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V. S. Gaitonde, “Untitled” (1962), oil on canvas (All images courtesy Asia Society Museum)

The Young Firebrands of Indian Modernism

The Progressive Artists’ Group represented a microcosm of class, caste, and religion, making them the perfect poster boys for the Nehruvian ideal of secularism.

At the dawn of a new Indian nation in 1947, a country awoke from its long colonial slumber to confront the challenges of Independence. The departure of the British and the ensuing bloodbath of Partition witnessed the formation of two nations built along religious fault lines, India and Pakistan. Pakistan embraced a Muslim identity, while India elected a secular vision for its future under the stewardship of its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. His political ethos of “unity in diversity” was a rallying cry for plurality, a country for all, in which all religions could cohabit and progress together.

This new India necessitated a new art that broke free of the reins of the British Raj and spoke in the grand rhetoric of the newly formed Republic. A current show The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India at the Asia Society Museum provides a compelling narrative for the parallel constructions of the Indian nation, the trauma of Partition and the formation of its artistic identity. The protagonists are a group of young firebrands that were drawn together for their love of art, politics, and revolution. They called themselves the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG).

PAG comprised of Hindus, Muslims and Christians, and a microcosm of class and caste, making them the perfect poster boys for the Nehruvian ideal of secularism. Although some of them came from India’s hinterlands, the cosmopolitan city of Bombay (now Mumbai) became their common stomping ground.

The artists sought to invent new idioms to cast overboard the academic realism that had been in vogue under the Raj. Simmering a stew of the personal and political, narrative histories and abstract principles, Indian aesthetics and international Modernisms, they began to synthesize new subjects and styles towards a modern vernacular for Indian art. Their intention was to paint with absolute freedom of content and technique, while still being governed by a few eternal laws of plasticity, aesthetic order, color, and composition.

While the artists also rejected the early 20th-century Bengal School’s nationalist art movement and penchant for naturalism, they did adopt one of their strategies, the recovery of older art forms. Going back to pre-colonial source material as a way of reimagining Indian subject matter was critical to the artists’ process of self-determination. It’s still a moot point more than 70 years after Independence. While there are still those who would gloss over the considerable debt owed by the School of Paris to African and Oceanic art in the development of Western Modernism, it should be remembered that when European artists replaced centuries’ old naturalism with the vivid color schemes and pictorial flatness typical of non-Western forms, they were influenced as much by Asian art as they were from African. Van Gogh drew inspiration from Japanese prints and was an enthusiastic collector. Gaugin similarly adopted Polynesian symbolism and aesthetics. Indian art looked at the West, but it also looked further East, and at itself.

The show’s curators, Dr. Zehra Jumabhoy, Associate Lecturer at the Courtauld Institute of Art, and Tan Boon Hui, Director of the Asia Society Museum, insist that synthesis, rather than imitation, is the right way to view this show. They’ve juxtaposed Indian art with exquisite pre-modern Asian objects primarily from the collection of Blanchette and John D. Rockefeller, which formed the core of the Asia Society’s holdings, to drive home the point. A Japanese scroll, a Pahari miniature, a Chola bronze, and other objects highlight these relationships, and enable complex readings of Indian art that may otherwise be fitted into tidy binaries of East/West, as has too often been the case.

The first gallery attempts to recreate the first show PAG did together, at the Bombay Arts Society in 1949. It includes a stunning, if atypical, example of an early oil on board by Francis Newton Souza called “Mithuna” (“Lovers”) (1949). The wide, stylized eyes and sumptuous figuration reveal sources like 17th-century Pahari painting from the Punjab Hills, as well as Hindu and Jain temple carvings, while the emerging Cubist composition points to its European influences, like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.

Born in Portuguese Goa into an impoverished Roman Catholic family, the rebellious Souza had no time for propriety. His work often railed against piety and convention. In another impressive painting by the artist from the same year, he paints himself as a heroic figure holding a paintbrush in hand. He’s fully nude, and although scrawny and slightly emaciated, the emboldened charge of youth is palpable in the direct, fixed gaze of the portrait. It at once rejects hypocrisy and announces the arrival of a newborn spirit in the guise of a mature artist. I am reminded of Donatello’s bronze David towering triumphantly over a slain Goliath — a fairly accurate analogy for the Indian Republic and its relationship to the British Empire.

