In 1947, when a newly independent India was still finding its feet, in Mumbai, a band of six artists — MF Husain, SH Raza, FN Souza, KH Ara, HA Gade and SK Bakre — were attempting to develop an artistic vocabulary for a young nation. Belonging to different backgrounds and religions, their pursuit to establish a distinct language for Indian art unified them under the umbrella of the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG).
To mark their 75th anniversary, an exhibition at Triveni Kala Sangam in Delhi is celebrating their oeuvre and contributions. Titled “Luminous Legacy” the showcase, which is up till July 10, organised by the Progressive Art Gallery and The Raza Foundation, features works by each of them. “The PAG had a plural vision of art: it accommodated different styles, idioms, art practice and aesthetic approaches. At the time of Partition, when there were communal tensions and the very idea of India was in jeopardy, the group had two Muslims, one Christian and three Hindus come together to project a dream of Indian modernity. No other group, in music, theatre or otherwise, did that… The group sought to bring together modernism – open and vulnerable; modernism which would imbibe other influences and yet seek an indigenous poetics,” says Ashok Vajpeyi, managing trustee, The Raza Foundation.
While the group itself expanded over the years to include more members, each artist nurtured their artistic inclination and left an indomitable imprint on Indian art. “Despite dramatic differences in their social backgrounds and temperament, they were building on this climate of thought to create a secular and “free” India,” writes art historian Geeti Sen in a note on the exhibition.
With works spanning decades, the exhibition has art by each artist accompanied by a note. In a quote by SH Raza, he shares how “this effervescence around the Progressive Artists resulted in a true renewal of thinking, of our thinking about India”. In his works, we see his constantly evolving style, from early works inspired by the forests of Madhya Pradesh, where he spent his childhood as the son of a forest officer in Mandla, to French skyscapes that mesmerized him when he travelled to Paris on a French government scholarship in the early 1950s.
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If Bakre notes how he paints as he likes, Husain’s vision, Sen notes, was vast. She writes: “For him there was no conflict in that he described as India’s unique composite culture.” If one work introduces the audience to his horses, another has a silhouette of Mother Teresa.
Several of these artists were also influenced by the nationalist movement and ideals of the leaders who were at its forefront. While Raza often expressed his admiration for Mahatma Gandhi, Sen reminds us how Ara was part of the 1930 Salt Satyagraha. The “enfant terrible” of the group, representing Souza are a set of works that include the 1964 Hampstead Terraces with geometrical cityscapes and a 1956 portrait in his trademark style.
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Also telling the story of the artists are photographs and letters placed in glass cases — much like the artworks, these reflect their lives as also the surroundings they inhabited.