Modern art makers: Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group
Editor’s Note: Who shaped the modern art movement in India? And specifically in the bustling metropolis of art districts in the erstwhile Bombay? This month, MAP Academy brings us the story of the progressive painters who made the city their home—and the obsession with dotted deliberations as seen in Sayed Haider Raza’s work. This article originally appeared on the MAP Academy website. All images that appear with the MAP Academy articles are sourced from various collections around the world, and due image credits can be found on the original article(s) on the MAP Academy website. The MAP Academy is a non-profit online educational platform committed to building equitable resources for the study of art histories from South Asia.
About the lead image: This is an untitled painting by FN Souza. Image courtesy: TATA Institute of Fundamental Research Archives.
Named after the cosmopolitan Indian city it was centred in, the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) was an artistic movement founded in 1947 by painters FN Souza, SH Raza, MF Husain, KH Ara, HA Gade and painter-sculptor SK Bakre. Aimed at establishing an internationally recognised presence and vocabulary for Indian Modernism, its results have shaped the identity of Indian art both nationally and globally, and its members continue to be some of India’s most visible and commercially successful artists.
With India’s independence from British rule in the same year, and the aftermath of the accompanying Partition, the PAG sought an artistic idiom that could reflect the changing realities of the country. Its founding members represented various socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, and thereby a pluralism that could embody the diversity of post-Independence India. Moving away from the styles and concerns of both, the British-dominated Company painting and the nationalist-revivalist Bengal School of art, the group absorbed influences from traditional Indian art, particularly pre-colonial and folk art forms, as well as European Modernism.
The dominant mode of art production in India at the time was concerned with a nationalist identity and leaned towards Orientalism, as seen prominently in the works of artists such as Rabindranath Tagore and the Bengal School more broadly. The PAG prompted a shift from this tradition, driven by a sentiment that such an approach was ill-equipped to encapsulate the secularism of the artistic traditions in India and Asia.
They drew inspiration from the art of the Indian subcontinent, including examples from architecture, sculpture and painting, such as seventeenth-century Pahari and Mughal miniatures, twelfth-century Chola bronze sculptures and the sculptural carvings at the temples of Khajuraho. They also incorporated formal techniques with themes of mysticism and spiritual iconography to represent the diversity of India’s people, marked by its social, economic and religious systems.
Drawing on the Formalist tradition, governed by technical principles concerning colour composition and aesthetic order, the members of the PAG developed distinct, individualistic styles that reflected varied influences. Souza combined elements from Goan folk art with Cubism, whereas Husain blended folk art influences and Cubist principles to depict Hindu mythological figures and narratives, frequently employing Symbolist imagery.
Raza, after experimenting with landscape paintings in an Expressionistic style, moved into Geometric Abstraction. Ara was known for his Impressionistic exploration of still lifes and human figures, particularly the female nude. Gade used watercolour and oils to develop a style now recognised as the first foray into Abstract Expressionism in post-Independence India. The only sculptor in the group, Bakre established the shift in Indian sculpture from representational forms to abstraction.
Despite these differences, the artists were unified in their commitment to the principles of the PAG and its focus on Formalist traditions. The group shared an anti-imperialist outlook towards art and a need to bridge the gap between art and the everyday lives of people. They used the idioms of Modern art developing in the West to portray themes relevant to Indian realities and drawing on South Asian heritage. This resulted in a synthesis of folk and tribal art motifs, a vibrant colour palette and a favouring of emotive and Expressionistic power over anatomical or optical correctness of forms.
Among the group’s earliest patrons were certain influential Jewish immigrants who had arrived in Bombay from Europe: Walter Langhammer, Rudolph von Leyden and Emmanuel Schlesinger were notable in providing the PAG with the space and accessibility to converge and devise their manifesto. The group’s initial impetus came from their disillusionment with the arbitrary decisions made by the art establishment of their time. In 1947, Souza, Ara and Raza, along with the art critic Rashid Husain, set up an independent and transparent judging committee to select emerging artists for their upcoming art exhibitions.
The group held its first collective exhibition in 1949 at Rampart Row in Mumbai, then a popular venue for art installations and exhibitions, to critical success. However, after the first exhibition, the members also announced a change in their manifesto, setting aside their Leftist ideals of bridging the distance between artists and the public, and reinstated their commitment to developing a new aesthetic for Indian Modern art.
