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What the first foreign show of the Progressives says about Indian art now

Curator Zehra Jumabhoy talks about the tradition-shattering group and what led to the exhibition

more lifestyle Updated: Oct 06, 2018 21:06 IST
Sanjukta Sharma
Sanjukta Sharma
Hindustan Times
Mumbai,Modern,Bombay Progressive Artists
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“Our art has evolved over the years of its own volition, out of our own b**#s and brains,” said artist Francis Newton Souza, the enfant terrible of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) that he formed with MF Husain and Sayed Haider Raza in 1947.

Souza was from Goa, then under Portugese rule. These artists, along with VS Gaitonde and Tyeb Mehta, assimilated elements of Mughal miniature, courtly painting, tribal and folk art with Western modernism, to create a style that showed India as a secular, diverse nation.

Souza’s works were exhibited alongside artists such as Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud at All Too Human, a show at Britain’s Tate gallery between February and August this year. But with the show The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India at the Asia Society Museum, New York, Souza’s works are part of the first group show of the Progressives outside India. Around 80 works from the 1940s to the 1990s, from collections around the world, are on display.

An untitled painting by FN Souza

Boon Hui Tan, director of the Asia Society Museum says that “with the global rise of xenophobia and tribalism, the role of museum exhibitions in educating the public about other cultures and the lives of people of different faiths and value systems becomes even more critical”. The works of the PAG articulated a vision of a multicultural, forward-looking India. “The founding members were from Hindu, Muslim and Christian faiths, from varying social classes and castes. This dream of new possibilities for co-existence is even more urgent now and the story of the Progressives is a story for our time.”

Tan’s co-curator Zehra Jumabhoy talked about the legacy of the Progressives and putting this show together. Excerpts:

Tell me how this show began and how you went about putting it together.

The show is based on an aspect of my PhD at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, which was about Indian art and its intersection with nationalism. Whilst the PhD itself was predominantly about contemporary art, it necessitated looking back to the Moderns and their concept of the nation. I was especially interested in Raza, Souza and Husain and their different entanglements with the idea of India. It seems to me that many of the issues these artists grappled with in the early days of the nation state have resurfaced in India today. In a way, the idea for the show grew out of my interest in ‘Indian-ness’: how many of our political debates today have their roots — and (hopefully) their solutions — in the early years of the republic?

The idea for the show grew out of my interest in ‘Indian-ness’: how many of our political debates today have their roots - Zehra Jumabhoy, curator

What are some of the challenges you faced?

The first was logistical. The works for this exhibition have come from all over India, the UK, Dubai and different parts of the US, many from private collections, which meant tracking down the works I wanted before approaching friends in the art world for help and access. Sometimes I had to live with disappointment because of the nature of India’s public institutions, which are difficult to borrow from.

I think it made the show more suited to its context in an American institution. For instance, I wanted to juxtapose some of the PAG’s works with the ancient Indian sculptures, miniatures and scrolls which they were inspired by. But we couldn’t borrow antiquities from India, since it’s illegal to take antiques out of the country. I had to use the ones from the JD Rockefeller III’s collection at the Asia Society. This ended up lending another angle to the show, because the Rockefeller collection brings Indian modernism into direct conversation with American modernism.

The second hurdle was conceptual — how to define the Indian Moderns. The term is often used synonymously with the Progressive Artists Group but is not restricted to it. What fascinated me was that despite the general feeling in Mumbai and Delhi that the PAG were old news, even the date of their first exhibition and who really belonged to the Group — was difficult to ascertain.

So, this seemed the right opportunity to do some archival research on the Group.

Does Indian art continue to be influenced by the Moderns? Especially the idea of diversity and secularism?

I think so. But I also think that their versions of ‘secularism’ and ‘unity in diversity’ were of a period. This was Nehruvian India after all. And unfortunately, we are all a little more jaded than the artists who were chock-full of hope for a new India. The issue of Indian ‘secularism’ and what it means in today’s context will never be the same for us as it was for them. In India everything is political, isn’t it? And nothing is more political than the language of art when it intersects with ideas of belonging. I hope that by looking back to that foundational era, we can use some of the optimism that fills their work in our own attempts to define ourselves.

Peasant couple by MF Hussain

Physically, what remains of the Progressives and the Moderns?

There are a lot of artworks that remain in the national galleries of Modern Art. With a bit of detective work, an interested curator can dig out the seminal paintings and sculptures, as well as their forays outside the mainstream art world. Did you know that Husain made some interesting furniture and toys? There is also much to be done on the less famous PAG artists like HA Gade and SK Bakre. The works are there, we just need to give them attention. My fear is how public museums in India are taking care of the PAG’s signature works. Or rather, not taking care of them!

Can you tell me about some of the works in the show?

The works I am most excited about are ones that feature in the archival photographs of the early shows of the PAG, like a Husain and Souza from the first PAG show in Bombay in 1949. There is also an amazing Souza from his London solo at Grosvenor Gallery in 1964. It is probably his biggest crucifixion painting. But I don’t want to give too much away!

The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India, at Asia Society Museum, New York, until
January 20, 2019.

First Published: Oct 06, 2018 20:05 IST