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Book Review
‘The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives’
The celebrated Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) continues to thrive on the adulation, aura and appreciation that they have enjoyed over all these years. Reputed collectors of Indian art internationally including Rudy von Laden, Emmanuel Schlesinger, Kito de Boer, and Charles Herwitz have preferred them over many next-generation artists. Even collectors, who have recently arrived on the scene, continue to follow suit. As a result, the Progressives’ hold on the auction market has been rather firm. They occupy a large chunk of the secondary sales market.

A series of events and exhibitions only help to retain the spotlight on the PAG. For example, an exhibition at London based Grosvenor Gallery last year featured several significant works by the group. As if taking a cue, some of their wonderful works were just recently showcased by Delhi Art Gallery. ‘Continuum’ comprised some unseen gems by FN Souza, SH Raza, MF Husain, KH Ara, SK Bakre and HA Gade.

In the backdrop of a sustained interest in their works and lives, it is worth relooking at an elaborate documentation of their evolution, entitled ‘The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives’ (Hardback; Rs. 3950; Publisher: The Oxford University Press). Providing an apt backgrounder, an introductory essay mentions: “Around the time of Independence, emerged a group of artists who were to lead the way for Indian art in the decades to come. This group has given Indian art a new direction, infusing it with their distinctive styles and initiating the modernist movement in India. It’s a portrayal of the formative years of modern Indian art, when its parameters were being established.”

Authored by art historian and independent curator Yashodhara Dalmia, this meticulously researched and richly illustrated book spans their respective life journeys, thought processes and themes, pointing out that the most significant thing about the PAG artists was not merely their unconventional work, but the circumstances under which they joined forces – to make an emphatic artistic statement. It puts the Progressives and other younger artists associated with them like Krishen Khanna, Akbar Padamsee, Bal Chhabda and Tyeb Mehta in a specific historical context.

Their emergence was essentially a reaction to the then dominant streak in the form of the Bombay Art Society. It had dismissed FN Souza as amateur and even rejected KH Ara’s work ‘Independence Day Procession’. The two artists along with HA Gade launched a group. Souza brought MF Husain whereas Ara and Gade brought in SK Bakre and SH Raza fold. Formed in 1947, the group started exhibiting their works to a wider audience. There were regular meetings and discussions held that built a fraternal feeling, warmth and also an exchange of ideas. Each of them had his own unique style: Ara’s beguiling nudes, Husain’s earthy sensuality, and the frank sexuality of Souza, for example.

The progressives rejected the Bengal school’s ‘revivalistic’ methods, and also opposed the academic styles followed at the schools that were set up by the British. Much of the zest of the PAG evaporated when Souza left for London followed by Raza’s move to Paris. By the mid-fifties, artists with similar affinities (Krishen Khanna, Gaitonde etc) had joined it. Those like Padamsee, Tyeb Mehta and Ram Kumar were among close associates who together in their stylistic preoccupations made a thrust towards modernism.

The group tried to, as the author notes, ‘mark the passage of the age of nationalism and a disengagement of art from historical exigencies.’ She establishes artistic correlations between all of them and tries to evaluate the contribution of the old art schools in the country in the initial phase of modern Indian art, apart from studying the then European art trends that influenced the group members. Recounting the events, SH Raza has reminisced: “This was a time with hardly any modern art in India. It was a period of utter artistic confusion between choosing western academic ideas and traditional Indian art, essentially springing from Renaissance. We hoped for a better understanding of art marked by a sense of searching.”

Another highlight of the book is its appendix - Rudi Von Leyden’s selected writings in the possession of Gulam Mohammed Sheikh. A World War II emigré, Leyden wrote on modern Indian art and also encouraged many young painters. Walter Langhammer and Emmanuel Schlesinger were other patrons of these artists who, as the author mentions,’ introduced a European sensibility that was radically different from the Royal Academy of Art style taught in art colleges.’ She also refers to filmmakers, theatre personalities and writers of the era.

This must-read document gives a comprehensive account of the emergence of what is today known as modern Indian art and its underpinnings, especially its growing internationalism.