By the 1950s, the PAG had grown to include artists such as VS Gaitonde, Akbar Padamsee, Krishen Khanna and Tyeb Mehta. These artists introduced elements from East Asian art, including fifteenth-century Japanese ink wash painting and medieval Korean landscape painting, highlighting the contrast between the rural and industrial realities in India through village and pastoral scenes as well as portrayals of urban landscapes and populations. While this was a deviation from the themes originally undertaken by the PAG, the approach was understood as part of the group’s continuing legacy.
Soon after the group’s joint exhibition with the Calcutta Group in 1951, Souza, Raza and Bakre relocated to Europe, and the PAG was partially dissolved. Rather than undermining the group’s original nation-building project, as is sometimes argued, the artists’ move was another step towards the global, transnational role the group had originally envisioned for itself.
The group was not burdened by the nationalism of other Indian art movements such as Revivalism, nor did they wish to return to the old ideals of European Realism or solely imitate Western art movements. While inspired by artistic currents and practitioners in Europe and the USA, artists such as Raza and Souza absorbed these influences to deepen their connection to Indian themes and sensibilities in their paintings. Husain, who had remained in India, also exemplified the same transnationalism in his fusion of Cubism, South Asian miniature painting traditions and Hindu iconography.
Over the next few years, each of these artists developed their own postcolonial vocabulary as Modern Indian artists. Raza, Souza and Bakre’s move, Husain’s own travels and exhibitions across the world, and the continued support of patrons such as Leyden meant that despite the group’s disbanding in 1956, its members were instrumental in furthering the visibility and relevance of Indian Modern art in Europe through exhibitions in cities such as Zurich, Paris and London. Buoyed by the art market in Europe and India, these artists heralded the first wave of internationalism among Indian artists as the country’s foremost progressive painters. Their works began to fetch record prices on the global stage during their lifetimes, with their market value only growing posthumously.
In 2018, Asia Society, New York organised a landmark retrospective of the Progressive Artists’ Group. The exhibition included the works of FN Souza, HA Gade, KH Ara, MF Husain and SK Bakre, as well as later members and close associates such as VS Gaitonde, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar, Akbar Padamsee, Tyeb Mehta and Mohan Samant. It was curated by the art curator and educator Zehra Jumabhoy and Boon Hui Tan, the director of the Asia Society in New York.
Dotted deliberation: SH Raza
An Indian Modern artist and founding member of the historic Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG), Sayed Haider Raza is best remembered for his geometric abstract paintings drawing on Indian spiritual and philosophical traditions, particularly that of Tantrism. Raza painted landscapes and cityscapes in various styles before exploring the themes of nature and cosmology through colour symbolism and basic shapes, focusing particularly on the bindu—‘point’ or ‘dot’ in Sanskrit.
Living and working largely in Paris, he also distilled in his work the influences of Pahari and Rajasthani miniature painting, Indian poetry and meditative practices, as well as his own childhood experience of the central Indian forests, expressing these through a mastery of colour. Initially working with watercolour and gouache, he moved to oil and eventually acrylic paints over the course of his seven-decade-long career.
Raza was born in 1922 in the remote village of Babaria in present-day Madhya Pradesh, where his father was a forest ranger. His experience of close proximity with the rivers and dense forests of central India until the age of thirteen shaped his psyche and artistic sensibility, and one of his first teachers introduced the bindu to him as a focus for concentration. The family then moved to the bigger town of Damoh, where he completed his high-school education, taking a particular interest in visual art as well as Indian literature, poetry and cultural traditions.
In 1939 Raza enrolled at the Nagpur School of Art, and having received a teacher’s diploma, taught drawing at government high schools. In 1943, he moved to Bombay where, before commencing his training in painting at Sir JJ School of Art, Mumbai, he worked for a designer and blockmaker who also allowed him to stay in the studio. He painted numerous gouache studies of the Bombay cityscape at this time, rendering buildings, roads and people as expressive masses of colour, in an early development of his abstract work that incorporated Fauvist colours, Expressionist brushstrokes and Cubist forms.
Following a group exhibition held at Cama Hall Art Society in Bombay in 1943, Raza’s paintings caught the attention of the art critic Rudolf von Leyden, a German émigré known for his promotion of experimental Indian artists. von Leyden went on to champion Raza’s work in the coming years, also inaugurating the latter’s first solo exhibition at the Bombay Art Society Salon in 1947.
