IN 1949, SOON after the formation of independent India, the Indian artist Francis Newton Souza painted a nude self-portrait in which he appears clutching a paintbrush, the instrument of his self-creation. From the cupola kneecaps and lashed sternum to the meaty haunch and mismatched nipples, each closely observed detail reaffirms the confident signature souza posed prominently in capital letters by his flank. While identifying both artist and figure, the signature, in its solidity, contrasts with the material restlessness conveyed by the harlequin patterning of the body and the surrounding space. It is as if the paint is still wet and the effects are still mercurial, or more precisely, as if the artist and his immediate context have just come alive. This work, made at a pivotal historical moment, lends itself readily to metaphor about the risks of the new nation, with disparate peoples, languages, and ethnicities. But the equation between image and national independence is much too easy. This work is about the proprietary claim over knowledge. It speaks to the artist’s mastery of the visual language of modernism, where the painterly qualities of color and form, privileged over the realist aspects of image-making, represent the agency of the artistic act, named and displayed through the image of the artist.
Souza was the co-founder of the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG), the most prominent artist collective to operate after India’s independence in 1947. This period was marked by Partition, or the division of the Indian subcontinent into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. In 1949, after Pakistan established Islamic statehood, India embraced its identity as a modern nation by adopting a secular constitution. Although other modern artist groups were active in the 1950s and ’60s, the PAG has dominated art historical understandings of what constitutes a post-Independence modern aesthetic, and thus inevitably epitomizes the secular within twentieth-century Indian art.
The PAG artists were recently showcased at the Asia Society Museum, New York, in “The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India,” a sumptuous exhibition charting the group’s short life span from 1947 to ’54, and the subsequent trajectories of its members through the 1990s. Curated by scholar Zehra Jumabhoy and Asia Society Museum director Boon Hui Tan, the show was the first North American presentation of the group’s work in three decades. Featuring more than seventy paintings and sculptures (by twelve male artists), including a stunning yet little-known crucifixion scene by Souza, the exhibition highlighted how PAG members created their own mythos as “revolutionary” artists developing the aesthetic for a “new” India. While orchestrating moments of contemplation and aesthetic transport, Jumabhoy and Tan also sought to impress upon visitors how the diverse works on view reveal “the cracks in the idea of India.”1 Yet even as the show provided an opportunity to reflect on the mirage of India’s secular multiculturalism—ratified at Partition if discredited in later years—the presentation equated the works’ aesthetic complexity with a diagnosis of national conditions. This thesis hewed to the common expectation in Euro-American contexts that global modern art histories are first and foremost narratives about nation and identity rather than formal propositions about the processes and practice of art, that they are always practice before theory.
SHORTLY AFTER 1947, Souza and S.H. Raza joined forces with K.H. Ara, M.F. Husain, H.A. Gade, and S.K. Bakre, to establish the Progressive Artists’ Group. They borrowed the term “progressive” from the Progressive Writers Association, a socially and politically attuned organization formed in Bombay prior to Partition.2 Being the “progressives” signaled less a political position than an aspiration for individualism in contrast to visual norms informed by nationalism and guided by a collective consciousness that had been dominant among key visual artists on the subcontinent since the formation of the Bengal School of artists. As Souza wrote in a text published to accompany the PAG’s July 1949 exhibition at the Bombay Art Society: “Today we paint with absolute freedom for content and technique, almost anarchic, save that we are governed by one or two sound elemental laws, of aesthetic order, plastic co-ordination and colour composition.”3
While expressing a trailblazing ethos, Souza’s declaration proposes links between the PAG’s idea of freedom and the formalist values of the universal modern as defined in the avant-garde canon of twentieth-century Western art. The PAG can be regarded as “correctly modernist,” Geeta Kapur argued in her pioneering 1995 essay, “When Was Modernism in Indian Art?,” even as their work reflects a postmodern “return to the real,” with its concern for embodied experience.4
The PAG held a total of three shows, the first in Baroda, Gujarat (February 1949), and two in Bombay (one in July 1949, the other in 1953). In 1949 Souza left for London and built a respected practice before settling in the United States in 1967. There, his art lost traction amid an art world dominated by Pop, Fluxus, Minimalism, and Land art. Raza departed for a stint in Paris in 1950, leaving the group to a second wave of associates that included Tyeb Mehta, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar, V. S. Gaitonde, Akbar Padamsee, Mohan Samant, and Bhanu Rajopadhye (the PAG’s little-known female member, who participated briefly before migrating to the film industry as a set designer). By 1954 the PAG had disbanded.5 The artists were on their way to developing individual styles characterized to varying degrees by figurative distortions, choleric brushstrokes, paint-gashed canvases, fragmented landscapes, transcendental topographies, fields of metastasized tone, and the occasional nod to political developments.
