Art as memory: 75 years of Progressive Artists Group : The Tribune India

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Art as memory: 75 years of Progressive Artists Group

The setting up of the Progressive Artists Group in 1947 was a path-breaking event in the history of Indian modern art

Art as memory: 75 years of Progressive Artists Group

SK Bakre, untitled, Oil on Canvas (24X30), 1963-64.

Ashok Vajpeyi

We are living in strange times. Times which would have us forget rather than remember, which force us into amnesia through a well-orchestrated campaign that attempts to replace true history by fabrications generated by ideological narrowness. There are coordinated efforts to spread lies and hatred, indulge in fake news and, in any case, the space for culture and the arts seems to be shrinking. Taking these circumstances together, it is not surprising that during the celebration of 75 years of India’s Independence, entering ‘Amrit Kaal’, almost no one remembered that in 1947, a path-breaking event took place in the history of Indian modern art. It was the year that the Progressive Artists Group (PAG) was set up.

FN Souza, Oil on Board (40X24), 1956.

Originally thought of by Francis Newton Souza, Syed Haider Raza and Krishna Hawlaji Ara, they were joined in by Maqbool Fida Husain, Sadanand K Bakre and Hari Amba Das Gade. In our troubled times, when the huge and vital contributions made by members belonging to different communities are being undermined, it is relevant to recall the diversity and inclusiveness that the six founding members of the PAG represented.

In 1947, on the cusp of India attaining Independence, there was widespread communal tension and the partition of the country looked inevitable. Yet, these artists from Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Goa came together to express a new vision of Indian modernity, deeply rooted in the plurality of India and openness to the world. In a manner, their background, upbringing, and dreams and anxieties symbolised the unbroken, uninterrupted plurality of India. Plurality at that time was under great strain and this artistic group dared to reaffirm it.

HA Gade, Untitled, Oil on Board (20X24), 1950s.

Later, more young artists joined the group either as members or as friends. They included Mohan Samant, Ram Kumar, Krishen Khanna, Vasudeo S Gaitonde, Akbar Padamsee and Bal Chhabda. It cannot go unnoticed that the PAG had at least eight towering individuals who became the most dominant artists of the country and have had undeniable presence in the Indian art firmament for nearly seven decades. No other group of artists either before or after had such a galaxy in its fold.

The PAG had a pluralistic vision of art. It accommodated different styles, idioms, art practices, and aesthetic approaches. It, however, pitched itself against the dominant academism of the colonial ethos and the rather sentimental harp back to India’s past. It sought to bring together modernism, open and vulnerable; modernism which could imbibe other influences and yet seek indigenous poetics.

The Progressive Artists Group, Bombay, 1949. First row (from left): FN Souza, KH Ara, HA Gade. Second row (from left): MF Husain, SK Bakre, SH Raza. photos courtesy: The Raza Foundation

Eminent art critic Yashodhara Dalmia, in her monumental work ‘The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressive’, stated: “The artists have stepped into the difficult terrain of Indian art where a variety of styles intermingled. They had to find a means of assimilating classical art, folk art, miniature painting and the different forms of Western art that existed alongside and from this medley of schools they were to create their own mode of expression. It is to their credit that they squarely took historical reality into account and did not attempt to revoke an imagined past that absolved all contradiction. In coming together, they symbolised inadvertently the transcendence of division created by religion, region or caste. It is significant that they painted cityscapes for it could only have been in the city that a multiple, synchronic view — the essence of modernism — could have come about.”

MF Husain, Afternoon Tea, Acrylic on Canvas (60X72), 1997.

PAG was not only an avant garde of Indian modern art, it was also a group of artists who dared to imagine a new phase of art and tried to explore the possibilities that Independent India offered. It is hard to find another group of writers and performers who would have asserted a similar pluralistic vision.

In the manifesto, Souza wrote: “Today we paint with absolute freedom for contents and techniques, almost anarchic; save that we are governed by one or two sound elemental and eternal laws, of aesthetic order, plastic coordination, and colour composition. We have no pretentions 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.”

KH Ara, untitled, Oil on Canvas (30X22), 1960s.

Bakre asserted: “I paint as I like. It is a compelling passion with me to keep alive and I cannot help painting and sculpting. I am traditionally trained and perfectly capable of accomplishing realistic work. But my interest in forms has gone far beyond the dull imitations of subject matter, which to me is almost unimportant…”

Gade insisted: “I know people only as shapes. A human being or a tree for me is a colour area, nothing else because I dislike illustration. An illustration is not a modern painting and I avoid it. Not that I have not done figures but for me they are important only to the extent that they formulate certain aesthetic relationships.”

SH Raza, Le Village, Oil on Canvas (18X22), 1956.

Raza, many years later, recalled: “This idea that the vital aspect of painting resides in the meaning of form, that form in itself is important, appealed to us, and we tried to organise forms and colours like musicians, to go beyond the subject, to find pure pictorial elements. They were exciting times, 1948-50. Everybody played an important role in the group. Even though FN Souza, who was well-educated and intelligent, was our secretary, we were all equal founding members. Souza, who was not interested in the Bengal renaissance, persuaded us that our own vigour was different. But me, I was sure that the most remarkable Indian painters of the beginning of the XXth century were the poet Rabindranath Tagore, Jamini Roy, and Amrita Sher-Gil. This effervescence around the progressive artists resulted in a true renewal of thinking, of our thinking about India.”

The PAG held only one show in Bombay in 1949 which was opened by the art critic Dr Mulk Raj Anand. PAG was soon wound up. But the PAG artists became friends for life. They lived in different parts of the world: Raza in Paris, Souza and Samant in New York, Gade in London, others in Bombay and Delhi. But they remained friends, critical of each other’s work, but always friends.

The PAG artists moved in many different directions. They were walkers, however, on ‘the road not taken’. From landscapes and cityscapes to inscapes, from colour to concept, from narration to abstraction, from still life to vibrant active life, from emotions to ideas, the artists covered a wide range of life, reality, and art.

Recently, the Raza Foundation, established by SH Raza, in collaboration with the Progressive Art Gallery (a name given by PAG master Souza) and Triveni Kala Sangam organised a show of the works of the original six founders. The show at Shridharani Gallery in New Delhi was an attempt to underline the continuing presence and relevance of PAG and its illustrious artists. Called ‘Luminous Legacy’, it was conceptualised by the well-known critic and art historian Geeti Sen.

— The writer is a Hindi poet-critic

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