The painting’s sense of poetic justice was lost on the public, and it managed to cause quite a stir for all the wrong reasons. An unpleasant brush with Bombay authorities convinced Souza it was time to leave India for European shores. He left for Paris (and later New York), dealing PAG a blow. Without Souza, their fiercest ideologue, they lost their glue.

Akbar Padamsee’s oil painting “Lovers” (1952) is another historical gem in the exhibition. It almost met a similar fate to Souza’s self-portrait when it was displayed at (the still extant) Jehangir Art Gallery in Bombay, in 1954. The erotic painting depicts a stylized man and woman painted in earthy, sun-drenched yellows and browns seated atop a white bull, the man’s hand cupping the woman’s breast. The elongated figuration and distinct facial stylization of Padamsee’s characters bear an uncanny resemblance to a remarkable Chola bronze of the Lord Shiva from the 12th century, two works paired by the curators to highlight their similarities.

Although Padamsee had intended for the painting to be a contemporary rendering of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati, the divine couple from Hindu scriptures, the local authorities took offense at its frank portrayal of nudity and sex. It would appear that more than 200 years of British prudishness had erased an ample history of erotic pleasure in Indian art, as found in temple architecture, ancient Hindu treatises, and even Mughal miniatures.

(Unlike Souza, Padamsee stayed and fought the charges against him in court. His victory stands as a watershed moment for freedom of expression in modern India).

Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, the spiritualist in the group, tended towards a more purely abstract language. Drawing from Zen Buddhism, East Asian scrolls, and calligraphy, his evocations of the primordial landscape to create ethereal, minimalist abstractions have been compared to Mark Rothko. The two met in New York when Gaitonde visited in 1964 and discovered their mutual sources of inspiration.

In another expert pairing intended to underscore Indian art’s rich cultural cross-pollination and assimilation, a painting from 1962 of an abstract bird and sun in grayish blues and whites by Gaitonde is shown alongside a delicate 16th-century Japanese scroll of a silvery-blue bird on a blossom branch.

Such synchronous and determined convergences also reflect in the work of Syed Haider Raza. “Kashmir” (1949), an early gouache on paper by the artist, feels as much an ode to the sacred land as it is an homage to Cézanne. Two dark rivers intersect at diagonals in this nightscape with roofed houses proliferating against forest and mountains in the far distance. An early experiment, this painting exhibits a restless grappling with pictorial perspective, as well as a developing penchant for bold, hot colors, exposed brushstrokes, and planar fragmentations.

Although Raza was born a Muslim, the organic nature of his influences, drawn from a range of ancient belief systems embedded in the Indian psyche, is ample evidence of the secular idealism percolating through the post-colonial society these artists inhabited. A fine example of Raza’s later synthesis of abstraction and the landscape, and his syncretic assimilation of Hindu and Buddhist (especially Tantric) symbolism into a highly personalized and individual language is embodied in the painting “Satpura” (1984).

In this painting, an enigmatic black sun occupies a distorted, geometric landscape composed of fragmented horizontal and diagonal planes in muted reds, greens, ochres, and browns. According to the wall text, the palette evokes the woodlands of Madhya Pradesh, where the artist grew up. While the geometric construction of the painting could certainly relate to Hindu yantras, the geometric symbols embodying divine power, the energetic brushstrokes and painterly application have their correspondence to American postwar abstraction.

Similar stylistic influences can be seen in “Benares” (1964), Ram Kumar’s landscape painting of Varanasi, displayed in the third-floor galleries. While his landscapes remained resolutely Indian, with Benares being a favorite subject for the painter, Kumar’s chromatic structures became more pictorial over time. The indelible impression of early 20th century Western Modernism makes itself felt, as it would throughout Kumar’s career, up until his death earlier this year, in April, in Delhi.

The Progressive Revolution is most compelling in its handling of the social aftermath of Independence and the traumatic events that have shaped modern India. In the 1950s, the artists cast their gaze on the realities around them, documenting everyday life even as they expressed their disenchantment with the sociopolitical landscape and its economic hardships. These observations were woven into the rubric of their art.

