The formation of Progressive Artists Group in Bombay in 1947, was the symptom of a ‘Spirit’ or ‘Zeitgeist’ of Modern Indian Art during the few years before and after the Independence which we achieved during the same year.The independence in 1947 was a “moment” of continued nationalist fervor combined with a fresh nationwide excitement and optimism, inspite of the heavy suffering due to the partition of the sub-continent. Calcutta during the mid 1940s had witnessed artists like Somnath Hore and Chitta Prasad among others who responded to the Bengal Famine. Those who gathered courage to move away from the Bengal School set up the Calcutta group in 1943. The participants in their first group exhibition held in 1945, were Prodosh Das Gupta, Kamala DasGupta, Gopal Ghosh, Paritosh Sen, Nirode Majumdar, Subho Tagore, Rathin Maitra and Prankrishna Pal. Indeed it can be claimed that it is the formation of the Calcutta group and the exhibition of Jaimini Roy’s work in Mumbai during the late 1940s (with a record of press reviews), which were among the sources of inspiration to artists in Western India. Another impressionable exhibition held in 1947 in Mumbai was that of the Sri Lankan genius, George Keyt. However, chronologically followed the Shilpi Chakra Group formed in Delhi in 1947, which included the refugee artists arriving from Lahore, viz., B.C. Sanyal, Dhanraj Bhagat, Prannath Mago and artists who had already settled in Delhi during the 1940s such as Dinkar Kowshik, Sailoz Mukherjee and K.S. Kulkarni.
While the Bombay Progressive Group of Artists was formed in 1947, their historic Group exhibition was held in 1949. This represented the works of six artists, some of whom had already held their own solo exhibitions. The six artists were: i) Francis Newton Souza, ii) Maqbul Fida Husain, iii) Krishnaji H. Ara, iv) Sayyed Haidar Raza, v) Hari A. Gade and vi) Sadanand Bakre. While Bakre was the only sculptor among them, the other five were painters. It can be observed that their works were definitely more ‘advanced’ at that point of time in terms of style and expressive quality in comparison with the works shown in the exhibitions held in Calcutta and Delhi. With the exception of S.H. Raza, rest of the five artists have died.
As the World War II ended in 1945, travelling to Europe and the U.S.A. became relatively easier and several Indian artists ventured to travel to western countries resulting in direct exposure to the new trends in modern western art. Souza’s departure for London in 1949, was followed by Bakre where as Raza preferred to go to Paris. Husain began travelling frequently and shuttling between Mumbai and Delhi. Thus, the group got dispersed. Significantly, the artists remained focused and kept returning to the motherland and exhibiting at intervals in Mumbai and Delhi. So also those, who remained behind like Husain, Ara and Gade. Their periodic exhibitions often received wide publicity in Mumbai and Delhi especially those of Husain, Raza and Souza. However, Souza’s exhibitions were much noticed because of their boldness and his own provocative statements and writings.
The Austrian born Rudy Van Leyden was perhaps the first ever art critic in Bombay who was able to influence opinion in favour of modern art with his regular writings especially through 1940s. He had enthusiastically reviewed the first exhibition of Jamini Roy in Mumbai in 1942, hailing him as a modern master. He reviewed the exhibition of the Calcutta Group in 1945. He reviewed the exhibition of the first modern Sri Lankan painter George Keyt, held in 1947. Before the PAG’s 1949 exhibition, Leyden had reviewed solo exhibitions held by Ara, Raza and Souza as well. That is how while reviewing the historic Group show, Leyden observed that those who had followed the works of the PAG artists over the past years would know of the struggle, the experiments, the trials, that lie behind the considerable achievement which this exhibition represented. These artists had demonstrated that they were not satisfied with readymade conventions of either the academic western or the academic traditional. However, neither had they simply exchanged the conventions of the old schools in favour of obscure codes of modern paintings. Leyden had realized the future potential of these artists when he observed that those who want painting to be the expression of the deeper emotions and striving of a generations, will be satisfied with progressive offerings of these artists. These were reasons enough to hail them as welcome ‘rebels’. Among the supporters of modernity at that point of time in Bombay were the other two émigré Germans, the artist-advertiser W. Langhammer and the Company Director, Schlesinger, besides the distinguished novelist and art critic Mulk Raj Anand.
With the passing of decades and decades we are now realizing that modernity in India was carried over after Independence by the maturing artists of the 1950s,who consolidated it. The critical discussion was carried forward and kept alive by critics in the 1950s,who wrote about pre-independence pioneers of modern Indian art. Later in 1960s, they analyzed the new experiments and languages created by artists who had worked through the late 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s. Supportive critical writing alongside the ongoing developments in Contemporary Indian art, is an important component of the times, which offers insightful reconstruction of the process of the Indian modernity. During the last two decades with many Art galleries actively involved with promotion of Contemporary Indian art through small and large group shows, solo shows and retrospective shows of the senior artists, has brought us to the realization of the tremendous significance of the artists who emerged during 1940s and 1950s. Many of them have been responsible for bringing the creative developments in India parallel to International modern art. Among other aspects they revolutionized the pictorial language in India by their innovative experiments
in lines, colours, space, pictorial structures, imageries and how the society looks at the works of art. The distinctness in their creative works as both individualistic at one level and also representing Indian sensibility at another level is so very patent. Quite rightly, many of them are now being acknowledged as ‘Masters’.
The two issues of ARTETC NEWS & VIEWS, that of January and February 2012, will explore the entire phenomena of the dramatic ‘moment’ of modernity in western India in a series of essays, some of them will be devoted to defining the trajectories that each of these artists took in their creative work as they grew and reached maturity.
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