My memories of Chetana date back to 1947 but it is just as if it happened yesterday. It was around that time that I entered the art world. Ara, Souza and others had just formed the Bombay Progressive Artists Group; though I had been in Bombay since 1936 I had never met these people.
I joined the group and attended their meetings at Chetana, which was the hub of artistic, literary, creative activities at the time... History should take note of this —Chetana was the nucleus of cultural life not only in Bombay but in India.
Writers, painters, theatre people all beat a path to Chetana. Our group included Ara, Souza, Padamsee, Palsikar and even Alqazi who was a painter before he became more involved in the theatre. Our meetings would involve writers like Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand and Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, senior actors like Balraj Sahni or a socialist leader like Masani.
They were exciting times! Nowadays Bombay has becomes so commercial...
All the JJ School of Art professors and artists in Calcutta — they used to teach realistic painting, like the Royal Academy. We rebelled against this. In those days all the students from JJ School of Art were told not to meet us because we were ‘corrupting Indian art’ and Bharatiya culture.
In 1948 I remember the Bombay Art Society used to hold exhibitions but our paintings were rejected because we were not following either the Royal Academy School or the Bengali School. We used to exhibit our rejected work elsewhere or we would paint posters all night in the street.
Due to the movement we started in 1948, we succeeded in wiping out these more conventional schools of art by 1960. Though back then there were very few buyers for our work, even for 50 or 100 rupees. The first Indian collector to recognize our work was Dr Homi Bhabha who started buying contemporary Indian art for the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.
There was a hue and cry in Parliament as to why the Institute was spending money on art but Pandit Nehru stood up and defended it — saying art and science are very close to each other.
...I have always maintained that without culture, there is no identity of any nation. It is culture which remains.
(As told to Dr Roopen Arya (London, 2006). For Chetana 60th Anniversary Commemorative Volume (2006)— Excerpts from Awakening)