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Enchanting journey of a passionate progressive
One of the post-independence India’s significant abstract expressionist painters, Hari Ambadas Gade was also among founders of the Progressive Art movement. He opted for an unconventional style, and rebelled against the set norms of academic art, imposed by the British education system, as most PAG members did at that time. Born in Amravati in the state of Maharashtra in 1916, he did his graduation (science), though he was fond of drawing since childhood.

Reminiscing about the formative years, he had once stated: "When I was a child I was fond of drawing. But I also had a compelling interest in science and mathematics. I therefore went on to qualify for the master's degree in Sceince." Since he couldn't find a job, Gade joined a school as a teacher. It was in Jabalpur, where he went for his Bachelor of Educator examinations, that the artist began painting landscapes. He also read books like 'How To Paint Water Colors' and 'Vision Design' by Roger Fry. In 1946, Gade submitted two of his paintings at a national exhibition in Nagpur. One of them, an old man with a white flowing beard, won a prize, and the artist joined the Nagpur School of Art as a student and from where he took a Diploma in Art in 1949, and later, a Masters Degree (1950).

He came in touch with S.H. Raza, who provided him with precious inputs. The talented artist started off by primarily painting watercolors. However, he gradually switched to painting oils on canvas. Gade made use of the palette knife as well as brush to finish his paintings. He had his exhibition in Mumbai in 1947, and a year later at the annual Bombay Art Society show. The artist was invited for a show in Paris, and at Stanford University in 1949. His works were exhibited at the prestigious Venice Biennale in 1954. As several art critics have rightly pointed out, his art practice stands on a solid intellectual platform and his works reflect a unique streak, wherein color is of great importance, and form happens to be only incidental.

Founded in 1947, the Progressive Artists Group consisted of six rebellious and restless artists, who were keen to ‘look at the world outside from a very Indian way, and not a British way.’ They also included Raza, Francis Newton Souza (an outspoken personality who was credited with founding the group), Sadanand Krishnaji Bakre, the group’s only sculptor, Krishnaji Howlaji Ara and Hari Ambadas Gade. Other noteworthy modern artists who later joined the group included Vasudeo Gaitonde, Ram Kumar, Akbar Padamsee, Mohan Samant, Krishen Khanna and Tyeb Mehta. The creation of the group and Gade’s evolution as an artist was entwined with aspirations of newly independent India.

A religiously and culturally diverse cast of eccentric characters like Gade, all these artists were all enveloped by the highly charged political climate and cataclysmic conditions of cosmopolitan Mumbai in the 1940s. Each artist including Gade had his unique approach. Amrita Sher-Gil’s abstract formalism and Jamini Roy’s folk art inspiration germinated the roots of modernism. However, it was the Progressives who propelled modern Indian art to new peaks. Among them, Ara had had little formal training unlike the others and was primarily helped by von Leyden and by Langhammer.

Gade, known to be a longtime friend of S. H. Raza, was trained in the science faculty. He discovered modern art only after having joined the Progressives. Captivating color and lofty landscapes were known to be his calling cards. However, many historians noted that he did struggle to gain recognition and sadly fell into relative obscurity in spite of his immense talent.

On the other hand, Bakre chose to experiment with an array of mediums like painting, sculpture and wood carving. The fact that Ara, Bakre, and Gade failed to attain the international fame of M. F. Husain, Souza and Raza is explained in part by the prodigious output of the latter three. But the space that Gade created himself for himself is equally unique. Like Husain, Raza, and Souza, his influence was also very strong, a fact now acknowledged by the market, No surprise, many collectors of modern Indian art now want to own his works.

Initially, Hari Ambadas Gade painted some exquisite landscapes. Later, his sensitive mind was touched and affected by the slum life he witnessed across Mumbai and the abject poverty the people around lived in, diverting the course of his art journey to reality from abstraction. The dirty slums, poverty and the state of life recurred as a motif in his works. However, he did not fully abandon landscapes, and would travel frequently to different parts of India, traversing Kerala’s lush greenery, the deserts and palaces of Udaipur, and the dense forests elsewhere. Indeed, Gade’s landscapes are a precious treasure to cherish. He also did a wonderful series on monsoon greens.

Hari Ambadas Gade passed away in 2001, but left behind a rich treasure-trove of work.