Some Progressives were inspired by the formal strategies of certain canonical Western artists such as Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Francis Bacon, and Mark Rothko. This selective relationship with twentieth-century European and American avant-garde art is key to understanding both their work and the readings of belated influence it tends to provoke among those who are unfamiliar with global art developments. This, in turn, is paralleled by anxieties about refuting the same charges of Western influence. The institutional setting at the Asia Society gave the curators an opportunity to suggest that the PAG, far from merely receiving the lessons of Western art, forced a reexamination of “the nature of American modernism.”6 Indeed, in his role as the founder and principal patron of the Asia Society, John D. Rockefeller III actively promoted PAG artists and awarded fellowships to Raza, Mehta, Gaitonde, Khanna, and Padamsee through the Asian Cultural Program, which allowed them to work in the US in the 1960s and ’70s. This history complicates the received narrative of midcentury artists beyond the West supposedly responding to aesthetic developments in the Western canon by instead affirming that cultural hybridity was central to modernism’s development.
At the same time, “The Progressive Revolution” offered a global view of East-East aesthetic exchange. Wall labels describe the Asian sources that inspired some works by PAG artists: Indian miniature painting and Indian Hindu temple sculpture, Tang dynasty sculpture, and Song dynasty painting from China. The show also included examples of such relevant reference objects, drawn from the Asia Society’s collection. These artworks seem intended to offer a counterweight to a common perception that the PAG artists’ principal references were key figures of the pre-war European and postwar American avant-garde. As Yashodhara Dalmia, a prominent art historian and a contributor to the catalogue, writes:
The common thread that united these post-Independence artworks and differentiated them from practices elsewhere was the self-conscious construction of modernism. . . . A contentious issue, however, modernism in India could not be considered a mere implant from the West, since it was considerably rooted within the country’s own artworld.7
However, this kind of commentary exposes a self-racialized archaism about free will, personal agency, and intellectual property. It is as if, in order to avoid being judged as unoriginal, the PAG sources of inspiration had to be cast as unquestionably Indian (but not so Indian as to be folksy) or adequately Asian (but not so Asian as to suggest regional revisionism). As the curators argue, PAG artists’ regard for various Asian artistic traditions makes “a case for a plural nation, providing a visual counterpoint to Nehru’s plea for ‘unity in diversity.’”8 When viewed within a Western institution, however, this soft multiculturalism, while attuned to the national mythology of Nehru’s new India, also seems to conjure a vaguely exotic realm, obscuring the nuanced aspirations of the artists themselves.
WITH RAZA DRIVING the argument, the small opening gallery briefly touched upon the idea of painting as an evolving politics of aesthetic choices. Five works by Raza dating from the 1950s to the 1980s showcased his use of color and the orb form. The selection traced Raza’s career-long interest in the dynamic between clarity and the gnomic. Painted in France, Haut de Cagnes (1951) pictures a moat of depthless gold studded with structures: a delicate medieval cantonment, a maquette-like house limned by azure, and one array of buildings pinioned into an angular V arrangement, implying pressure from the dark moon billowing above. This small satellite anticipates the large inky blob amid messy color swatches in La Terre (1973), as well as the weighty authority of the sanguine circle at the dead center of Bindu (ca. 1980s), one among many works dominated by the circle that Raza began making in the 1970s. Bindu is titled after the Sanskrit word for ‘dot,’ which has many meanings. With Raza, the bindu summons references to an indelible point, a black hole, a devotional or marital signifier, a diacritical notation, and a megalomaniacal portal that can swallow things whole. Given his study of aspects of Zen philosophy and Sufi mysticism, it is likely that the painting also alludes to questions of mental concentration and physical boundary. The orbs that appear in Raza’s paintings clearly reflect an array of sometimes cryptic interests. Yet at the Asia Society, this richness was compressed, as Raza’s work was paired with a late seventeenth-century Rajasthani miniature gouache, Krishna and Balarama in Pursuit of the Demon Shankashura, that features a small white moon as an organizing compositional element. While asserting cultural kinship with the miniature, the display also seemed to limit the visual and conceptual breadth of Raza’s practice. Indeed, the classical art presented as an anchor for his aesthetic clashed with the surface distress of the roguish Church at Meulan (1956), which features a bruise-black facade and a gullet-red sky, and introduces a carnal inflection to Raza’s cabalistic aesthetic.
