The Progressive Revolution will provide the essential starting point for future discussions of postwar Indian art. Further reflection on the extraordinary paintings, drawings and sculptures in the exhibition will uncover new issues and challenge existing interpretations. A few may be sketched here.
At the Progressive Artists’ Group exhibition, Bombay. 1949. 1st row (left to right): F. N. Souza, K. H. Ara, H. A. Gade.
2nd row (left to right): M. F. Husain, S. K. Bakre, S. H. Raza. Image courtesy of The Raza Archives, The Raza Foundation, New Delhi.
One of the most striking features of the paintings by Souza, Husain, Ara, Khanna and Padamsee is their intense eroticism. Souza’s extraordinary nude self-portrait was declared obscene and forcibly removed from his 1949 exhibition in Bombay. Similarly, Padamsee’s Lovers led to a charge of obscenity when it was exhibited at the Jehangir Art Gallery in 1954, although the artist was acquitted in the subsequent trial. These early episodes of censorship might seem merely quaint if it were not for the subsequent persecution of M.F. Husain on charges of obscenity and blasphemy, which led ultimately to his forced emigration. A wall text in the exhibition noted that Padamsee’s Lovers is in fact a depiction of the divine couple, Lord Shiva and the Goddess Parvati. The juxtaposition of Souza’s Temple Dancer (painted after his emigration to England) with a similarly erotic temple sculpture reinforced the message that sexuality is an integral part of traditional Hinduism, and that it is the present-day fundamentalists, with their exaggerated puritanism, who are perverting religion.
M. F. Husain. Jhoola. Oil on canvas. 51 ½” x 23”. 1961. Courtesy of Sheryl and Chip Kaye.
This may well be true, but the defense of such paintings as examples of Indian tradition runs the risk of obscuring what seems to have been the artists’ very real desire to shock, and in doing so to liberate themselves from what Kobena Mercer has called the “burden of representation.” An early section of the exhibition makes it clear that, at the start of their careers, the future Progressives felt obliged to represent India, typically in terms of village life. It is almost shocking to discover a Gauguinesque watercolor of a Village Scene from Goa painted by Souza in 1946. His obsessive nudes of the 1950s reject the responsibility to be an “Indian” artist in this conventional sense. Instead, they proclaim a right to feel and depict individual desire. In a society of traditional social roles – father and mother, husband and wife, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law – the assertion of personal desire becomes a political statement: an attack on the social system as a whole.
The relation between the Progressive movement and other schools of postwar modernism also demands further investigation. Discussion of this topic has long been bedeviled by the dominance of a North American narrative presenting the progression from Abstract Expressionism to Pop and Minimalism as the only meaningful trajectory in the evolution of postwar art. The disintegration of this monolithic view of postwar art is due, above all, to the recognition that the evolution from geometric abstraction to conceptual art in Latin America constituted an equally valid trajectory, and one that in many cases anticipated developments in North America.
The comparison between postwar art in Latin America and in India poses new critical questions. India and Brazil faced similar economic and social challenges after 1947. Both were large, underdeveloped countries, freed from the yoke of colonialism and eager for industrial development, but weighed down by legacies of social discrimination. Why did Brazilian artists visualize their future in terms of geometric abstraction (a style historically associated with industrialization), while Indian artists chose to idealize their rural past?
S.H. Raza. Church at Meulan. Oil on board. 36” x 28 ½”. 1956. The Darashaw Collection. Courtesy of the lender.
More broadly, where do the Progressives fit into the emerging map of global postwar art? Okwui Enwezor’s pioneering exhibition, Postwar: Art between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-1965 (Munich Haus der Kunst, 2017) included works by Husain, Souza and Avinash Chandra, but South Asia felt underrepresented in comparison to East Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Part of the problem here may be an excessive anxiety of influence on the part of scholars of Indian art. As Jumabhoy writes in her introduction: “Modern Asian art has always been shadowed by the stigma of being derivative: Husain looks like Pablo Picasso; Raza looks like Paul Klee; Gaitonde is just like Mark Rothko,” and so forth.
To avoid this stigma, Jumabhoy and Tan chose to emphasize the Asian sources utilized by the Progressives. It might have been more productive to confront head-on the question of their relationship to European art. Picasso was an important source for Husain – as he was for Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Sadequain. Paul Klee was an equally important resource for countless artists in Africa and the Middle East. Putting into practice the Brazilian model of “anthropophagy,” artists like Husain, Raza, Pollock and de Kooning ingested their European sources and transformed them into new and original kinds of art. In Husain’s Sprinting Horses, the horses’ elongated necks clearly derive from Picasso’s Guernica. However, Husain has turned them into symbols of élan vital instead of terror. The finished painting looks nothing like Picasso. The Progressives worked in intensive dialogue with European art. We will not be able to give them their rightful place in the history of modernism until we reconstruct that dialogue.