UNTIL THE 1940S, art in Bombay was an occasional pleasure for the city’s European and Indian elite, displayed most prominently at an annual exhibition sponsored by the Bombay Arts Society that was more a social event than an artistic initiative. With India’s impending independence offering an opportunity for radical political shifts, the practice of art took a revolutionary turn too. In Bombay, this resulted in a modern art movement led by the Progressive Artists Group, formed in 1947, which rejected prevalent European and Indian traditions to forge distinct styles inspired by classical as well as folk Indian art forms. The movement counted amongst its earliest patrons the city’s Central European Jewish immigrants, who had settled there after fleeing Europe in the early stages of Nazi persecution. Between 1938 and 1940, foreigners like Walter Langhammer, Rudolph von Leyden and Emmanuel Schlesinger came to Bombay with hopes to establish artistic or business ventures, and soon found themselves at the centre of Bombay’s rapidly changing art scene. Langhammer, a former professor of art in Vienna, and von Leyden, an art critic, cartoonist and collector of Mughal-era playing cards called ganjifa, both found work in the art department of the Times of India. Schlesinger, who arrived with a great deal of wealth from his successful hat studio in Austria, started a partnership with an Indian chemist in Bombay, and with the other two Jews began to encourage younger and less privileged Indian artists.
By the early 1940s, Langhammer and von Leyden were organising informal gatherings at the former’s home in Bombay, which gradually became the place where avant-garde Indian artists converged during that era. Langhammer had also opened a studio on Nepean Sea Road that he lent first to SH Raza after meeting him at the Bombay Arts Society exhibition in 1939, and later to a variety of young painters, including but not limited to members of the Progressive Group. As someone who collected a great deal of art, Langhammer used to be on the lookout for high quality frames; this quest took him in the in the mid 1940s, along with the paintings of artists he was mentoring, to Kekoo Gandhy’s shop, Chemould Frames, on Princess Street in south Bombay.