trends in European art, and Austrian connoisseur Emmanuel Schlesinger and German art historian Hermann Goetz were among their earliest patrons. Provided a space to exhibit their works by Kekoo Gandhy at his Chemould framing store that 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 was congratulatory. In a 1992 interview with Yashodhara Dalmia, Husain recalled: “Some of the professors at the JJ (Sir JJ School of Art) used to tell students ‘Don’t mix with these fellows. They are destroying Indian art’.” The artists, however, were undeterred. They would meet at regular spots, from the bustling Marine Drive to 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, its inaugural show was organised at the Bombay Art Society salon in 1949. Critical acclaim and public interest followed and many artists drifted in and out of their ranks. Some of the better-known ones who formed an enduring association included Khanna, VS Gaitonde, Ram Kumar, Mohan Samant, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee, and it. There was also a keenness to learn from the world. They would travel across India to explore artistic trends, and by the early ’50s, three founding members moved abroad. Souza and Bakre were in London and Raza was in Paris. Husain began shuttling between Mumbai and Delhi. While that meant the gradual decentralisation of the PAG, Khanna asserts it did not imply dissolution. “It meant that people went to different places for jobs, opportunities,” says Khanna.


As they worked and exhibited across the world, they invited attention and acclaim not just for themselves but also Indian art. The modernism they sought was realised and the bonds forged only strengthened over time. “We were always in touch, writing letters, staying at each other’s houses when we were travelling. Akbar and Husain stayed with me in Delhi and Shimla. When I went to London for my first exhibition in 1959, Raza shared a list of people whom I should interact with. He took me on his scooter and introduced me to people in Paris. Later, Akbar showed me around Paris. He came to New York when I was on a Rockefeller scholarship in the US, for which I’d recommended him,” recalls Khanna.


In its active lifetime, the PAG only had a handful of formal exhibitions but its contribution to Indian art is enormous. “They created a unique Indian modernity that was full of plurality, bearing comradeship with the West, but remaining deeply Indian. No other group produced so many masters and their individual achievements are so astoundingly lofty that Indian art must be grateful,” says Vajpeyi.

Krishen Khanna’s oil on canvas, Ramu ka Dhaba, 1979 (Collection and image courtesy: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art)

Like their art, their generosity is also legendary. “They were concerned about the younger generation. Remembering their own younger days, when they had to take up jobs to survive — Husain painted cinema hoardings and Raza did block printing — they wanted to offer assistance to the young,” says Vajpeyi. Husain often obliged fans with a quick drawing on a paper bill or a napkin and Raza’s home in Paris was always open for young Indian artists. Padamsee and Mehta were never shy of giving honest feedback. As a student at Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai, Atul Dodiya remembers spending hours with Padamsee and Mehta at their studio and visiting Raza in Paris when he was on a scholarship at École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in the early ’90s. “For me they were superstars who influenced generations of artists… Not just art, Akbar and Tyeb would talk about philosophy, Italian writers, cinema. Whenever Raza would have a show in Mumbai, he always invited young students for the opening. When I was in Paris, he often invited me and (my wife) Anju for dinner. We discussed the Vedas, the Upanishads, and man’s relationship with the cosmos,” he says.

Though hailed as masters of Indian art, their idea of modernity has been described by some as derivative of the West, while the liberalism the Progressives proposed was also questioned at numerous junctures. In 1954, Padamsee fought a landmark court battle, that ended in acquittal, to defend nudes exhibited at his solo at Mumbai’s Jehangir Art Gallery. On a self-imposed exile following persistent death threats from the Hindutva forces for his depiction of Hindu gods and goddesses, Husain died in London as a Qatari citizen in 2011.

Nothing, however, could overshadow the group’s artistic achievements. The group continued to reinvent and experiment. While Husain was tapping diverse inspirations, Raza’s iconic bindu was born in the ‘80s as a quest for a deeper understanding of Hindu iconography. In 1969-71, Padamsee set up an inter-art Vision Exchange Workshop, where artists and filmmakers could experiment across disciplines. “As an artist, I learnt one of my greatest lessons from Tyeb, who told me it is important to know what you should do but what is more important is to know what you should not be doing,” says Dodiya.

M.F. Husain’s Untitled work (Vadehra Art Gallery)

This desire to explore still takes nonagenarian Khanna to his studio. “I work every day and it’s hard at times, but I enjoy it,” says the artist. Last week, as he interacted with the audience at Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi, where his works from the ’70s and ’80s are on view at the exhibition “Beyond the Beginning” alongside Kumar, Husain and Raza, he was also their voice. At home, he treasures the files containing letters they’d exchanged. “There was not a painting that happened among any one of us that wasn’t discussed at that time. I was very fortunate that I had such wonderful people with such wonderful insights into art in my life,” says Khanna.

First published on: 04-12-2022 at 06:00 IST
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