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.”