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Understanding artistic influences and inspirations of the Progressives
Founded in 1947, the Progressive Artists Group (PAG) 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 primarily included Francis Newton Souza (an outspoken personality chiefly credited with founding the group), SH Raza, Sadanand Krishnaji Bakre (the group’s only sculptor), Krishnaji Howlaji Ara, Hari Ambadas Gade and Maqbool Fida Husain.

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. The group tried to mark the passage of the age of nationalism and a disengagement of art from historical exigencies. Its 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 along with HA Gade launched a group. Souza brought MF Husain whereas Ara and Gade brought in SK Bakre and SH Raza. They together 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.

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 their individual evolution as artists of repute were invariably entwined with aspirations of newly independent India. The Progressives flourished individually and collectively for a decade or so, from 1947–56. What was it that set apart all these maverick artists? A curatorial note to a 2009 show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) had aptly pointed out: “Reacting against the conservative and nationalist precepts of the Bengal School, they wove principles of western modernism into the rich fabric of Indian art. This created a unique avant-garde identity.”

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 in their respective stylistic preoccupations made a thrust towards modernism. Recounting the chain of events, Raza had once 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.”

A religiously and culturally diverse cast of eccentric characters, all these artists were all enveloped by the highly charged political climate and cataclysmic conditions of cosmopolitan Mumbai in the 1940s. Each one had his unique approach though they were bound by a common thread of eccentricity and propensity to experiment. As with many of his contemporaries, Gaitonde was influenced by western art and the works of such leading figures as Joan Miró, Wassily Kandinsky, and Paul Klee. Ram Kumar abandoned the stylized figure painting characteristic of his early years abroad (studying in Paris) and developed, upon returning home, a spiritual tie to his native landscape. If captivating color and landscapes were known to be Gade’s calling cards, Bakre chose to experiment with an array of mediums like painting, sculpture and wood carving. The fact that the trio of Ara, Bakre, and Gade failed to attain the international fame as well as glory of M. F. Husain, Souza and Raza is explained in part by the prodigious output of the latter three.

A series of events and exhibitions only help to retain the spotlight on the PAG. For example, New York based Aicon Gallery recently hosted ‘POP’, the first part of an exhibition series featuring works by the Progressive Artists Group members. It focused on a selection of works on paper by Ram Kumar, Padamsee, Husain, Raza and Souza. They considered the works on paper not just as a window to larger-scale canvases, but rather as fully developed creations in their own right. Through them, they tried to attain experimentation in their iconic pictorial languages. The second part featured a selection of large scale works on canvas.

An exhibition at London based Grosvenor Gallery last year hosted several significant works by the group, so did the Delhi Art Gallery just recently. ‘Continuum’ comprised some unseen gems by the PAG artists in the backdrop of a sustained interest in their works and lives. Many of the important works by these luminaries of modern Indian art were also showcased at the prestigious Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston. ‘The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives’ (Hardback; Rs. 3950; Publisher: The Oxford University Press) offered an elaborate documentation of their evolution.

Providing an apt backgrounder, an introductory essay mentioned: “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.” Apart from their personal trajectories, the most significant thing about them was not merely their unconventional work, but the circumstances under which they joined forces – to make an emphatic artistic statement. It is important to put the contribution of Progressives and other younger artists associated with them like Krishen Khanna, Padamsee, Bal Chhabda and Tyeb Mehta in a specific historical context.

The PAG artists continue 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.

To understand their historical significance and role, it is equally vital to establish artistic correlations between all of them as well as 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.