Shock of the Nude

Shock of the Nude

The Progressive Revolution establishes context and demonstrates the achievements of India’s post-war modernists, argues Pepe Karmel

There are a few good public collections of postwar Indian art in the United States – notably the Chester and Davida Herwitz Collection at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem and the Abby Weed Grey Collection at New York University’s Grey Gallery.  The 2015 exhibition After Midnight, at the Queens Museum, included a small but impressive display of work by members of the Progressive Artists’ Group.   But it seems safe to say that, before the opening of The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India, New Yorkers had never seen so many absolutely first-rate paintings by early members of the group such as Maqbool Fida Husain, Sayed Haider Raza and Francis Newton Souza, together with later recruits and colleagues like Krishnaji Howlaji Ara, Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee and Mohan Samant.  The sheer quality of the pictures on view at the Asia Society made it clear that the work of these artists constitutes an essential chapter in the history of modern art. 

Curated by Zehra Jumabhoy, Associate Lecturer at London’s Courtauld Institute, and Boon Hui Tan, Director of the Asia Society Museum, the exhibition unfolded in three chapters. It was on view at the Asia Society Museum from the 13th of September to the 20th of January. The first section, “Progressives in Their Time,” traced the catalytic role of the Progressive Artists’ Group in the late 1940s, when the artists proposed a national iconography for independent India and insisted that the new national art had to be modernist, not academic, in style.  The second section, “National/International,” focusing on the 1950s and ’60s, followed the parallel evolution of artists such as Kumar, Padamsee, Raza and Souza, who left India to work and study in Europe, and artists like Husain, Gaitonde and Khanna, who absorbed the lessons of European modernism while remaining in India.  A final section, “Masters of the Game,” followed the individual artists’ evolution into the 1970s and after.

The catalogue included illuminating essays by Jumabhoy, Tan, Amal Allana, Faisal Devji, Gayatri Sinha and Yashodhara Dalmia, the leading historian of the Progressives.  Two main themes ran through the catalogue, the wall texts and the public programming accompanying the exhibition.  Despite the references to European modernism in the “National/International” section of the exhibition, the installation and catalogue tacitly revived Okakura Kakuzo’s idea of a Pan-Asian artistic sensibility: Husain’s Sprinting Horses were juxtaposed with a pair of Tang dynasty ceramic horses; an abstraction by Gaitonde with a 16th century Japanese ink painting; a buxom Temple Dancer by Souza with a sculpture of a dancer from 10th century India.  Other texts and lectures presented the Progressives as standard-bearers for secular humanism.  The group included members of different religions, different castes and different genders.  (Jumabhoy’s research has uncovered a talented woman artist, Bhanu Rajopadhye, who participated in the Progressives’ 1953 exhibition before becoming a successful Bollywood costume designer who received an Oscar for the film Gandhi.)  And the artists themselves, whatever their ethnic origins, drew freely on iconography from both Hindu and Christian – but not Muslim – traditions.