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Capturing the Zeitgeist : Progressive Artists’ Group

Traversing the world of art can be a game of clue hunt. Sometimes, even if there is a lot documented about a group of artists and their works, one tends to find a thread that can become an enticing exploration in itself. A lot has been written about the Progressive Artists' Group, which was formed in India in the year 1947.

However, this article seeks to examine two specific strands of interest. Firstly, we look at three formal exhibitions that the group had, exploring the differences within the members that bound them together for that brief period through one single feat- capturing the mood of the times. It looks at the PAG as having sparked something intangible, that somehow represented India of that time. And then, once that spark was lit, once the catalyst played its part, the members each went on their paths, charting success for themselves. They excelled in their realms, and their works continue to command awe. Secondly, we look briefly at the artwork of the only woman artist in the group, who had a rather short-lived career as a painter, but went on to win an Oscar for costume design!

 Progressive Artists' Group: Heralding a new vision

The year 1947, the year of India's independence from the British Rule, is clearly etched out in the collective memory of the nation for obvious reasons. However, it is also reasonable to expect that such a major occurrence, and the deeply entrenched movement that led to it, would have also impacted artistic expression. In short, the mood of the times, the call for a new India, more specifically Nehru's concept of "Unity in Diversity," was a thought that captured the essence and the pulse at that point of time. Another crucial and painful stamp was the Partition of India that had led to untold misery and displacement.

“I think we were connected by the collective effort; we had a certain solidarity. Partition was like a cusp, a catalyst, but we had nothing to fall back on because there was no modern Indian art, we learned by sharing and talking to each other. I was a friend of the PAG, we wanted to present modernity in a post-colonial, secular form, but we didn't know where to begin. There was no money, no patrons, only a desire to begin anew. Partition brought with it varied experiences and hopes for us, our desire was to create a new indigenous language," said Tyeb Mehta, recalling the Bombay of 1947 and the influences on the group. [1]

F. N. Souza, Self Portrait,1949, Oil on board.

It was in this scenario that one of the most rebellious artists of modern times, F.N. Souza initiated what was to be a defining movement in Indian Art. Disillusioned with the art produced at that time, and hopeful of honing a more original style, Souza conceptualized the formation of a collective. He was based in Bombay at the time, and the city was itself an important cultural center.

Souza wrote: "I had begun to notice that JJ School of Art turned out an awful number of bad artists year after year, and the Bombay Art Society showed awful crap in its Annual Exhibitions…. It then occurred to me to form a group to give ourselves an incentive. Ganging up in a collective ego is stronger than a single ego. It is easier for a mob to carry out a lynching; and in this case, we found it necessary to lynch the kind of art inculcated by the JJ School of Art and exhibited in the Bombay Art Society." [2]

S.H. Raza, Church at Meulan

The PAG was thus conceptualized in 1947, though their very first exhibition was to take place two years later. The core group consisted of F.N. Souza, S. H. Raza, K. H. Ara, M. F. Husain, S. K. Bakre, and H. A. Gade. The makeup of the group was secular. One could see that this assortment of artists also had widely different styles and social backgrounds. However, what bound them together was the desire to paint with absolute freedom. In a manifesto-like catalog essay for the group's first major exhibition, at the Bombay Arts Society in July 1949, Souza alluded that the PAG would create "new art for a newly free India." This included freedom from rigid sentimental Indian styles as well as British cultural imposition. They wanted a new language that was more international in outlook, style, and spirit. The group was distinctive also because it symbolized a change in approach to art, echoing the sea-change in the political and social scenario at the time.

Crystalizing the moment  

One needs to look at the formation of the Progressive Artists' Group, or rather, the Bombay Progressive Group, as it was also called, in the context of the art scene as well as the socio-political scene in the country. This context is well described in an essay by Siva Kumar [3], that provides a brief overview of Modern Indian Art. It highlights the fact that the decade of the 1940s "was a turning point in the Indian attitude to modernism". The decade witnessed growth in art movements in Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay, "who doubted the wisdom of striving for indigenous modernism that bypassed modern Western art". Amongst these, The Bombay Progressive Group, that is, the Progressive Artist's Group, may have been the last to be formed but "represented a modernist assertion of this generation at its clearest".

F.N Souza, Mithuna 

The choice of the word progressive itself to describe this movement is indicative of the political impulses of the era. An exhibition titled 'The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India', which opened at New York's Asia Society Museum gives a clearer picture of the PAG's infancy. Co-curator Zehra Jumabhoy referred to the PAG's functioning at that time as a 'visual counterpoint to founding Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's plea for unity in diversity.'

