They were a motley bunch, impulsive to form and quick to disperse. For the couple of years they were together they held all of 2 exhibitions. Their idealism was more about what they didn't want than what they did collectively. They were not the first modern painters of India, yet they declared themselves the fathers of modernism. Despite talking fervently of evolving an Indian visual language, 3 of the group's 6 moved out as soon as they could and stayed west for decades.
In spite of their erratic ironies, the fire the Bombay Progressive Artists' Group stoked continues to illuminate Indian art more than 6 decades later.
It started in 1947 when FN Souza and SH Raza had their works rejected from the Bombay Art Society's annual salon. They already had much to hate together — the calcified academics at their alma mater, JJ School of Art; the "retrograde" revivalist tendencies of the Bengal School led by Nandalal Bose; the boundaries on the use of form and colour self-imposed by artists of the time. To these wounds was rubbed the salt of the salon snub.
They called in MF Husain, who had made it to the 1947 salon, and KH Ara. HA Gade and SK Bakre, too, were shooed in soon after. Souza borrowed from the name of the Progressive Writers' Association and they were on their way to their show, the first of its kind — organised by artists themselves.
Once formed, what was the group consumed with? Raza, one of the two surviving members (the other is in exile in Qatar), says that only Souza, Husain and he launched into heated artistic discussions. Gade, though a "good thinker", rarely joined in. Ara and Bakre were "naive and primitive". "We kept asking ourselves 'what is art'. And how we should evolve a modern Indian
visual language," says the 89-year-old.
Given that they often didn't agree and their outputs were diverse, what was the common ground? "Significant form," says Raza, invoking critic Clive Bell's view that representation of a thing was less important than capturing its 'significant form', or true nature. The thought influenced some next-generation artists too, Tyeb Mehta and Krishen Khanna among them. But by 1950 the Progressive group itself was defunct.
Why are they important? Yashodhara Dalmia, author of Indian Contemporary Art Post Independence, says, "They made a bid for modernism in a forceful, non-academic way." Gayatri Sinha, author of Art and Visual Culture in India: 1857-2007, says, "Modernism was born with Rabindranath. But the Progressives sought a separation from the past — it was a history-making project."
What's their legacy today? Geeta Kapur, author of When Was Modernism, reckons there's some rub-off on the generation starring Pushpmala N. and Subodh Gupta, artists in their 40s or early 50s — but not beyond. Gupta himself denies any direct influence.
So though some of them went on to dazzle as lone stars, their constellation was a bright blimp, a moment in history. Yamini Kelkar, who helped choose the 250 frames being put up for the coming show from among the 450-odd collected by Delhi Art Gallery's Ashish Anand, says, "It was about a moment — but a moment in a continuum."