Recontextualizing Modern Art for a New India 

V. S. Gaitonde. From Village to the City, 1948. Gouache on paper. 24 7/8 x W. 21 in. (63.3 x 53.3 cm). Piramal Museum of Art, Mumbai. Courtesy of the lender.
F. N. Souza. Self Portrait, 1949. Oil on board. H. 71 x W. 35 1/2 in. (180.3 x 90.2 cm). Aicon Gallery. Courtesy of the lender.
S. H. Raza. Church at Meulan, 1956. Oil on board. H. 36 x W. 28 1/2 in. (91.4 x 72.4 cm). The Darashaw Collection. Courtesy of the lender.
F. N. Souza. Mithuna (Lovers), 1949. Oil on board. H. 31 x W. 31 in. (78.7 x 78.7 cm). Gulrajaney Family Collection. ©2003 Christie’s Images Limited.
M. F. Husain. Untitled, 1940s. Oil on canvas. H. 38 x W. 34 3/4 in. (96.5 x 88.3 cm). Pundole Family Collection. Courtesy of the lender.
Krishen Khanna. News of Gandhiji’s Death, 1948. Oil on canvas. H. 33 1/2 x W. 33 1/2 in. (85.1 x 85.1 cm). Radhika Chopra and Rajan Anandan.

Tyeb Mehta. Diagonal Series, ca. 1970. Oil on canvas. H. 59 x W. 47 1/4 in. (149.9 x 120 cm). Angeli and Vish Sowani. Courtesy of the lender.
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Currently on view at the Asia Society Museum New York, is the hallmark exhibition entitled, “The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India.  Encapsulating a defining period in Indian modern art historical, an exploration of the work of members of the renowned Progressives group, the show revisits a post independent India and the influence it yields on the country today.    

TEXT: Bansie Vasvani
IMAGES: Courtesy of Asia Society Museum New York

V. S. Gaitonde. From Village to the City, 1948. Gouache on paper. 24 7/8 x W. 21 in. (63.3 x 53.3 cm). Piramal Museum of Art, Mumbai. Courtesy of the lender.

 

In the exhibition, “The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India,” at the Asia Society Museum, the super sensual quality of color emerges as a volatile force energising the works.  The “Progressives,” initially comprised of six artists who banded together when India gained independence in 1947, were freed them from the burden of representing prescribed colonial academic realism. This liberated use of color combined with elemental forms would come to define their spirit of protest and strident subversion of convention.

 

F. N. Souza. Self Portrait, 1949. Oil on board. H. 71 x W. 35 1/2 in. (180.3 x 90.2 cm). Aicon Gallery. Courtesy of the lender.

 

For the core group consisting of F.N. Souza, S.H. Raza, M.F. Husain, K.H. Ara, H.A. Gade, and S.K. Bakre who came from different backgrounds and religions the urgency to define a distinctive style for the new nation state was paramount. Influences from European modernism, nativist movements from the Bengal School, and ancient tribal Indian imagery would merge. It would give rise to a new bold methodology that expressed deeply subjective perspectives, which were at once Indian and radical. By 1950, Krishen Khanna, Mohan Samant, and V.S. Gaitonde would join the group, and later Ram Kumar, Akbar Padamsee, and Tyeb Mehta would also come to be associated with them.Displayed for the first time in a major museum, works made by all these artists from the 40s through the 70s establishes the prevalence of a concurrent modernity outside Western discourse that had germinated in the subcontinent. 

 

S. H. Raza. Church at Meulan, 1956. Oil on board. H. 36 x W. 28 1/2 in. (91.4 x 72.4 cm). The Darashaw Collection. Courtesy of the lender.

 

From the very first untitled ca. 1940s group portrait in the exhibition by Raza, which depicts the artist with Souza and Ara, the vibrant use of colors ranging from olive green to yellow ochre and shades of red, orange, and aqua can be seen as something more than just an expression of joy. The thick angular brush strokes of assorted vivid pigments, which define their pensive expressions, stir the viewer. Their palpable earnestness is lit by the exuberance of color, and all three painters seem consumed by their mission. Similarly, Souza’s strikingly bright palette augments his audacious nude “Self Portrait” from 1949. Here too the artist is seen holding a paintbrush as a gesture of his unstoppable pursuit of a new national identity. 

 

F. N. Souza. Mithuna (Lovers), 1949. Oil on board. H. 31 x W. 31 in. (78.7 x 78.7 cm). Gulrajaney Family Collection. ©2003 Christie’s Images Limited.

