With the exception of M.F. Husain, it is rare for Indian artists and art to feature on page 1 of newspapers. In the last 10 years, this happened when Francis Newton Souza died in 2002, when Tyeb Mehta’s Mahisasurabecame the first artwork by an Indian to sell for over a million dollars in 2005, when Mehta died in 2009, and then on 10 June, when S.H. Raza’s painting, Saurashtra, sold for $3.4 million (around Rs16 crore) at the Christie’s auction in London, setting a new record price for an Indian artwork.
Raza, Souza, Mehta and Husain all belong to a generation that came of age around 1947—and they were all members of the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG), which was established in Bombay in 1947 by artists who wanted to give a new direction to art in India.
Now six decades later, the Progressives, as they are called, remain India’s most influential and, by extension, highly valued artists. Because their works were fresh, bold and good, in due course, they received support from patrons, critics and galleries, which helped them build enviable reputations. Today, when there are so many with the means and inclination to buy art, the iconoclastic Progressives, who often struggled in near poverty in their early years, have become akin to the Old Masters—safe and solid bets for the collector and the investor alike.
Who are the Progressives?
“The influence of the British was (strong) in the field of art. We thought we had to strike and find out something of our own,” Raza told Lounge in February. “Between 1945 and 1950, we were all busy trying to find out this reality in our own way—Souza and I were together; and there were others like S.K. Bakre and V.S. Gaitonde.
Photo: Leon Neal/AFP
“We discussed with each other (how) we should (move beyond) this concept of realism—that is, painting the world (as) looked at by the eyes alone. We wanted to add some imagination to it.”
The idea of establishing PAG was Souza’s, who was a member of the Communist party. As artist Akbar Padamsee recalls, Souza was one of the few in the group who had had the benefit of a modern education and was fluent in English. “There was a progressive writer’s group among the Communists and Souza wanted a similar group for artists,” Padamsee says. Besides Souza, Raza and Husain, members of PAG included K.H. Ara, H.A. Gade and S.K. Bakre. There were others associated with them, such as Padamsee, Mehta, Krishan Khanna and Bal Chhabra.
It was always an informal group whose members basically sought to move away from the academic realism that was a British legacy, as well as the revivalist art of the Bengal school. “It wasn’t a group guided by great philosophical ideas,” says Padamsee. “What the members had in common was that they didn’t like the prevalent paintings.”
The urge to break free of the old and create something new was strong. “We were concerned with the formal elements of painting,” says Khanna. “That painting has intrinsic laws and adhering to them is important….The language of painting had to be understood.” After only three years, the PAG dissolved and its key members headed overseas—Souza left for England and Raza for France, taking Padamsee with him.
Why do they matter?
“They were the first generation of the post-colonial artist and they had to create a context for themselves,” says art critic and curator Ranjit Hoskote. “It was a historically self-conscious movement. The group didn’t last long but its concerns and struggles shaped the direction of modern Indian art.”
According to Hoskote, there was a heroic and epic quality to their work, which accounts for their lasting influence. There were critics, patrons, art gallery owners and collectors who supported them. “The reputation and the prices have come out of a lot of branding and positioning done by a lot of other people,” says Hoskote. He cites the three influential European Jewish patrons, Emmanuel Schlesinger, Rudi von Leyden and Walter Langhammer, who had sought refuge from the Nazis in Bombay, the redoubtable Ebrahim Alkazi who was a colleague, patron and friend to the artists, and art critics such as D.G. Nadkarni, Richard Bartholomew and Sham Lal, who, over the years, focused attention on the Progressives along with other modern Indian artists.
Besides the quality and pathbreaking newness of their work, the reputation of the Progressives rests on other factors, such as their early struggles in the 1950s and 1960s.
They were, in Hoskote’s words, full of “tigerish confidence” in themselves, even when they were starving. And they continued to toil even after they became successful.
How accurately does the market value of an artwork reflect its aesthetic value? There are always stories about backdoor dealings, artificial inflation of prices, speculative bubbles and such like, but none of that can take away from the elementary economic fact—good art commands high prices. Good art by consistently good artists commands even higher prices.
“The Modernists and the Progressive have been around for four-six decades…This body of work extending over 40-60 years allows you to trace the evolution of their art practice,” says Arvind Vijaymohan of Japa Arts, a Delhi-based art advisory for collectors. Keen students of art love a large body of work, that too of exceptional quality. It is also something investors love. “Given the importance of their practice, a selection of powerful works from the strongest periods of the finest modernists is least prone to market-driven instability,” he explains.
In other words, the value of a Saurashtra or a Mahisasura will never fluctuate wildly; in fact, over time, their prices can head in only one direction—up. A work by a younger contemporary artist, howsoever good, can never be such a safe bet. As Vijaymohan points out, “While a popular contemporary artist might be selling for millions in current auction, there is a possibility of his fading away within the decade due (to) a host of reasons.”
“Indian art values are still minor when compared to the international markets,” he adds. “Consider the fact that the three most expensive works of Indian art— two works by Raza and one by Souza—collectively add up to just above $8.3 million, whereas the international record for the top three works sold is $443 million.”
“Collecting leads to the commodification of art,” says Khanna. “People buy to invest and sell. And the death of the artist is looked forward to. I prefer my painting to be with people who will see it; their children and grandchildren will see it.” He goes back to the basics: “A painting has a spirit. When you see a Piero della Francesca or an Ajanta (fresco), it still talks to you if you have the eyes and ears to listen to it…I am still pursuing things that one learnt with the Progressives.”
Sample recent auction sale figures of the Progressives
Maqbool Fida Husain
Oil on canvas
€169,470 (around Rs96.7 lakh)
Christie’s, London, 10 June
Syed Haider Raza
Acrylic on canvas
Christie’s, London, 10 June
Francis Newton Souza
‘Down at the Lotus Pond’ (1984)
Mixed media on board
Christie’s, London, 9 June
Krishnaji Howlaji Ara
Gouache on paper
$10,925 (around Rs5 lakh)
Saffronart Autumn Auction, 9-10 September
Hari Ambadas Gade
Watercolour, Gouache on paper
Sotheby’s, London, 2 May 2008
Sadanand K Bakre
Courtesy Japa Arts