A new exhibition brings together works by all 13 of the ballsy youngsters who formed Bombay’s Progressive Artists’ Group
A new exhibition brings together works by all 13 of the ballsy youngsters who formed Bombay’s Progressive Artists’ Group
There is a popular story about Tyeb Mehta that is often told at art openings amid the clatter of wine glasses and numerous servings of cheese, especially by art scholars in sleeveless Nehru jackets who can tell their Tyebs from Bacons: in 1947, a 22-year-old Tyeb witnessed a man being brutally stoned to death on Bombay’s bustling Mohammed Ali Road. This incident had such an impact on him that violence became a recurring motif in his work, nowhere more apparent than in his macabre renderings of falling figures and trussed bulls. Like many fellow artists who migrated to the West, Tyeb went on to live in New York and London, before he moved to Santiniketan and then Delhi, where his wife Sakina supported him by taking up a job at an advertising agency. But it is Bombay, now Mumbai, that shaped his art.
Tyeb Mehta’s great friend MF Husain, too, lived abroad for long stretches, most famously so as an artist in self-exile towards the end of his life. Yet, it is the Bombay of Irani chai and bun-maska that we associate Husain with.
Incidentally, it was also in this very city—which artist FN Souza described in his 1959 book Words and Lines as a city of ‘haggling coolies, numberless dirty restaurants run by Iranis, millions of clerks working clocklike in fixed routines’—that a group of like-minded young artists came together to form the Progressive Artists’ Group, regarded as India’s first modern movement in art.
That was in 1947.
Jump cut to 2013. An exhibition titled Mumbai Modern: Progressive Artists’ Group: 1947-2013 has been put up at the spanking new Delhi Art Gallery, which has just opened in Mumbai’s art district of Kala Ghoda, not too far from the young artists’ favourite haunt of the time, Chetana Restaurant in Fort. “They were very poor, totally unknown… living in small spaces in the suburbs, they would travel long distances to meet in town,” says art critic Yashodhara Dalmia.
Handsomely mounted, the exhibition celebrates the spirit of the Progressive Artists’ Group and its contribution to Indian art by lining up the works of all 13 artists who were directly or indirectly associated with the influential if short-lived movement. These include its founding members FN Souza, SH Raza, MF Husain, KH Ara, Sadanand Bakre and HA Gade, as also their associates Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee, VS Gaitonde, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar, Mohan Samant and Bal Chhabda.
According to Kishore Singh, the gallery’s genial exhibition head, the show’s significance may be attributed to the fact that all 13 artists on display have “to my mind, never been shown together”. Says he, “For us, it was like curating a retrospective of the modernists.” Originally, Singh had intended an exhibition on the Bombay Presidency painters, chiefly from the Maharashtra region, but when Ashish Anand, the gallery’s director, suggested one on the Progressive Artists’ Group, Singh readily agreed. ‘The artists started out in Bombay,’ Anand writes in a 500-page accompanying catalogue. ‘Many continued to paint when it became Mumbai. As we pause to look back at their careers from that momentous beginning to 2013, we can claim to have bridged the length of their stride from Bombay to Mumbai without betraying their inheritance…’
The gallery couldn’t have started with a more relevant theme. “Bombay is where the Group created their earliest paintings,” Singh says, “They lived elsewhere, but they were born of a moment in Bombay when the city was buzzing and happening with its wonderful art deco buildings, cinema and theatre. There was that entire optimism and hope that arose from Independence and art somewhere became such a significant part of it.” The Group rejected the prevalent trends of pre-Independence art, including those practised by the School of Bengal and the British academic style of painting taught at government art colleges, and “broke every norm and ideology in emerging India and created its own language” in Singh’s words.
The Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) boasts over 32,000 works of modern art, “all owned by the gallery,” says Singh. Given such a sizable collection, it was tough selecting “which paintings to display and which to omit”. The gallery houses a vast collection of Husains and Souzas, among others. Not all of them are equally good. “Of course, nobody wants to show weak works in an exhibition because when you buy, you usually do so in bulk and therefore you end up picking mediocre works along with great ones,” Singh says, walking us around the three-storey gallery, housed in a heritage building that took a year-and-a-half of restoration. “There are works here that are absolute masterpieces and you know it when you see them,” he says, referring to Souza’s 1962 oil-on-canvas Seated Nude, typical of the artist’s erotic female nudes with their direct gaze at the viewer, exaggerated breasts and frontal poses painted with furious black outlines and thick impasto. Souza, a member of the Communist party, was arguably the first Indian painter to have an impact in Europe. At DAG, the Goa-born artist is represented not just by his hallmark nudes but also landscapes, heads and still-lifes.
Influenced by his Catholic upbringing, Souza combined religion and sex to create an iconoclastic body of work. According to Singh, his creative apogee was the 1950s and 60s. Souza spent the 1970s in New York, where he became a social recluse and developed—driven as much by a passion for experimentation as lack of money—his distinctive ‘chemical alternation works’, a transfer process in which he used a chemical solvent on printed paper. Critics consider this the most technically innovative phase of Souza’s career. By the 80s and 90s, as he grew old, alcoholic and even more obsessed with women, the quality of his work dropped drastically. Asked how experts can sift an artist’s best period from his worst, Singh says “[mainly] by observation”: “There is a general consensus among Souza experts that his best period was from the 1950s to 60s. The 1970s and 80s are good, but not as good. Tyeb’s later works are considered his best because by that time he had worked out a very strong language. Anyone who is part of the art world—writers, researchers and curators—tend to know this. And then, of course, you are guided by your eyes.”
Souza, who famously announced after Pablo Picasso’s demise, “Now that Picasso is dead, I am the greatest”, was the driving force behind the Progressive Artists’ Group. “He was disgusted with the kind of art that used to be shown at the Bombay Art Society,” Dalmia says. “He felt that the time had come to form a group that would propel an alternative and parallel movement towards the kind of art that was being taught at institutes like the Sir JJ School of Art.”
Souza himself was rusticated from Sir JJ School of Art for participating in the Quit India Movement of 1942. Trained as a Jesuit priest, he’d been expelled from high school for viewing pornographic images. The bad boy reputation would stalk him throughout his career. Dalmia says he was a “dynamic force” who encouraged fellow artists, particularly Husain.
Starting out as a cinema billboard painter who later worked at a furniture store designing toys and furniture, Husain was desperately poor: “A painter by night, under the lamplight,” as Dalmia puts it. Souza “singled him out” she says, inviting him to “join the group”. On display at the gallery are several of Husain’s early works, including sketches, cut-outs and oil paintings of medium format. If Souza has his divine Mother and Child (1961), Husain draws comfort from another maternal figure, Mother Teresa. Husain’s biographers have pointed out his fondness of painting women without faces because he didn’t have any memory of his mother Zainab. That’s what he does with Mother Teresa; his black-white-and-grey watercolour series conveys the saint’s identity with a blue band running through her sari folds. These, along with his other sketches—even those of horses and the playful Ganeshas that are often dismissed as Husain cliché—prove his mastery over line and movement.
Unlike Husain’s, SH Raza’s watercolours are detailed and painterly. They depict landscapes, river banks, market scenes and villagers at work. Pointing to an acrylic work titled Witness/Darshak, Singh says, “Raza painted that over 22 years. I suspect it started like a carpet on which he would test his paints and brushes. It became his companion. He calls it ‘Eye Witness’. It must have stayed with him so long that perhaps when he was moving out of Paris, he must have looked at it, and rather than leaving it unfinished, completed it as a painting.”
On the first floor of the gallery hangs a luminous Akbar Padamsee landscape of 1964 that anticipates his latter-day Metascapes—what the artist calls ‘landscapes of the mind’.
The shy Tyeb who died in 2009 is represented by a charcoal sketch and his 1973 oil-on-canvas Blue Torso with a distressed female figure. Once a film editor, Tyeb was also a ruthless self-editor who destroyed more paintings than he unveiled to the world. This is why even a squiggle by him is prized so highly by art collectors.