India-centric commentary certainly adds a fillip to some works in the exhibition. Khanna’s choreography of engrossed newspaper readers in News of Gandhiji’s Death (1948), Ara’s swaying chorus of abjection in Untitled (Beggars), 1940s, Husain’s atavistic scene of rural flight in Yatra (1955), and the wooden quartet of suited young men in Kumar’s Unemployed Graduates (1956) establish clear connections with the period’s sociopolitical developments. However, most of the works on display do not reflect an overt national consciousness, despite the exhibition’s insistence. This contradiction pinpoints the tendency in exhibitions of global art to want to theatricalize the conditions and histories of anonymous masses from afar. All this only simplifies the PAG’s seductions, whose guiding principle is often the right to remain expressive yet opaque.
Visual eloquence and the need to maintain privacy around artistic ideas galvanized some PAG members to develop distinctive formal conceits. Souza, for instance, expressed both body and face as corporeal excesses with a caustic edge. In his formulation, personality and sensitivity are eliminated to leave the body and face alone, exorcised of lineaments suggestive of soul or psyche. The nail-spiked neck of the reclining female body in his black-and-red Pregnant Nude (1954), and the charred, heavy-going Untitled (Flagellation of Christ), 1965, resonate with the interpolation of violence and inarticulate madness embodied in the torn gnashing mouth of Standing Nude (1962), and the blood spurts viscerally cast as rope in Crucifixion (1963)—the latter, a “lost” painting unearthed since its last known appearance in a 1964 London solo.
Complicating the reading of Souza’s work in relation to Indian independence, art historian Catherine Jolivette has convincingly formulated a specifically British imaginary for the artist’s intense expressions of subject matter. She argues that by the mid-1950s, his unrelenting compact with images of derangement, biological and zoological mutation, corruption, cruelty, and corporeal frenzy were fueled by Cold War paranoia and an outpouring of anger against nuclear culture.9 “Today my art rings with an apocalyptic message,” Souza said in a 1963 interview with the Illustrated Weekly of India, “with holocaust, thalidomide and the vision that man’s own inventive evil may transform him into a monster.”10 Scholars have also linked his Christian eschatological imagery, such as the Flagellation of Christ and the Crucifixion, to disaffection with his rigid Catholic upbringing in Goa. The Asia Society show adopted this line as well—though, remarkably, it also likened his calmer nude female forms, such as Temple Dancer (1957), to a Hindu temple sculpture displayed alongside the painting, as if reiterating the Indian in him.
Identity is more fluid than the exhibition seemed to suggest. Such attempts to Indianize Souza’s works from the 1950s and ’60s contradict the artist’s right to determine his own identity in Britain. This tension is, of course, central to many strands of postcolonial thought. Disputing the idea of Négritude, a seminal identity theory of African modernism calling for a Pan-African racial identity rooted in the emic affirmation of being black or of African heritage and culture, Nigerian novelist Wole Soyinka famously asserted at a writers’ conference in Kampala, Uganda, that “the tiger does not go about proclaiming its tigritude.”11 By that token, one might argue that the Indian artist has no need to assert Indianness, or that of his sources, whether social, political, or aesthetic.
