From Mumbai Mirror
Making of the Bombay progressives
We take a step back and spend time with our past to see what it tells us about the present and if it holds any lessons for the future
The short-lived art movement, started on the eve of India’s independence, made a lasting impression on generations of artists
In a rather scathing article, ‘Progressive Artists Group’, in the Patriot Magazine, in 1984, the Indian art world’s enfant terrible Francis Newton Souza, wrote, “I had begun to notice the 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 which comprised the amateur efforts of some memesahibs in India who were pampered by British imperialism. Hence, this pretty-pretty paintings together with the work of several artists coming out of the art school exhibited once a year in the Art School had no directions, no goal, no inspiration, no energy — regardless of the style or method they choose to work in. It then occurred to me to form a group to give ourselves an incentive.”
With this sole intent, Souza along with fellow artists Sayed Haider Raza and Krishnaji Howlaji Ara came together on the eve of India’s independence to form the Bombay Progressive Artists Group. The three inducted one artist each. Ara brought on board painter and sculptor Sadanand Bakre, Raza invited Hari Ambadas Gade — “What seems like purely on the basis of nepotism, since both are from Nagpur,” says auctioneer Dadiba Pundole — and Souza got the iconoclastic Maqbool Fida Husain, who incidentally quit his job at a furniture store in Churchgate, and widely proclaimed that with India’s independence came his own from a fulltime job. Husain later persuaded fellow painters Vasudeo S Gaitonde and Krishen Khanna to join PAG. They vocally dismissed the past. There was no room for the Bengal School, which had no connect with reality that time.
To the Bombay Progressives, it was never about showing off your identity. In Khanna’s words, “An artist mattered least; his personality came in last. What mattered was his vision, which should predominate.”
In keeping with this spirit, the group, which held its initial meetings in the office of the Friends of Soviet Union at Girgaum in Bombay, had its first solo show in 1949 in Baroda. Subsequently, they showed their work at the Bombay Art Society. According to art critic and historian, Dr Zehra Jumabhoy, who co-curated the ‘The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India’, along with Boon Hui Tan, at the Asia Society museum in New York (Sept 2018-Jan 2019): “These were artists who were looking for a new visual language with which to express themselves and their newfound freedom from colonial rule — to express themselves as members of a newly independent and ‘secular’ Republic.”
And Bombay became a fulcrum for the arts to thrive. “In the 1940s, the city was really a melting pot for different castes and creeds; it wasn’t “Mumbai”, but a multicultural port city, that was (dare I say?) a ‘progressive’ relic of the Raj. In a way, Bombay was a symbolic microcosm of the new India and so were the founder members of the group. They too came from different social and religious backgrounds” explains Jumabhoy. “Like Bombay, their work merged the modern and traditional; hope and suffering; the Indian and the Western — and that is why we persist in calling the PAG the ‘Bombay Progressives’. It’s important for us to remember (and remind ourselves) that these quintessential Indians were also quintessentially plural and cosmopolitan.”
The climate was ripe for a new era of modernism, which reflected across sections: literature, architecture, theatre, film and — with the Progressives — the visual arts. Incidentally, no one quite knows — not even Souza — why they called their group, “Progressive”, or “Progs”, as he fondly referred to his group. Perhaps, as Jumabhoy points out, “It was often used by other cultural practitioners, like the Progressive Writers’ Association [led by Mulk Raj Anand, who inaugurated the PAG’s Bombay show in 1949].”
Khanna believes the artists’ ideas of modernism, albeit their own, was still quite European. “I think the French embassy and French consulate had these good people who were educated in terms of what was happening in Paris, and shared their influences over here,” he says.
Aside of the French, three key individuals, whom Khanna calls “Hitler’s bounty to India”, inspired the group immensely. In his essay, ‘Looking out of the Looking Glass’, published in Mumbai Modern, DAG: 2013, Khanna elaborates: “The presence of expatriates from Hitler’s Germany certainly contributed to giving a direction to this movement. Walter Langhammer, a devotee of Oscar Kokoschka, for instance, was the art director with The Illustrated Weekly of India. Rudy von Leyden, a competent cartoonist, gifted with a very discerning eye, was the art reviewer for The Times of India.
Then there was Emanuel Schlesinger, a key patron and constant companion to many Indian artists. There was not an exhibition he did not visit. He was also a compulsive buyer of art, an endearing quality, particularly in the days when hardly anyone ever bought paintings, let alone drawings. The presence of these people had a stimulating effect not only among artists, but also among connoisseurs, many of whom had just started acquiring works. The monetary values were small but given that there was a small movement that was starting out, that in itself made the period quite exciting.”
Painters whose influence predominated those times in Bombay were Henri Matisse, Georges Rouault, Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and German Expressionists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. “Souza, of course, was most influenced by Rouault. We see them in his big broad lines,” points out Khanna.
