Editor's Pick

30 November 2020
courtesy Chemould Prescott Road
courtesy Chemould Prescott Road

ON 15 DECEMBER 1947, the artists FN Souza, MF Husain, SH Raza, HA Gade, KH Ara and SK Bakre established the Progressive Artists’ Group in Bombay. The collective’s name was inspired by that of the Progressive Writers’ Association, which had been founded in the 1930s. The Progressive writer Mulk Raj Anand—seen here with Husain, Ara and Bakre, as well as critics and patrons, at the Bombay Art Society—inaugurated the PAG’s first exhibition and called its founders “heralds of a new dawn in the world of Indian art.” Much like their writer counterparts, the PAG celebrated a vision for modernity that removed itself from Orientalist traditions of art-making, such as the Bengal School.

In the catalogue for the PAG’s first exhibition, held at the Bombay Art Society’s salon in 1949, Souza made clear that the group had “no pretensions of making vapid revivals of any school or movement in art” and was committed to painting with “absolute freedom for content and techniques almost anarchic; save that we are governed by one or two sound elemental and eternal laws, of aesthetic order, plastic coordination and colour composition.” The Progressives adopted a cosmopolitan approach that drew on influences ranging from western modernists such as Paul Cézanne and Georges Rouault to seventeenth-century Mughal and Pahari miniatures to ancient sculptures from the Gupta period, working towards what Souza called “a vigorous synthesis.” They combined Hindu and Jain imagery with Muslim art traditions to highlight the syncretic pluralism of independent India.

The PAG lost impetus once Souza, Bakre and Raza had migrated to Europe by 1951. It ceased to exist as a cohesive group around 1956, and its members began focussing on their individual practice. Over the years, its legacy has been carried forward by artists such as Akbar Padamsee, Tyeb Mehta, Krishen Khanna, VS Gaitonde, Mohan Samant and Bhanu Rajopadhye—the only woman associated with the PAG.