The cultural stamp of later PAG joiner Krishen Khanna is firmly existential. Khanna was an exegete of specialized and passing phenomena, concentrating on itinerant laborers, street musicians, gamblers, and medical/forensic practitioners, as well as the construct of the body itself as a philosophical container. Not included in the show, his “Truck” series of the 1970s and ’80s forges a cagey visual effect. Browns and leaden creams are used to depict lorries containing huddled figures retreating from the picture plane. The oblique angle of these vehicles subtly conveys the vantage of a motionless observer, ineffectively watching passing scenes of economic precarity. That same viewer seems to be denied ingress by the enclosed human composition in The Anatomy Lesson (1972), displayed in the show. Here, multiple iterations of a pasty mechanism of partial features are shown set on monolithic boulder-like bodies. Each body is absorbed in its task, yet forms part of an inward-looking huddle, with the whole arrangement garrisoned against visual intervention. Likewise the card-playing consortium in The Game I (early 1980s), stressing the right to masonic secrecy. Whether this is an artist joke about how little he will allow representation to reveal, an expression of defeatism about interpretation, or a quiet comment on Cézanne’s “Card Players” series (1894–95), we don’t know who we are looking at, where they are, how long they have been there. Khanna’s windows onto socially recognizable acts are always stubborn about never giving away the game.
IT WAS NOT clear how the work of Padamsee, Kumar, and Gaitonde fit in an exhibition that foregrounded sociopolitical context and national identity. Each artist started as a figurative painter before adopting some form of abstraction. Padamsee was a painter of pensive, placeless bodies, mainly nudes, occasionally pressed monumentally into landscapes. For an interim period in the late 1960s, he devoted his time to grayscale and monochrome paintings, before developing a mode of landscape he called the Metascape. Produced from the late 1970s on, the Metascapes shimmer with primary colors distributed across forms resembling hills, valleys, the moon, or the sun, set off against brown plateaus and expanses of black-brown sky and horizon.
Metascape (1977) was made the year the twenty-one-month-long Emergency (1975–77) ended. During this period, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, daughter of the previous prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, assumed the power to rule by decree. She curbed civil liberties, suspended elections, imprisoned dissidents, censored the press, and gave free rein to her son Sanjay Gandhi to spearhead a mass sterilization campaign—all this in an ostensibly democratic republic. Padamsee’s semiabstract work, made at a controversial juncture in Indian history, elicits more than one reading within the context of the exhibition. On the one hand, the painting reads as escape from censure. (The potential consequences of running afoul of authorities were made clear to Padamsee in 1954 when he was charged for exhibiting a painting from his two-part “Lovers” series. The image, which shows a nude male resting his hand on the breast of his female companion, was displayed in “The Progressive Revolution.”) But, on the other hand, Metascape could also be read as a desire for control over vision and imagination.
Kumar and Gaitonde might fall prey to similar charges of looking away from thorny realities. Their works stand out among those of their PAG peers as the most striking examples of secular art, even as they complicate that term. From 1952 to ’62, Kumar devoted attention to the social malaise of semi-industrialized Indian cities and its toll on aspiring youth, whom he depicted as spindly figures with desolate eyes. This practice gave way to depictions of building and landscape exclusively. Beginning in 1962, his works were inspired by the decrepit yet sublime tiers of compressed embankment architecture in the holy city of Benares (Varanasi) on the River Ganges, where many observant Hindus cremate their dead. Forms that appear to be collapsing and disintegrating nonetheless structure his compositions, with various planes flattened against each other in fragile union. In Benares (1964), angular buildings, a loose Lego world suspended in luminous bodies of color, evoke mineral-rich pools pierced by shafts of light.
Are such stimulated abstractions religious? If so, what religiousness do they convey? Do they distill some mainstream fantasy of the neutral Indian secular, where the shrine, the temple, and the crematorium on the banks of one of India’s holiest terminus for religious Hindus appear to have devolved to pure form, that Platonic and digestible non-Western modern? Or are we looking at a visual equivalent of the gentle, inclusionary Hinduism that passes for secular universalism in India and is palatable abroad, even as it remains naive about religious chauvinism? While keyed to the fractures within a totalizing narrative of Western modernism, the curators avoided addressing head-on the similarly totalizing ideology of Hindu nationalism as the unarticulated backdrop for the PAG.
