REVIEWED: Mumbai Modern: Progressive Artists’ Group 1947- 2013

By Tehezeeb Moitra 

Maqbool Fida Husain, Untitled
    Acrylic on canvas. 41 x 36 in / 104 x 91.4 cm.
Courtesy of Delhi Art Gallery

The Mumbai Modern: Progressive Artists’ Group 1947- 2013 exhibition at the Delhi Art Gallery in Mumbai captures a moment of great artistic and socio-political change in the history of India. Significantly, the year of the group’s conception was also the year of India’s independence and partition. The retrospective forges a link between that seminal time in the late 40s-50s and the present - as an acknowledgement of how, so many years later, the group’s artists and their work continue to influence and impact our perceptions of Indian art.

The Progressive Artists’ Group, which started in 1947, was comprised of some of India’s most well known and respected artists ranging from its founding members, Francis Newton Souza, Maqbool Fida Husain, and Syed Hyder Raza, to later include others such as Krishnaji Howlaji Ara, Sadanand Krishnaji Bakre, Hari Ambadas Gade, Tyeb Mehta, Bal Chhabda, Krishen Khanna, Mohan Samant, Akbar Padamsee, Ram Kumar and Vasudeo Gaitonde.

Disparate in style, religion and background, the apparently motley group was united in its vision to create a new kind of Indian art; one that broke away from the more formal, established traditions of the past, choosing instead to interact with the changing attitudes and trends, especially those of the global arena. The art they created reveals that while intrinsically Indian, there was a clear impact of the current modernist style that was sweeping the world stage. The progressives were heavily influenced by artists like Picasso, Matisse and Cézanne.

Maqbool Fida Husain, Untitled, 1965
    Oil and wool yarn on canvas. 36 x 24 in / 91.4 x 61 cm.

Courtesy of Delhi Art Gallery

The 91 pictures thoughtfully placed throughout the gallery showcase some of the group’s most important works. Paintings by the prolific and peripatetic Husain include lesser-known early sketches as well as some of his more recognisable and recurring motifs like the traditional hand mudra* gesture, Mother Teresa and the elephant-headed god Ganesha. Exceptional among these is Husain’s Untitled (1973), a magnificent oil on canvas of a galloping horse painted with the artist’s typically heavy brush stroke and geometric sensibility. 

Francis Newton Souza, Untitled, 1965
    Oil and wool yarn on canvas. 46.5 x 32.0 in / 118.1 x 81.2 cm.

Courtesy of Delhi Art Gallery

Souza’s extensive palette sprawls over the different levels of the gallery. Noteworthy is his iconic Untitled (1962) painting of a woman touching her left breast and Untitled (1965), a black on black painting of a man with a wool beard. Souza’s other paintings vividly evoke a lifelong angst, created a result of his bid to reconcile the dichotomy of what he called "sin and sensuality" - essentially a conflict between his strict Roman Catholic upbringing and the erotic Indian art that surrounded him. He was specifically taken by the highly sexualised sculptures of the Khajuraho and Kanark temples.

The first floor of the gallery presents a wonderful selection of the nudes and still lifes that Ara was known for. While not particularly celebrated for their sensuality, the nudes display a certain nonchalance, which is refreshing and quite unlike the overly sexualised women of Souza’s drawings. 

Syed Hyder Raza, Rajasthan, 2004
    Acrylic on canvas. 39.2 x 78.7 in / 99.6 x 199.9 cm.

Courtesy of Delhi Art Gallery

The exhibition also features a vast collection of Raza’s works. Rajasthan (2004) celebrates the Bindu* in all its glory, which to the artist signified "a primordial symbol of energy" and the essence of all things. Noel (1959) illustrates Raza’s deep connection to nature, particularly the French countryside and beautifully exemplifies his style, which he termed "lyrical abstraction".

Krishen Khanna, Suspense at Last Supper, 1980
    Oil on canvas. 59.5 x 89.5 in / 151.1 x 227.3 cm.

Courtesy of Delhi Art Gallery

Akbar Padamsee, Untitled from the Metascape series,1973
    Oil on canvas. 70.5 x 48 in / 179.1 x 121.9 cm.

Courtesy of Delhi Art Gallery

Part of what has been called his Christ Cycle, Khanna’s painting Suspense at Last Supper (1980) depicts a Christ figure “not in the image given by European painters, but as one of the fakirs one sees around Hazrat Nizamuddin.” (1) Juxtaposing Khanna’s canvas is Untitled (1973), a work taken from Padamsee’s Metascape series that brings to view the introspective interiority and abstraction so characteristic of his work.

Finally, the gallery’s attic houses sculptures, which, while not part of the exhibition, undoubtedly add a special flavour to the viewing experience.

MUMBAI MODERN: PROGRESSIVE ARTISTS' GROUP: 1947- 2013 at DELHI ART GALLERY. Mumbai, India. 26 Oct – 31 Dec 2013 

Mudra is a Sanskrit word meaning closure or seal. Hand mudras are essentially hand gestures, which are believed to direct the flow of energy and spirituality in the body.
Bindu is a Sanskrit word meaning point.
(1) Interview with Chanda Singh, India Magazine, September 1984
Disclaimer: The author of this article is currently a Research Consultant for the Delhi Art Gallery in Mumbai.