In the same year, Raza joined his contemporaries FN Souza, MF Husain, KH Ara, SK Bakre and HA Gade in founding the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, aimed at framing a new direction for contemporary art for a newly independent India. Attempting to reach the masses through a synthesis of traditional Indian art and European Modernism, the group held its first exhibition in 1949 at Rampart Row, Bombay, but dispersed soon afterwards with a shift in ideology and many of its members moving abroad. Between 1947 and 1949, Raza’s parents died and the rest of his family migrated to Pakistan with the Partition following India’s independence, while he chose to remain in India for its secular and plural identity.
In 1948, a year after India gained independence, Raza visited Kashmir where he became acquainted with the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who introduced him to the works of the French painter Paul Cézanne, which formed a precursor to Cubism. He encouraged Raza to look to Cézanne’s work towards incorporating greater structure in his own.
The visit yielded numerous watercolours that were later shown at an exhibition inaugurated by Leyden in New Delhi. It also resulted in many works that showcased Raza’s early attempts at building a unique style of abstraction, marked by an exploration of urban forms through the use of colour and elimination of detail until the buildings appear detached from the background. These works were exhibited at a solo show in 1950, held at the Institute of Foreign Languages, a cultural and exhibition space founded by Viennese immigrant Charles Petras in Bombay.
In the same year, at the age of twenty eight, Raza obtained a scholarship from the French government to study at the École Nationale Supérieure de Beaux-Arts, Paris. In 1952, he mounted a group exhibition with Akbar Padamsee and Souza at Galerie St. Placid, Paris—his first exhibition since arriving in France. The exhibition was a success and Raza was invited by the Parisian Galerie La France to showcase his work.
The first few years of Raza’s life in Paris were dominated by watercolour and gouache studies of the French cityscape, reflecting his Formalist art education in Paris—paintings such as the gouache-on-paper Haute de Cagnes (1951) and the offset-printed Black Sun (1953) depict clusters of buildings in distorted but sharply delineated shapes amidst empty spaces, with a black orb in the sky above them. Inspired by Cezanne and Vincent van Gogh’s work, Raza shifted his primary medium from watercolours to oil, which he used in an thick, impasto application, as seen in Untitled (Village dans la Nuit) (1957) and Plein Soleil (1961).
In 1962, while on a three-month teaching stint in the USA, he became acquainted with the works of American Abstract Expressionists including Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Sam Francis. He was moved by the lack of rigid structural frameworks that he encountered in them, particularly the use of pure colour in Rothko’s paintings. He began to move towards a more non-representative approach, and shifted his medium from oil to acrylic. This is seen in one of his largest works La Terre (1977), which, with its expressive brushstrokes and subtle symbolism, evokes the forests of Madhya Pradesh forests at night, sparsely illuminated by the habitations of the Gond tribes.
From the 1980s onwards, Raza’s style shifted from the gestural and expressive use of colour to the exploration of geometric compositions. Inspired by themes from Tantrism, he began using primary shapes and colours to explore natural phenomena, incorporating symbolism from Indian spiritual practices, as well as written words or lines of poetry in the Devanagari script, in his paintings.
It was during this period that the bindu began to occupy a central position in his work. Appearing in the eponymous Bindu (c. 1980) as a dark circle centred within a series of square frames, it became a recurring, defining motif in most of his subsequent work. By the 1990s, fuelled by a nostalgia for India and his study of Indian art, Raza began exploring the concept of the bindu as a point of primordial origin. In his Germination series (1991–2012), the bindu appears as a focal point, often surrounded or accompanied by a variety of geometric patterns, especially complementary triangles suggestive of the female (prakriti) and male (purusha) principles in Hindu cosmology.
Raza moved back to India in 2010, after the death of his wife, the artist Janine Mongillat, and founded the Raza Foundation in collaboration with the poet Ashok Vajpeyi for promotion of the arts. Raza’s work has been shown in two retrospectives — one at Palais Carnoles, Musee de Menton, France in 1991, and the second organised by Saffronart, New York and Berkeley Square Gallery in 2007.
His work is part of the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi; the Asia Society, New York; and the Musee National D’Art Modern, Paris. In 1956, Raza became the first non-French artist to be awarded the Prix de la Critique by the French government. In 1981, he was awarded the Fellowship of the Lalit Kala Akademi and the Padma Shri in 1981, the Padma Bhushan in 2007 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2013, as well as the French Legion of Honour in 2015.
His life and work are the subjects of various literary works, including the monograph Syed Haider Raza (2023) by Ashok Vajpeyi and the biography Syed Haider Raza: The Journey of an Iconic Artist (2021) by Yashodhara Dalmia.
Raza lived and worked in New Delhi, India until his death in 2016 at the age of ninety-four.
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