“It was a time of great intellectual ferment, the terminology of progress was in the air. The socialist connotation of the term was only one of the reasons for the PAG’s choice of nomenclature. They saw themselves as staging a rupture with the past, forging head. Now that India was a free nation, it needed a progressive art," said Jumabhoy. [4]

There was certainly a buzz created around the PAG, and art critics had a role to play. "Rudi Van Leyden's consistent exhibition reviews in Bombay during the 1940s gave the air of expectation of something important to happen from the young artists. His review of the PAG exhibition is both expositive as well as a record of a great historical moment. His review highlights that the six artists formed a 'distinct group' despite their very different artistic approaches and tempers. He reminded his readers that those who have followed the works of these artists over the past years would know of the struggle, the experiments, the trials that lie behind the considerable achievement which this exhibition represented. In a way the art critic Rudi Van Leyden, the artist Walter Langhammer, the patrons and connoisseurs, Schlesinger and Herman Goetz, the German expatriates, almost served as the tutors of the PAG artists," states a report. [5]

As Yashodhara Dalmia writes in her outstanding 2001 The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives: "It was an attempt at rooting themselves within the paradigm of (global) modern art. It was, at the same time, a means of re-inventing these in their own context. To do so in the India of their time required an act of courage." [2]

When differences bind

The PAG was a quite unique group in the sense that it encompassed young artists of the time, who though different in their styles, were unified in their vision. All of them went on to become masters in their own right and are looked upon as great artists, whose works continue to command respect even today. The phrase "unity in diversity" may be applied to them and the movement that they created. It is apt then, to conclude with the words of one of them, who spoke in retrospect, many decades after the PAG dissolved. "While we shared a lot, we also had serious differences," writes S.H. Raza. [6]

The founding six members would meet regularly to discuss their ideas and visions. An article quotes Souza, indicating the nature of the exchange and the resultant symbiosis:

“We came together through mysterious chemical reactions. We would be talking all night. We used to go and sit at Backbay and talk and talk... We used to talk about what art should be and how it should be done. Without seeing any model of Art and how it should be done, without doing it we first formulated it in speech.” [7]

Each of the members had a unique style. The synthesis of the influences of the times were all interpreted by each of them and incorporated in their own way. Of course, even within their independent journeys, they evolved.

Krishen Khanna, News of Gandhiji's Death

This spirit is essentially captured in the words of artist member Krishen Khanna who wrote in the catalog preceding the third exhibition, "We believe in incorporating those artists who seem vital and progressive, capable of understanding contemporary trends and synthesizing them in their own work, thus presenting a vision which is personal and at the same time has social relevance. By working together and discussing each other's work at our meetings, we have not only developed a greater understanding of each other but of art in general. Though each painter uses his own idiom, the styles of all are modern". [8]

The Exhibitions

It is strange that while there is no dearth of information on the PAG, specific information regarding the three exhibitions that were held by the group, is generally scattered. There are some discrepancies in the dates. However, one can of course rely on the details mentioned in the catalog for the third exhibition. According to this document, the first Progressive Artists' Group exhibition was the inaugural show at the Bombay Art Society Salon in 1949. The show was inaugurated by Dr. Mulk Raj Anand, who had been responsible for the formation of the Progressive Writers' Association.

The second show followed in Calcutta in 1950. The interaction between the Calcutta Group of Bengal and the PAG artists played a role in holding this joint exhibition, where "the critics interpreted the staging of the joint show as a challenge to the conservative art critics and the painters were admired as the precursors of a new movement". [5]. The last group show of the PAG was held in 1953. By this time new members had been associated for the purpose of exhibitions, which included, Krishan Khanna, Gaitonde, and Akbar Padamsee. It also included the only woman member of the PAG- Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya.

M. F. Husain, Untitled, the 1940s, Oil on canvas.

Some reports also indicate that the group held an exhibition in Baroda from February 21, 1949, for a month on the invitation of Dr. Herman Goetz, art-historian and then curator of Baroda State Museum. He bought some of their works including Souza's 'Blue Nude', for the Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery, which was quite encouraging for them. The exhibition also traveled to Ahmedabad.

The three original exhibitions of the PAG have been sources of inspiration for many more exhibits world over. For example, an exhibition, titled The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India at the Asia Society Museum actually recreated the first PAG exhibition. Two paintings from the group's first exhibition – Souza's corpulent couple from the 1949 oil-on-board Mithuna (Lovers), and Husain's rural women in an untitled canvas from the 1940s formed a part of the display. [9]

Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya

V.S Gaitonde's 'Portrait of Bhanu', 1952 

The last exhibition of the PAG in Bombay in 1953 featured the name of Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya. In a group that was dominated by male artists, the inclusion of a woman makes it more conspicuous. As one digs further, there are some interesting facts that emerge. She was trained as an artist at the Sir JJ School of Art. Incidentally, V.S. Gaitonde, another key member of the Progressives, was her mentor. He painted a portrait of her (VS Gaitonde's 'Portrait of Bhanu', 1952), showing her as "an impressive young woman, hair swept up, bird in hand, emerging forth from geometric patterns." She contributed two canvases to the 1953 group exhibition of Progressives artists held at Bombay Art Society's Salon on Rampart Row [10]. However, what is surprising is that she abandoned art altogether and veered towards costume design. In an audio interview with Dhara Anjaria [11], Bhanu Athaiya talks about her journey and her career on the occasion of the release of her memoir, The Art of Costume Design (2010, Harper Collins).

