Today we paint with absolute freedom…” members of the Progressive Artists’ Group declared in the brochure of their second show at the Bombay Art Society salon in 1949. The six young artists who formed the core of the revolutionary group—F.N. Souza, S.H. Raza, M.F. Husain, K.H. Ara, S.K. Bakre and H.A. Gade—had by then become rallying points for the modern movement in Indian art. That exhibition was also their final show: Souza, Raza and Bakre left for Europe soon after and the others embarked on individual journeys. Though the group itself was remarkably short-lived, its members are still considered among the most important artists of the last and current century.
In a show titled Continuum that opened earlier this week, the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) brings together 250 works of these master artists. After a gap of six decades the Progressives are being shown together again.
Ahead of time: (left) The iconic nude by Ara; and (from left) Husain, Souza, Bakre, Ara, Raza and Gade in a press photo from 1948. Courtesy National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai
Five years in the making, the retrospective spans the artists’ careers and mediums. The works are priced between Rs 4 lakh and Rs 4 crore, the most expensive being a 6Kx6ft oil on canvas by Husain called Karachi V. The show includes famous pieces, such as Souza’s Temple Dancer, Raza’s Germination and Ara’s most iconic painting, an untitled nude. The works are accompanied by a 330-page book with essays on the group’s genesis as well as explorative biographies on each artist. Since four of the artists have died, and Husain’s entry to India has effectively been barred, the 88-year-old Raza, who has now made his way back to India, is the only one among the Progressives to witness the show.
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“There possibly hasn’t been any other group of artists that came together in this manner and created such a valuable body of work,” says Kishore Singh, head of exhibitions at DAG. The title of the show hints at continuity, he explains, because it traces the artists’ journeys backwards. Many works have been bought directly from the artists or their families. Ashish Anand, director, DAG, recalls meeting Gade at his home in Mumbai in 2002 and buying a bundle of 100 artworks—50 of which were what Raza had left with him before leaving for France. Anand paid Rs 10 lakh for the whole bunch and subsequently sold most of them. Following the steep hike in the prices of works by modern artists earlier in the decade, he had to buy several back at many times the price to fill the gaps in the exhibition.
One of the challenges in putting up a group show of the Progressives is the difference in the current standing of the artists in the art mart: Husain, Souza and Raza are much more well known than the others. Ara made a name for himself but later slipped into oblivion. Bakre spent much of his time in London and on his return retired to a coastal village in Maharashtra. This, in fact, is the first time that his works are being shown in Delhi. Likewise, not much is known about Gade, who faded after the group split. Continuum appears to have taken up the task of educating art lovers on the works of the three lesser-known artists. And their works are the real unseen gems of the exhibition.
DAG will host film screenings, lectures and panel discussions to complement the show. Anand admits that including works by Husain could invite trouble but says a show on the Progressives minus his works would be impossible. Somewhat disappointingly, he does add that they’re being “careful” about what they show.
For many art historians, what’s more revolutionary about the Progressives is not their work per se, but the manner in which they came together. That in itself was an artistic statement. At the time they were all young, between the ages of 24 and 34, and barely eking out a living in Mumbai. The late 1940s in post-independence India was a time of great artistic confusion. Each of the six artists had his own unique style (see Different Strokes): the frank sexuality of Souza, the beguiling nudes of Ara, the earthy sensuality of Husain, but what they all had in common was a strong distaste for the prevailing trends in Indian art.
The Progressives rejected outright the revivalistic methods of the Bengal School because they sought to find a new voice. They also opposed the academic styles taught by the schools of art set up by the British. The only avenue that was available to show their work was the Bombay Art Society, with strict submission criteria under headings such as “watercolours (Indian style)” or “Black & White, Pastels”, etc. The group organized their own shows to break away from this overly formal set-up.
It was an entrepreneurial effort and their roles were well delineated—Ara, the articulate one, dealt with the press; Raza, quiet and sensitive, talked about the works to buyers; Souza, the most vociferous, was the group’s spokesperson. It was he who wrote the group’s manifesto. When he claimed that “our art has evolved over the years of its own volition; out of our own balls and brains”, it was too early for him to know that this evolution was to change Indian art forever.
Continuum: Progressive Artists’ Group will run at Delhi Art Gallery, 11, Hauz Khas Village, New Delhi, till 28 February.