This show came at a time when area studies are becoming increasingly uninterested in imparting basic cultural histories to Western audiences. It also coincided with a definitive impasse in studies of Euro-American modernism, which many believe no longer remains a rich area of research. In short, organized more than fifteen years after the millennial re-publication of Kapur’s seminal exegesis on modernism in India, the exhibition reflected the belatedness of Western museology in addressing critical questions about global art that are old hat in their original contexts.
To a greater degree than any other PAG artist, Gaitonde seems to defy topical readings. His mature optical works from the 1960s onward, transform the canvas into an intangible surface. In Untitled (1975), a large oil with butter-yellow margins and a round-cornered rectangle containing the appearance of exploded yellow-and-black quartz, is an example where pressed, scraped, and painted pigment proffers a visual experience akin to polyphony. Yet even Gaitonde’s art was yoked into a rigid interpretative framework at the Asia Society. Untitled (1962), a chalky, spectral expanse interrupted by two blue-toned struts caught in the torn gauze of dry black brushstrokes, was presented in the company of Bird on a Snow-Covered Plum Branch, an ink scroll by Saian, a Japanese artist active in the sixteenth-century Muromachi period. The effect, consequently, is having to read Gaitonde’s blue struts as a bird in a tree amid a snowy landscape.
In the catalogue for his 2015 Guggenheim retrospective, the first for an Indian artist at the museum, Gaitonde was characterized as “non-objective.” The curators of that exhibition drew parallels with American abstractionists, including Mark Rothko, whom Gaitonde met as a Rockefeller award grantee in 1965. In contrast, the Asia Society show casts him as not nonobjective for having conjoined “the formal properties of landscape painting to politically loaded notions of territory.”12
WHERE AND WHAT is the political load? What politics are at stake and whose is the territory being referenced, and by whom? Is it mental, political, fantastical, emotive, or sacred? From the beginning, M.F. Husain, the PAG’s market superstar, expressed a sustained interest in “territory,” though he also proved that it was possible to depict the Indian landscape without taking on the neocolonial realities that shaped it. His canvas Yatra (1955), the title of which means “journey,” depicts a primate protagonist in a bullock cart with a woman and a child. The work riffs on an episode from the Hindu epic Ramayana. In the narrative, the monkey warrior king goes to the Himalaya range in search of the herb Sanjeevani, which can save the life of a godly warrior mortally wounded on the battlefield. Unable to identify the herb, he decamps with the mountain. He extracts an entire ecology from its natural surroundings in order to transfer its medicinal properties to an elite constituency.
With Husain, the source becomes a benign, if allusive, trope of rural migration catalyzed by Nehru’s infrastructure projects that will benefit urban populations. “If you are to suffer, you should suffer in the interest of the country.” Nehru’s expression of nationalist solipsism, addressed to villagers in the eastern state of Odisha in 1948, prefaced their displacement by the Hirakud dam. India’s oldest and the world’s longest earthen dam, the Hirakud set a precedent for pharaonic structures erected across India’s rivers in the name of the public good. These projects submerged villages populated by Indigenous people, the Adivasis, with their sacred ecologies and territorial histories tied to the water and forest. Likewise, with the sacred mountain now removed, Husain’s village folk must also move for the greater good. Hence, perhaps, the apt synthesis of a delicate collage patchiness, erasures wrought by the palette knife, and figural hints of articulated wooden toys.
A year before he completed Yatra, Husain made Village Woman (1954), a frieze-like band of female figures depicted weaving, sieving, milling, and pounding. The throbbing whole of the proverbial village is pressed into this frame: the loom, the field, the courtyard, chilies, and milled grain. Playing in their midst, the figure of a female child expresses a rare awareness—for the PAG—of how gender construction delimits sociality and aspiration. Evoking the hybrid facture of block print technology and hand-scratched line, where line and contour sometimes fail to meet or color escapes line, these figures of labor and collaboration are in fact just patches of limpid yellow paint caught in a burgundy background. Marking the year of his inclusion at the 1955 Venice Biennale, the work bears Husain’s watermark: the use of flat, graphic cutout forms in motion as catchall icons for human possibility.
