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Asia Society's PAG SHOW

In its recent exhibition, Asia Society, New York, has valorised India’s Progressives, whose passion for precision birthed a new generation of seeing, thinking and creating powerful art

The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India opened on September 14, 2018, at Asia Society, New York. This epic exhibition examines the founding ideology of the Progressives and explores ways in which artists from different social, cultural and religious backgrounds found common cause at a time of massive political and social upheaval. Midnight on August 15, 1947, when India's tryst with destiny began – out of a period of sociopolitical upheaval arose a new mapping for art in the birth of the Progressives Artists' Group.

An elegy of midnight to modernism, the exhibition comprises important works from the Group's core founders – K H Ara, S K Bakre, H A Gade, M F Husain, S H Raza, and F N Souza – as well as later members and those closely affiliated with the movement: V S Gaitonde, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee, and Mohan Samant. The exhibition has been split into three parts: 'Progressives in Their Time', 'National/International' and 'Masters of the Game'. The exhibition is co-curated by South Asian art historian Zehra Jumabhoy – based on her doctoral research on Indian art and national identity – and Boon Hui Tan, Director of Asia Society Museum.

Partition: An impetus

In an interview to me in 2005, Tyeb Mehta recalled 1947 in Bombay, "Partition brought with it varied experiences and hopes for us, our desire was to create a new indigenous language. I think we were connected by the collective effort, we had a certain solidarity. Partition was like a cusp, a catalyst, but we had nothing to fall back on, because there was no modern Indian art, we learnt by sharing and talking to each other. I was a friend of the PAG, we wanted to present modernity in a post-colonial, secular form, but we didn't know where to begin. There was no money, no patrons, only a desire to begin anew. "

Progressives

"This exhibition – primarily oil paintings from the 1940s to 1960s – underscores how these artists gave visual form to the idea of India as secular, heterogeneous, international and united," states Director Boon Hui Tan, Director of Asia Society Museum.

The Progressive Artists' Group was one of the most important artists' collectives that came together as India gained Independence and underwent Partition. In the work of its members, expressive practices, attitudes, identities and vocabularies opened up to diverse influences, both regional and international. This show becomes seminal because the Indian contemporary art market hinges on vintage creations by India's Modernists.

Tyeb's Mahishasura

The piece de resistance is Tyeb Mehta's Mahishasura that rocked the art world at Christie's, New York. Heavily inspired by ancient mythology and Indian literature, Tyeb's 1997 Mahishasura fuses ancient imagery with simplicity of form, colour and line, resulting in a powerfully modern million dollar work vibrant with vitality. Tyeb's Mahishasura also referenced the flat planes of Francis Bacon, along with his own understanding of minimalism, abstraction

and cubism.

Souza: Untitled 1962; Christ on a cross, 1944

Founding member Souza's large Untitled Head presents his ingenuity and skill. Bold, sinewy lines flow freely alongside areas of staid, hatched delineation. He combined Eucharist elements as in the chalice at the bottom of the head, woven into the rough hewn features. Souza's Mithuna, 1949 which was exhibited at the first Progressive show in 1949, becomes seminal in historicity.

Souza's words in a London catalogue are an apt reflection. "I started using more than two eyes, numerous eyes and fingers on my paintings and drawings of human figures when I realised what it meant to have the superfluous and not need the necessary. Why should I be sparse and parsimonious when not only this world, but worlds in space are open to me? I have everything to use at my disposal." Another equally spectacular work is his Christ on a Cross, 1944 – a work that is decidedly charming and playful with candid contours – a quasi-realist representation with full features.

Husain: Peasant Couple, 1950; Jhoola, 1961

Among the highlights of the exhibition are Husain's 1955 painting Yatra, which brings together the artist's interest in rural India, mythology, pre-modern sculpture and traditional handicrafts, executed in an earthen palette. Husain's evocatively elegant Jhoola, 1961, reflects early days and love for rural rhythms. Husain was inventive in conception and divided cubist elements on his canvas – his design dynamics was brilliant if not ingenious.

Krishen Khanna: News of Gandhiji's Death,1948

Krishen Khanna's iconic work of people reading the newspaper – on the news of Gandhiji's death in 1948, is an expressionist rendition. "My painting was done as a tribute to the Mahatma," says Krishen. "In 1948, this painting was exhibited at the Bombay Art Society's Golden Jubilee Exhibition. My friend Palsikar insisted it be shown and hung it amongst the Progressives works. It was a catalyst for my long association with them. In this work, you see Indian citizens united in shock. If you look carefully, there are differences in clothing, class and gender, it is a secular statement – you can see Muslim, Hindu and Sikh figures reading the news under a street light, surrounded by darkness. None of the figures look at one another, they erect a series of barriers between them in the newspapers they hold up," adds Krishen, who just celebrated his 93rd birthday last month and was a close friend to the Progressives.

Sayed Haider Raza: Haut de Cagnes, 1951

Sayed Haider Raza's presence is seen with two stellar works, Haut de Cagnes, 1951 and Church at Meulan, 1956. The latter is an early landscape – houses are geometrically arranged to create a pattern of colour and forms. "In those early years in Paris, I painted uninhabited cities with cubist contours," said Raza of this work.

Raza's abstract work Church at Meulan, 1956, demonstrates his reverence for symbolic landscapes. The same year Church at Meulan was painted, Raza was awarded the prestigious Prix de La Critique in Paris.

Gaitonde's articulation

V S Gaitonde's early portrait of Oscar winner Bhanu Athaiya, a 1952 canvas, reflects the confluence in its stylised figuration, a spare but confident palette and lyrical line. Then there is Gaitonde's Untitled Canvas of 1953. Colour fields touched by buttercup yellow and ochre, landscape elements like houses even a sparse tree done in a minimalist mode. His works in later years would be akin to a painted prayer, the evocation of light balancing the compositional weight of the canvas through subtle balancing. "The painter is at the controls, he decides when the painting has arrived at its capacity to articulate. Like music, I know when it is at an end," Gaitonde said in 1975 to Pria Karunakar.

The exhibition has been organised by Zehra Jumabhoy, guest curator, and Boon Hui Tan, Director of Asia Society Museum.

Uma Nair

Uma Nair

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