Yet, Jumabhoy argues, “their idea of Modernism was also ‘very Indian’, especially after 1948 — when they were looking to Indian miniature painting, Gupta sculpture and Hindu mythology for inspiration. The early Gaitonde, I included in the New York show, for instance, was so obviously inspired by Pahari painting. Husain spoke about his love for Basholi miniatures and Raza spoke about the hot colours of Rajasthani painting. So, let’s not forget that they were as consciously Indian as they were ‘European’.”
What led to the success of the group? It was the shared camaraderie and the fact that the founding members of the group watched out for other painters who shared a similar vision. “They were looking for somebody who was good, who made for happy company with them, who was thinking the same thoughts and who was looking for formalism, where the form of the painting is in itself an end. It does not have to be referential like a lot of the 20th century work. That was important to the group,” says Khanna, who found himself in the group rather serendipitously.
It was artist SB Palsikar who saw a painting of Khanna’s, which depicted a scene he witnessed on the day of Mahatma Gandhi’s death on January 30, 1948. He felt that Khanna’s painting exuded the anxiety that prevailed at that time, and he urged the artist to exhibit his work at the Bombay Art Society’s diamond jubilee exhibition. Khanna’s painting was placed right at the centre of the dais.
Husain, Souza and Gaitonde were present at the opening. Soon after, Khanna received a call from Husain who suggested they meet. “I lived in Churchgate back then, next to the Ambassador hotel, and he came over. I had a book on Clive Bell’s art, which was considered the bible for formalism. It was lying on the table and Husain asked if he could borrow the book,” he shares. A few days later, Khanna found a parcel waiting outside his door with a painting and a letter in Urdu — a language the two later corresponded a lot in — asking for forgiveness because he happened to leave the book in a cab and as compensation, Khanna must accept a painting instead. The painting still holds a pride of place in Khanna’s Gurgaon home.
The two formed a close friendship — Husain visited Khanna in each city he was transferred to while he worked at the Grindlays Bank for 13-and-a-half years and the camaraderie between them was such that they treated each other’s life highlights as their own personal milestones. The raconteur vividly remembers the day he officially resigned from the bank in Mumbai. “It was the last day at work and we had a little farewell party for me and my colleagues were making all these extravagant speeches,” says Khanna, with great excitement. “Bal [Chhabda], Husain and Gaitonde were peeping from the window, gesturing me to come out. When I came out, Bal took off my tie and said, ‘exit from the bank’, and we went to a coffee shop on Phirozshah Mehta Road and had some cake.” Far away in Paris, Raza, elated to hear the news, threw a party for his friends there to celebrate Khanna’s new life. Occasionally, there was also some friction within the group. Husain, for instance, never cared for anybody who puffed his chest out a little too much, like Mohan Samant. He also found himself frequently at loggerheads with Ara, whom he often made a friendly jibe at by calling, “Leyden ka pyaara” (beloved of Leyden), since the art critic had discovered the artist’s talent and patronised his work. But that tension hardly surfaced. For each one of them, the altar of art was higher. The PAG was, essentially, a product of what happens when artists look at each other and their work.
Incidentally, artists such as Palsikar, KK Hebbar, Tyeb Mehta and Chhabda were never formally members of the group. But they came over for the meetings, hung around and made great conversations. All of them kept in touch even when they were not in the same city. They wrote letters to each other right till the end, which have now been compiled into volumes, supported by various art foundations. These serve as great archival material and give a deep insight into that era.
It was only more than a decade after the PAG had its first show that it found a formal representation. Chhabda, a passionate art lover and an artist in his own right, started Bombay’s first art gallery, in 1959. It was aptly called Gallery 59 and was housed in Bhulabhai Desai Institute. The opening was momentous. The painters who would later exhibit their works included Raza, Ram Kumar, Akbar Padamsee, Gaitonde, Husain and Khanna. No one can explain why or how the prices, which many of these artists fetched, almost doubled. That evening, Raza had priced his watercolours for more than Rs 2,000 each. The show was a marker and the group sold all its work for respectful prices. “And it was Raza’s pricing factor that pushed all our prices up. We had a great party at Bal’s house in Malabar Hill that night,” smiles Khanna.
The group never formally disbanded.
After their exhibitions in Baroda and Bombay, Souza and Bakre left for London in 1949 and 1951 respectively, while Raza went to study at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts (ENSB-A) in Paris in 1950, on a French government scholarship. “The remaining three members tried keeping the group alive, inviting Gaitonde, AA Raiba, Hazarnis, Mohan Samant and Krishen Khanna to exhibit alongside them in 1953,” shares Pundole. “The decline of the Bombay Progressives Group saw the emergence of the Bombay Group, which included KK Hebbar, Shiavax Chavda, KH Ara, HA Gade, DG Kulkarni, Harkishan Lal, Laxman Pai, Mohan Samant and Baburao Sadwelkar.”
But the momentum of the PAG, most of whom are no more, and whose art today commands astronomical price points, stays on. Artists, indeed, live on through their work.