Brushed Away

The sudden disintegration of an all-star art movement

01 April, 2016

The artist Jeram Patel died, at the age of 86, on 18 January. Many newspapers paid homage to him. He was remembered as a pioneer of abstract art in India, and for his contributions to the modern art scene in the 1950s and 1960s. Almost every article mentioned the technique he made famous—blowtorch on woodwork—in which artists burn patterns onto wood with a flame. But another aspect of his life was never brought up: that Patel might have partly caused the disbandment of a high-profile art movement that challenged the dominant trends in Indian art.

The movement was called Group 1890. It arrived with much fanfare in the 1960s, and disappeared within a few years almost unnoticed. A brainchild of the famous painter Jagdish Swaminathan, it boasted a line-up of nearly a dozen highly accomplished artists, including Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh, Raghav Kaneria, Jyoti Bhatt, Ambadas Khobragade and Patel. Group 1890 was meant to be a rebellion against the two leading movements of the time: the Bombay Progressives, who were heavily influenced by European modern art, and the Bengal School, which drew on traditional Indian aesthetics. The movement did not advocate a specific aesthetic or style, and its works varied greatly from one another. The writer and poet Octavio Paz, who was Mexico’s ambassador in India at the time, endorsed the group’s ideas. When they held their first exhibition, in October 1963, the then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, attended its inauguration. But this first exhibition also turned out to be the group’s last. According to many of the movement’s former members, Patel was to blame.

In late February, I met the painter Rajesh Mehra, one of the group’s founders, at his two-room flat in Delhi’s Sarita Vihar area. We sat inside a dimly lit room with unpainted walls, and paintings and frames lay everywhere, many of them showing Mehra’s signature distorted landscapes. “This is a painting from the exhibition itself,” he said, pointing to a Group 1890 painting. “Such a long time ago now.”

Mehra traced the beginnings of Group 1890 back to 1960 in Delhi, in many conversations between Swaminathan, Ambadas and himself. “Octavio sat in on a number of our discussions,” he said. “He and Swami were close.” Though Paz was sceptical at first, he added, “he did finally back us fully and even wrote a poem about it some years later.”

In August 1962, Mehra, Swaminathan, Khobragade and nine other young artists met at a house in the city of Bhavnagar, in Gujarat to officially begin the group. They named it after the number of the house—1890. The artists accused the Bombay Progressives and the Bengal School of propagating singular definitions of culture through their narrow prescriptions for aesthetics, and argued that anyone could lay down the culture of a time. Swaminathan, who was also a politician with the Communist Party of India, drafted a manifesto for the group, which they released a few months after the exhibition. “Jagdish was by far the most experienced and the most intellectual of us all,” Mehra said. “I’d be wrong to say it wasn’t his brainchild. He was at the centre of it.”

At the meeting in Bhavnagar, the group decided to hold an exhibition, which went on to open in Delhi. It was a huge success, with buyers from Italy, Mexico and London showing interest in the works. The painter and writer Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh, whom I recently spoke to on the phone, told me that Swaminathan’s work from the time best embodies the spirit of the manifesto.

Group 1890, an art movement that surfaced in the 1960s, included many of India’s most promising artists, such as Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh, Jagdish Swaminathan and Ambadas Khobragade. But the group’s first exhibition also turned out to be its last. KISHORE PAREKH / COURTESY JAGDISH SWAMINATHAN FOUNDATION

After the exhibition, a number of members, including Sheikh and Mehra, left the country to pursue scholarships in Europe. In India, Swaminathan and others tried to keep the movement going. Eric Bowen, another member, arranged for a gallery in Rome to invite the group to put on a show. But this second exhibition never materialised. “Jeram was secretary, and it was his responsibility to look into the interests of the group,” Mehra said. “He projected his personal interests ahead of the group.”

Mehra showed me a three-page letter addressed to Sheikh, dated 1964, signed by Swaminathan, Mehra and Khobragade, which barely stops short of blaming Patel for the undoing of the group. It read,“With you”—Sheikh—“and Bowen abroad, and with the possibility of Kaneria, Jyoti, Rajesh and Ambadas going abroad soon, Jeram will be left to do with the group as he likes. This will not do. What has unfolded with the founding of the group cannot be left at the mercy of an ego-centric individual.”

After the group’s exhibition, Mehra told me, the group missed out on a number of opportunities because Patel showed no interest in them. A few months after the show, George Butcher, a famous art critic for the British newspaper The Guardian, arrived in India to pick the country’s best works for a London exhibition of art from the Commonwealth. He was especially interested, Mehra said, in Group 1890’s work. But according to Mehra, and the letter to Sheikh, Patel dropped the ball. “Jeram feels that the group be better kept in the background,” read the letter. “He did not take any initiative in introducing the group to Butcher when he came here, though Butcher himself was tremendously impressed by the work of the members of the group.”

The group was also struggling financially, Mehra said, and Patel, as the secretary, never took care of official matters. Mehra added that he used his personal money to pay some of the group’s bills, because “Jeram just wouldn’t take up the responsibility.”

Sheikh returned from London in 1966. In the summer of 1967, several members of the group met in the city of Baroda with the intention of reviving the movement. But the presence of some new faces at the meeting became a bone of contention. Mehra told me that the art critic Geeta Kapur and the painter Bhupen Khakhar showed up, “and they weren’t even members.” He recounted that some of the older members proposed that new artists be included in the group. “The name of Bhupen was suggested,” Mehra said, adding that he feared that the inclusion of Khakhar, already part of another modernist group known as the Baroda School, would change the character of the movement. “It would have become the Baroda School rather than Group 1890,” he said. “So I objected.”

No consensus on the induction of new members was reached at the meeting, and the attempt at revival turned out to be a damp squib. “We had lost the old spirit. There was not the same energy left in us,” Sheikh said. “It was time for a new movement, and so we decided that the group be disbanded.”

Sheikh said that he does not remember reading the letter, but admitted that such sentiments had been passed on to him by Mehra. “I won’t deny that when I suggested Bhupen’s name, people could have seen it as the Baroda group coming together,” he said, but he pointed out that there were six members from Baroda alone even in the original line-up. “So why was there no problem at the start?”

After the disintegration of the group, the Baroda School truly came into its own, and became synonymous with modern art in India. Many former members of Group 1890, which was soon forgotten, also would primarily be known for their association with the Baroda School.

Towards the end of my interview with Mehra, he said that for the past few months there has been a small spurt of interest in Group 1890—which is why, he told me, he took out the paintings. “They say they will have a Group 1890 exhibition in Delhi,” he said. “But I don’t think anything is going to happen.” In the same breath he went on, “We could have done so much only if we hadn’t come in each other’s way.”