Similar forms animate Husain’s beloved equestrian subjects. They also structure his flattened portrayals of Indira Gandhi. Most notoriously, Husain’s flat figures stirred controversy when he used them to represent nude Hindu deities. Right-wing Hindu political extremists took umbrage, and drove the artist out of India to die abroad. His offense: a Muslim who dared to make aesthetic sport of inviolate Hindu truth.
It is important to note that Husain’s secularism was always thin. Infused with Hindu myth, his work also paid lip service to an insidious implication. Unlike the clarity of a single prophet, a single saviour’s teachings, or a single scripture, pantheistic Hinduism is conveniently described in more abstract terms, as the air you breathe, as an existential episteme, hence inherently secular. That logic alone reverberates the structural insularity of European modernism, its being form makes everything else content.
Still, injustices done to Husain are a blip in the fractious realities affecting the lives of Muslims, Christians, Dalits, and Adivasis within an extreme Hindu-minded India. Creating a platform at Asia Society for Husain’s story, among others, illuminates no more about the cracks in the idea of India than news reports in the international press. Politicizing the PAG might be a valid goal. However, their output does not suggest that they set out to be documentarians. Retrofitting their work with this impulse obscures their achievements, the uneven degrees of sophistication across their work, and how they maneuvered past the social and political implications of figure and landscape.
Specifically, the PAG’s work is mostly silent on matters of gender, caste, and environmental turmoil. The PAG members were dreamers of other worlds, and dreamers have blind spots. Husain’s thirty-year hagiographic project of depicting Indira Gandhi gives no hint of her actions during the Emergency. Padamsee started painting his Metascapes not long after peasant women near Mandal village in the Himalayan Alaknanda Valley, Uttarakhand, north India, launched the Chipko Andolan (tree-hugging movement), which would become a seminal environmental campaign to prevent logging, one that shone a light on the relationship between landscape, environmental activism, and women’s power in India.
THE ENIGMA and play of Samant’s unclassifiable Midnight Fishing Party (1974) goes a long way to reinforce that the group’s view was indeed kaleidoscopic, if also narrow. The exuberance of this larger than life-size assemblage is established in part by bits of folded, painted, and pressed paper forms containing melting configurations of fishers, poles, and rapacious fish clinging to bait amid repartee and fun. Attached to a brilliant ultramarine background, these forms, compacted into polychromatic isles, lend the impression of being afloat on an unlikely sea. Samant set an ideological tone beyond painting. His mixing media evoked sonic equivalents out of texture, symmetry out of concatenation, and interactivity out of interpretative openness. This work crosses optical recollection—of shadow puppetry, pentimenti, hinged toys, murals, cave painting, and baroque architectural statuary—with precepts of taste, smell, and musicality.
Its oddball presence provided real grounds for exploring narratives of desire and private feeling, emphasizing why this truly moving assembly in 2018 of the Progressives mattered. Beyond acknowledging a project of modernism that existed long before its rebranding as global art, the exhibition, through its missteps, also revealed that the PAG was only one kind of modern thinking among others.
In the end, the PAG constituted a doomed hopefulness, arguably analogous to the modernity that they equated with freedom. In tracing the long history of this aspiration in India, historian Partha Chatterjee mentions a verbal skirmish in which an Indian berates an English scholar for interrupting an ongoing meeting and obstructing freedom of speech. The occasion is an 1843 gathering of the Society for the Acquisition of General Knowledge, founded by Indian youth in Calcutta in 1838. The rise of the Indian national movement is decades away. That brown and white would never be considered equal is not foreseen. Chatterjee describes the Society’s members as “genuinely wanting to believe that in the new public domain of free discourse there were no bars of colour or of the political status of one’s nationality, that if one could produce proof of one’s competence in the subjects under discussion one could have an unrestricted right to voice one’s opinion.”13 The PAG’s mandate, formalist at its inception, similarly naive in assuming that its discourse was free, evolved into an ode to phenomenology and to objects of interior knowledge. What the Progressives appear to have sought above all was to be noticed and heard for something other and more than nation.