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Indian & South Asian Modern & Contemporary Art

The Legacy of the Progressive Artists Group

By Tausif Amin Noor

T he Progressive Artists Group was a group of artists working in India in the mid-20th century. Based in Bombay (now Mumbai), the group, which included artists such as FN Souza, MF Husain, KH Ara, SK Bakre, and SH Raza, practiced an eclectic set of styles which drew from Indian folk tradition as well as from Western Modernist practices. In later years, artists such as Mohan Samant, Ram Kumar, Tyeb Mehta, and Krishen Khanna would be folded into the group, which ultimately disbanded by 1956. Yet, the legacy of these artists and their vision for a modernity unencumbered by religion, one that celebrated the plurality of their nation and challenged the dominance of tradition, can be seen in the practices of artists from South Asia prasticing in the long 20th century.

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Francis Newton Souza, Untitled, Oil on board, 1958. Estimate £600,000 – £800,000.

In 1947, mere months after India had declared independence from colonial British rule, a group of artists gathered with the intention of establishing a new mode of art for the newly formed nation. Gathered in Bombay by the strident painter Francis Newton Souza, this eclectic group of artists, practising in a range of styles and mediums, would come to be known as the Progressive Artists Group—a name inspired by the Progressive Writers’ Association in the 1930s, but one that also marked a set of ideological commitments for a nation in a state of flux. These commitments—to secularism, pluralism, and to serving the various societal milieus from which the artists emerged—would be tested and refined as the PAG, much like the fledgling Indian state, struggled to define its purpose and its bounds, but they served as a vivifying force for coalescing a disparate group whose influence reverberates across the Modernist canon.

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Maqbool Fida Husain, Untitled (Praying Woman), Oil on canvas, 1958. Estimate £100,000–150,000.

The PAG’s founding members—FN Souza, MF Husain, KH Ara, SK Bakre, HA Gade, SH Raza—reflected India’s diverse range of social, economic, and linguistic backgrounds, and such a pluralism would be the driving force for the Group’s alignment against the artistic styles and practices that had come to dominate the Indian artistic scene in the 20th century. The Group would later expand to include Akbar Padamsee, Tyeb Mehta, Mohan Samant, V.S. Gaitonde, Ram Kumar, and Bhanu Rajopadhye. Though their styles, philosophies, and modes of art making often differed greatly, what united these artists was an acknowledgement that the dominant mode of art making, which emphasized an orientalist and nostalgic nationalism inspired by figures such as Rabindranath Tagore and the influence of the Bengal School, was no longer appropriate for a newly independent India.

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Sayed Haider Raza, Untitled (View of Bombay), Watercolour and gouache on paper laid on card, circa late 1940s. Estimate £12,000–18,000.

To realize this new mode of thinking, the Progressives looked to the rich tradition of the past, from the composition of 17th century Mughal and Pahari miniatures to the sensuous carvings of Khajuraho temples. In mining this past for inspiration, the artists combined elements from Hindu and Jain imagery and Muslim tradition, espousing in this process an argument for a secular modernity. Incorporating both formalist techniques and spiritual, metaphysical themes, the Progressives invocation of the past was an attempt to accurately evoke the pluralism of their modernist present; by tracing a trajectory of simultaneous histories that led to the 20th century, their aim was to take stock of the rich landscape in which their own practices developed. Yet, this mode was not without its problems: MF Husain, the Group’s sole Muslim member, would face harsh criticism and even censorship later in his career for his incorporation of Hindu deities in his paintings, eventually leading to a self-imposed exile from India in 2006.

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Ram Kumar, Untitled (Varanasi), Oil on canvas, 1981. Estimate £150,000–200,000.

True to their expansive idea of Modernism, the Progressives did not limit themselves to the inheritance of doctrinal Indian tradition but looked to the styles and modes of Asian painting, including Korean landscape and Japanese ink painting, as seen in the numinous forms of Padamsee and Gaitonde. Vernacular and folk traditions of tribal peoples within India also served as a crucial mode of inspiration for Raza and Husain, whose depictions of rural village life were newly invigorated by gestural strokes, resplendent color and tightly composed forms that placed the pastoral sharply into India’s rapidly industrialized present.

Such contradictions have come to define the legacy of the Progressive Artist’s Group, the cohesiveness of which began to erode following Souza’s departure for London in 1949, where he would remain until the late 1960s. His fellow compatriots would follow suit—Raza to Paris, Bakre to London—and the remaining artists, while still committed to the Group’s principles in their work, would slowly move toward individualized practices. By the time the Group had officially disbanded in 1954, they had scattered across Europe and India, but had left in their wake an indelible imprint on the development of an international Modernism, with manifold perspectives, subjects, and aesthetic registers. The Progressive vision stands today as a record of such a development with reverberations ever-sounding.

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