 

It is this fervor fused with a mythical quality that brings to life paintings like Husain’s untitled 1940s image of a woman looking at her reflection in a mirror, and Souza’s “Mithuna,” (Lovers) 1949.  Removed from the realistic depiction of physical objects, these subjects’ rudimentary forms and gestures effortlessly painted in primary colors touch a core. The works resonate with an essentialism that simultaneously recalls figures from ancient Indian mythology and rural life. Even if urban India had begun to change rapidly, rural life and verdant landscapes appeared in many paintings that romanticized the harmony and beauty of a bygone era. Husain’s notable scenes from village life like “Yatra,” 1955, and Gaitonde’s “From Village to the City,” 1948, are bound with an intensity of hues that vivifies the subjects and conveys a visionary portrayal of nature. 

 

M. F. Husain. Untitled, 1940s. Oil on canvas. H. 38 x W. 34 3/4 in. (96.5 x 88.3 cm). Pundole Family Collection. Courtesy of the lender.

 

By the mid 50s more abstracted primitive forms would cement the psychic quality of the paintings. Khanna’s crude delineation of four village musicians in “Quartet,” 1956, painted in earthy tones of dark brown and white vibrates with their unmitigated passion. And Souza’s voluptuous coffee colored nudes like “Temple Dance,” 1957, and “Standing Nude,” 1957, portray a contemporary mother goddess who looks her audience fearlessly in the eye. These nude robust female forms including Ara’s zaftig femme fatales and Padamsee’s “Nu de Femme,” 1958, celebrate womanhood and female power akin to early Hindu temple sculptures built prior to the 13th century. Embedded in these coarsely defined forms that become much more distorted in Souza’s jarring red “Standing Nude,” 1962, is a new iconoclastic conception of ‘Indian-ness’.

 

Krishen Khanna. News of Gandhiji’s Death, 1948. Oil on canvas. H. 33 1/2 x W. 33 1/2 in. (85.1 x 85.1 cm). Radhika Chopra and Rajan Anandan.

 

Although the group disbanded by 1956 the artists had hit upon a new stride. The reflective intensity of color and form continued to resonate whether it was in the later abstract works of Raza, Gaitonde, Kumar, and Padamsee, or figurative paintings by Souza, Khanna, and Mehta. The dazzling contrast between the bright red sky and the navy blue church in Raza’s “Church at Meulan,” 1956, endures in his later resplendent non-representational geometric and Bindu paintings. While Gaitonde’s palette of greys and browns became much more muted in his untitled abstract oil works from the 60s and 70s, which he referred to as “non-objective” paintings, the intangible metaphysical quality remained. The ruggedness of the tawny emaciated figures highlighted by the royal blue background in Souza’s massive oil composition “Crucifixion,” 1963, conveys his conflict with Catholicism, just as much as Mehta’s diversely colored disjointed diagonal paintings from the 70s express the repercussions of partition in India. 

 


Tyeb Mehta. Diagonal Series, ca. 1970. Oil on canvas. H. 59 x W. 47 1/4 in. (149.9 x 120 cm). Angeli and Vish Sowani. Courtesy of the lender.

 

With no prior tradition, the Progressives and their compatriots found their own language through daring feats of experimentation. The exhibition curated by Zehra Jumabhoy and Boon Hui Tan not only quells the long contentious debate about the derivative aspects of their work, but also does great justice to present the making of a revolutionary art movement in the political context of a newly decolonized country.  

 

 


 

Bansie Vasvani is a curator and art critic with a focus on Asian and other non-Western art practices. She investigates contemporary art that mines issues of cultural identity, politics, immigration, and the commingling of varied cultural influences. Bansie travels frequently to Asia to study, research, and write critically. Currently she is working on showcasing art from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India at several institutions.

Her work has appeared in Hyperallergic, ArtAsiaPacific, Art Review Asia, Artnet news, Art21 Magazine, Brooklyn Rail, Sculpture Magazine, Daily Serving, Aesthetica Magazine, and Modern Art Asia amongst many other publications.

Bansie has a BA in English literature, Bombay University; an MA in English and American Literature, Northeastern University; ABD (all but dissertation) in English and American Literature, CUNY Graduate Center; and an MA in Modern and Contemporary Art History, Christies Education, New York where she earned the Best Student Award.

 

 

 
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