Born in Kolhapur, a princely state in Maharashtra, she says, “I had the advantage of being in the right place at the right time." 

However, what is of interest to us here is to look at early influences on her art. She mentions that she took to art in school. Her father would travel to Bombay and bring back books on European art. These became a source of inspiration. As her father worked at his studio, she assisted him with mundane things like washing the brushes. On the other hand, she also observed local painters painting temple scenes. Her father also made films. The cultural scene of Bombay influenced Kolhapur as well. She saw and absorbed a great deal. She excelled in art and hence the next logical step was to go to Bombay and study at the JJ School of Art. It was here that she got a job as a fashion illustrator in a magazine. She talks about Bombay that was still under British influence. She came in contact with the film fraternity and got a break in costume design, "life became more and more exciting".

Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya, The Art of Costume Design

One can deduct from her description of the early cultural influences in her life, that like the mood of that time, it was a kind of amalgamation of European influences mixed with influences from Indian culture. She joined the Progressives, but as is evident from the extract below, her association with them was not to last long.

 "My studies for painting at the JJ School of Arts was also going very well. I was doing two things at the same time. Doing the illustrations and doing the paintings at the JJ School of Arts, where I won the Gold Medal. That Gold Medal and my achievement in the final exams brought me to the notice of the Progressive Group Artists and they asked me to be a member of their group and to exhibit along with the great names like Ara, Raza, and the big names of the era. But very soon, somehow, in my heart, I had a feeling that I was drawn to the world of cinema more than anything else," she says.

She goes on to explain how childhood experiences of watching her father make films ultimately resonated more with her than painting. She had a choice of being in South Bombay, the world of art and culture, or go to North Bombay, and participate in cinematic activities. The world of cinema and costume design beckoned, and she made her choice. There was no looking back after then, as she distilled her creativity into the realm of costume design and made a spectacular success of her career. She was the first Indian to win an Oscar in 1983 for her work on Richard Attenborough's Gandhi.

Disbanding…and yet here they are!

The group formally disbanded in 1956. One of the key factors for this is that three of the artists moved abroad. Souza and Bakre departed for London, whereas Raza moved to Paris. Husain too began shuttling between Mumbai and Delhi.

The movement may have been short-lived, but it made a significant impact on modern India. The passage of time offers distance to view an event. Today, as we look back on this group, we realize that each one of those artists went on to create really powerful works that continue to command record-breaking prices. The ethos and works produced by members of the PAG, still reverberate in today's art world. Maybe one can think of the PAG collectively as a catalyst that worked to infuse new energy in a young country setting out to chart its course. Once the spark was lit, even though they all went on their individual paths, and quite successfully so, the ball was set rolling. They had captured the zeitgeist and have left behind a veritable legacy.

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References 

 

  1. Asia Society's PAG SHOW by the Millennium Post 
  2. Vivek Menezes. "The Indispensable Modernist: Francis Newton Souza." LiveMint.
  3. Kumar, R. Siva. "Modern Indian Art: A Brief Overview." Art Journal, vol. 58, no. 3, 1999, pp. 14–21. JSTOR.
  4. Frieze. "The Legacy of the Progressive Artists Group and the Importance of Secularism in India." The Iconoclasts, issue 198, 2018.
  1. Progressive Artists Group of Bombay: An Overview over The Spirit of Late 1940s and Early 1950s, by Ratan Parimoo and Nalini Bhagwat.
  2. DAG Catalogue 
  3. SOUZA IN THE 40'S. Grosvenor Gallery. E-Catalogue.
  4. Catalogue of the Third Exhibition of the PAG 
  5. Ratik Asokan. "The Modern Art of Independence." The New York Review of Books. 2018
  6. Zeenat Nagree. "Before Bhanu Athaiya, the Oscar-winning designer, was Bhanu Athaiya, the modernist painter." Scroll. 2018
  7. Dhara Anjaria. "Bhanu Athaiya: The Art of Costume Design: Harper Collins 2010." New Books Network. 2011
  8. "The Progressive Revolution: Art for a New India", Zehra Jumabhoy and Boon Hui Tan, 2018

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