Maqbool Fida Husain — the most internationally known artist among the original members of PAG — made his strongest work in this period. For the lyrical domestic and rural scenes he depicted in paintings like “Yatra” (1955) and “Holi” (1951), the artist, who started his career painting billboards, drew upon such folk and religious traditions as Basohli painting, Rajasthani and Mughal miniatures, and Jain manuscripts with the same facility he used to appropriate Western styles. Husain’s prodigiousness and frank stylizations are synonymous for many Indians with Modern Indian art. He’s known as the Picasso of India for good reason, although such a label would likely be frowned upon by the show’s curators.

Despite the artist’s tremendous popularity (or maybe because of it), Husain was targeted by right-wing extremists in 1996 for painting a nude Hindu Goddess. The innocuous painting was simply a ruse to scapegoat the artist for being a Muslim. He was eventually forced to live out his life in exile, and died a citizen of Qatar.

The painting in question, and other important paintings from the 1950’s, like “The Spider and the Lamp” (1956) and “Zameen” (“Earth”) (1955) by Husain, are not in the exhibition, but his ghost continues to hover over Indian art as a cautionary tale of the country’s imperfect tryst with secularism.

Cataclysmic events like the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the spiritual father of the nation, by a Hindu right-wing zealot in 1948, and the secession of East Pakistan to produce the sovereign state of Bangladesh in 1971, are depicted incisively by Krishen Khanna in “News of Gandhiji’s Death” (1948) and two dark and riveting works, “Game 1” (ca. 1978) and “The Anatomy Lesson” (1972), respectively.

The grim public scene, “News of Gandhiji’s Death,” is composed of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians from different walks of life gathering under a streetlamp to read the tragic news. Although huddled together under the umbrella of secularism, each one appears to be absorbed in his or her own reality. It’s a haunting portrayal of the moment that the interdenominational Gandhian dream was suspended in the wake of sectarian violence. In the latter two paintings, also by Khanna, uniformed generals are depicted playing the great game of war. In “Game 1,” they are gathered around a table, passing around a white sheet of paper as if writing the script for the Bangladesh genocide of 1971, while in “The Anatomy Lesson” they have completed the act of cutting up the nation into pieces as they stare down morbidly at a cadaver.

Poverty and alienation, the twin concerns of modern life, resound strongly in a rare, early example of Ram Kumar’s figurative work, “Unemployed Graduates” (1956). Four identical young men in oversized suits stare out at us; their pupils, like shrunken prunes, beseech us with empty gazes, highlighting the apathy of the system and the lack of opportunities available to the lower-middle classes in urban India.

This theme resonates in another powerful double-portrait by Souza, “Tycoon and the Tramp” (1956), which also reflects the artist’s mature style of fierce stylization, strong outlines, and somber tones. A well-heeled, light-skinned gentleman in a suit on the left stands next to a darker-skinned, shaggy, bearded man on the right. The differences in appearance detailed by clothing, skin tone, and grooming reveal the hardships exacted on the lower classes in a system that benefits the wealthy, who are well-fed and pampered.

Almost a decade after Independence, nothing had really changed from the days of the Raj. The painting also provides a subtext of ethnic disparity that still exists in India today, as does the widespread poverty and corruption that makes the lot of most Indians a daily struggle.

PAG formally disbanded in 1954, soon after their last exhibition in 1953. By that time, many of its key figures, including Souza, Raza and S. K. Bakre, had already left for London, Paris, or New York, forming roots outside of India, Given the extent of their dispersal, it is all the remarkable that The Progressive Revolution was able to offer this rare opportunity to see historically significant works of modern Indian masters together for the first time on American soil.

The curatorial effort has thrown up a few surprises too, including the discovery of the only woman artist, Bhanu Rajopadhye, who was granted membership to the group as well as included in its last official show. While her work is not represented in the current show, Ms. Jumabhoy covers some ground in the catalogue with images and text documenting Rajopadhye’s art, which, during her brief tenure as a painter, included stylized portraits of women. (Rajopadhye went on to become a celebrated costume designer, and won an Oscar for her work on the film Gandhi, in 1983).

This deftly curated show demonstrates the challenges of lining up a congruous narrative for a post-colonial society’s roller-coaster through modernity and Modernism, while providing a glimpse into the complex nature of creativity and survival for most of its artists. Future examinations should be devoted to the contributions of the Bengal School, as well as overlooked practices in the diaspora, and India’s relationship with the subcontinent. Our understanding will be all the richer for it.

The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India continues at the Asia Society Museum (725 Park Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 20, 2019.

Go to Hyperallergic.com for the original here.