Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group
Formed in 1947 in Mumbai, the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) aimed at establishing a presence and vocabulary for a Modern Indian art that was internationally recognised. At a time when India was undergoing significant socio-political changes in the aftermath of Partition and independence from British rule while finding its footing in the international community, the PAG moved away from academic and realist styles as well as the revivalist Bengal School of Art. Instead, they sought to develop an Indian vocabulary of Modernist art that could accurately represent the reality and plurality of post-Independence India, as well as its international aspirations. Each member of the group had their own style, and were variously influenced by traditional and folk art from India, popular media and European Modernism.
The founding members of PAG — painters FN Souza, SH Raza, MF Husain, KH Ara, HA Gade and painter-sculptor SK Bakre — represented various socioeconomic, religious and cultural backgrounds, affording a pluralism that could accurately embody the diversity of post-Independence India. They drew inspiration from the art of the Indian subcontinent, including architecture, sculpture and painting, such as Mughal and Pahari miniatures, Chola bronze sculptures and the temples at Khajuraho. They also incorporated formal techniques with themes of mysticism and spiritual iconography to represent the diversity of India’s people, marked by its social, economic and religious systems.
Members of the PAG developed their distinct, individualistic styles, governed by technical principles concerning colour composition and aesthetic order. The differences in the artists’ backgrounds and styles make it challenging to categorise their work under one school of art, which is reflective of the group’s pluralist ideals. Souza combined elements from Goan folk art with Primitivism, whereas Husain blended folk art influences with Hindu mythological figures, frequently employing Cubist techniques and Symbolist imagery. Raza experimented with landscape paintings, initially developing an Expressionistic style with a later foray into Geometric Abstraction. Ara was known for his experimentation with the female nude as well as his Impressionistic exploration of still life and human figures, while Gade painted in an Abstract Expressionist style for which he frequently referenced landscape painting. Bakre was the only sculptor in the group, and is considered an early abstractionist in the medium.
The group shared an anti-imperialist outlook towards art and a need to bridge the gap between art and the everyday lives of people. They undertook formal experiments inspired by American and European modern art as well as folk and tribal art traditions from the subcontinent, using these styles to portray everyday life in India. Many of the PAG artists used a vibrant colour palette and a distortion of anatomically correct forms in favour of rendering an image closer to an Expressionistic style.
Among the group’s earliest patrons were Central European Jewish immigrants living in Bombay, notably Walter Langhammer, Rudolph von Leyden and Emmanuel Schlesinger, who were instrumental in providing the PAG with the space and accessibility to converge and devise their manifesto. In 1947, Souza, Raza and Ara, along with art critic Rashid Husain set up an independent judging committee aimed at introducing a transparent selection process — in response to the existing, arbitrary judging process in art exhibitions across the country — allowing greater participation of emerging artists. The group held their first collective exhibition in 1948, followed by another in 1949 at Rampart Row in Mumbai as part of the Bombay Art Society’s annual salon, to critical success. However, the artists admitted that their goal of bridging the gap between the lives of everyday people and the artist could not be accommodated in the exhibition.
Three of the PAG’s founding members — Souza, Bakre and Raza — left the country soon after the group’s joint exhibition with the Calcutta Group in 1951, and scholars consider this point to be the beginning of the group’s decline as a collective artistic presence, even as its members gained success in their individual careers. The group incorporated more artists after this, including VS Gaitonde, Akbar Padamsee, Krishen Khanna and Tyeb Mehta, and while these artists became individually well established in Indian art history, the PAG’s ideals and cultural presence had become diluted. The PAG effectively (if not formally) dissolved in 1956, but its members were instrumental in furthering the image of Indian modern art in Europe through exhibitions in metropolitan centres such as Zurich, Paris and London, therefore comprising the first wave of internationalism among Indian artists.
Artisera. “The Progressive Artists’ Group And Its Impact on Indian Modern Art,” 2019. https://www.artisera.com/blogs/expressions/the-progressive-artists-group-and-its-impact-on-indian-modern-art.
Artsy. “The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India.” Accessed September 4, 2020.https://www.artsy.net/show/asia-society-the-progressive-revolution-modern-art-for-a-new-india.
Kapur, Geeta. When was Modernism: Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India. Chennai: Tulika Books, 2000.
Lokhandwala, Arshiya. “After Midnight: Indian Modernism to Contemporary India, 1947/1997.” Queens Museum, 2015. http://www.queensmuseum.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/After%20Midnight_Brochure_Web.pdf.
Mitter, Partha. Indian Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Noor, Tausif Amin. “The Legacy of the Progressive Artists Group.” Sotheby’s, June 7, 2019.https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/the-legacy-of-the-progressive-artists-group.
Seervai, Shanoor. “As It Turns 50, Gallery Chemould Celebrates Its Legendary Past.” The Caravan, 2014. https://caravanmagazine.in/reviews-and-essays/dreamers.
Small, Zachary. “The Plurality and Progressivism of India’s Modern Art Revolution.” Hyperallergic, October 29, 2018.https://hyperallergic.com/462128/the-progressive-revolution-modern-art-for-a-new-india-asia-society-museum/.