The exhibition also offers glimpses of abstractionist Ram Kumar’s stellar paintings, especially of his Banaras period. Kumar started off as a figurative artist, whose figures stood out sharply against a backdrop of isolation and gloom.
However, in 1961, he went on a sketching expedition to Banaras with Husain, a trip that the latter described years later as thus: “Every night, I used to scribble on paper my impressions of the day. Ram used to get so annoyed with the sound of scribbling that he couldn’t sleep. I was there exactly for fifteen days and I left, saying, ‘Ram, now you please take care of Banaras’.” Kumar stayed on and worked rigorously on the Ganga ghats. Fellow abstractionist J Swaminathan once said that Kumar’s Banaras landscape “lifts one out of the toil of the moment [and places one] into the timeless world of formless memories”. The meditative forces of Kumar’s paintings lend credence to his declaration: “I want to find the same peace that mystics found.”
Another pivotal work on view is Krishen Khanna’s wall-sized Suspense at Last Supper from his 1980s output. It’s a ‘special’ work, says Singh: “The interesting element in it is that other than the 13 people, he has introduced a fourteenth figure—the little boy Chhotu from the dhaba. Although he is serving them, he could well be you or me, observing the scene as an outsider.” Khanna, who used to copy Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper from a reproduction brought home by his father, painted several versions of Jesus’ last meal with his Apostles.
Though Singh has no favourites from the vast collection, Anand doesn’t hesitate in declaring his passion for Souzas and Husains. “I have Souza even in my bathroom,” he says, “There is not a single wall in my house that doesn’t have art.”
Apart from the Husains, Razas and Souzas, the gallery presents works by less-known artists of the group, namely Ara, Gade and Bakre, who Singh feels “our country has often overlooked with sheer callousness.” Gade, he says, was a “great colourist” and was so acknowledged by his peers. Bakre, who painted only when he couldn’t afford material to sculpt, came into his own as a sculptor. A personal tragedy struck when Bakre’s German wife eloped with his younger brother, a shock he never recovered from. At a rare exhibition in 1997, an embittered Bakre lashed out at his colleagues of the Progressive Artists’ Group. Lonely and commercially unsuccessful, he retired to Maharashtra’s Konkan belt and was barely heard of, eventually dying in “near penury” as Singh says.
Ara’s life and career traced an altogether different trajectory. Singh describes him as a “generous man.” He was not interested in money and ensured that his art was sold at the lowest possible price. “He was always giving his money away to friends,” Singh says. Starting out as a car cleaner and houseboy, Ara was encouraged to paint by The Times of India’s art critic Rudy von Leyden. Unlettered and ill at ease with the ways of the world, Ara was once reportedly convinced in jest by Souza and Raza that Oriental women have “horizontal vaginas, not vertical ones”. Incidentally, the very nudes that Ara’s critics noted had mis-depicted female genitalia are now, along with his still-lifes, some of the most recognisable works of Indian modern art. Intriguingly, one of those nudes is price-tagged at Rs 35 lakh at the current exhibition.
All these years, while Husain, Raza, Padamsee and Tyeb fetched millions of dollars at auctions worldwide, Ara, Bakre and Gade were cheap currency in contrast. But that could soon change. “Markets will go after them,” expects Singh, “Their works are going to get rarer and rarer.”
Any such exhibition always has a commercial aim as well; and all the works are on sale. “It breaks my heart when a work sells,” says Singh, “but we are, at the end, a commercial gallery. We have to sustain ourselves.”
Anand, who vividly remembers the excitement of his first buy—a Ramkinkar Baij watercolour he bought for Rs 35,000—says it’s greed that drives his acquisition of art. He means ‘greed’ in the positive sense: “The more I acquire, the more significant and comprehensive shows I can put together.”
Passion and commitment are a must for anyone to get a collection together, but there is also a “business side” to it, says Anand: “Nobody is doing charity work here.”
Asked where he displays his Baij watercolour today, he replies with a couple of crisp words. “Sold it.”