K.H. Ara and the TIFR Art Collection

Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

One fragment of the story of the Institute’s Art Collection with a focus on one of the founder members of the Progressive Artists’ Group - Krishnaji Howlaji Ara. 

The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research is a National Centre of the Government of India, for advanced study and fundamental research in nuclear science and mathematics.
Founded by Homi J. Bhabha in the year 1945, the Institute houses a magnificent art collection which makes it unique among scientific institutions anywhere in the world.

Soon after the inauguration of the Institute, India attained independence in 1947. In the same year a group of six artists formed the Progressive Artists’ Group to establish new ways of expressing India in the post-colonial era.

The founding members of the Progressive Artists’ Group were M.F. Husain, F.N. Souza, S.H.Raza, K.H.Ara, H.A. Gade and S.K. Bakre. One can also count among associated members V.S. Gaitonde, Krishen Khanna, Akbar Padamsee, Tyeb Mehta, Ram Kumar and Bal Chabda.
“Today we paint with absolute freedom for content and technique, almost anarchic, save that we are governed by one or two sound elemental and eternal laws, of aesthetic order, plastic co-ordination and colour composition." Thus wrote F.N. Souza, in the 1948 Manifesto of the Progressive Artists Group (PAG) and heralded a new movement in Indian art.

The Progressive Artists were influenced by European modernism but each of them had distinctive style.

The Group held its 1st exhibition in Baroda and subsequently one in Bombay in 1949. The Group eventually disbanded in 1956.

War émigrés from Europe who landed in Bombay after the rise of Nazism in Europe became central to the development of art in modern India in its formative years. They played a dominant role in the field of Indian art, primarily in Mumbai (then Bombay).
Three such individuals of great importance are, Rudolf von Leyden, Walter Langhammer and Emmanuel Schlesinger.

Walter Langhammer came to India in 1938 and joined the Times of India as the director of its Art department. He ran a salon where many painters would come for discussions and also work at their convenience. He being a practicing artist was well versed with the prevailing European styles and introduced the artists to the same which was radically different from that of Academic Realism that was taught at the Sir J.J.School of Arts.

Rudolf von Leyden came to India in 1933. He was an art critic, a cartoonist, a photographer and a painter.Later he became the official art critic for the Times of India. Rudi Von Leyden was a friend and patron of these artists and his comments and criticisms had a decisive influence on their work.
Emmanuel Schlesinger came to India in early 40’s. He was a collector of art and bought works of young, emerging artists. Schlesinger was a connoisseur of art. Having a good understanding of the financially hard-pressed conditions of the artists, Schlesinger tried to provide monetary help by even commissioning young artists to paint which would then be produced in the calendar of his company.

The Critic
This painting is by Walter Langhammer. The  painting shows a seated Rudi von Leyden regarding a piece of classical Indian  Stone sculpture. It was presented to TIFR by von Leyden himself. 

Apart from these people, Homi Bhabha was both a patron and a close friend of some of these artists. He bought several of their works and in doing so he founded the priceless collection that can be seen today at TIFR.

The collection at TIFR represents significant phases of the artistic development of the members of Progressive Artists’ Group. This collection is very much the product of Homi Bhabha’s vision along with that of his successor Prof M.G.K. Menon. Today TIFR houses more than 300 artworks.

Ara was born in 1914, in Bolarum near Secunderabad. He lost his mother when he was three years old and soon his father remarried. His sufferings at home made him run away to Bombay where he worked as a domestic help for a European woman. This lady recognized his artistic talent and would buy water colours and encouraged him to paint. In 1930 he took part in Gandhi’s salt Satyagraha and was arrested and jailed for five months, after which he found a job as a car cleaner to a Japanese firm for a salary of Rs.18 a month.

Just after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the Japanese owner of the firm disappeared overnight. Ara took over the responsibility of looking after his house and guarded his employer’s interests for years. Meanwhile he continued to live in the servant’s quarter at Walkeshwar for the rest of his life.

Ara was immensely influenced by Langhammer’s style of painting. He was fascinated at Langhammer’s bold impastos, in an expressionist manner of Kokoschka. Ara did not have any formal training and he was encouraged by Langhammer to execute his works in an uninhibited manner – free approach to all subjects, manner and styles.

Still life as a genre of painting in India came into its own with K.H. Ara. It was around the late 1940s and all through the 1950s that he continued to make varied substantive studies of objects.

He experiments with bowls, fruits and vases with flowers were to develop into beautiful composition to which he gave a distinctive style.

A deliberate roughness in both drawing and applying paint is the most striking aspect of his still life painting.

Ara’s work is generally characterized by depiction of female nudes and Still Life.
However TIFR houses some of his extraordinary works on variety of subjects usually unknown to the broader public.

Ara’s work also shows a deep influence of Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) in his application of colour as well as form.
“In his Breakfast Table, one is reminded of Cezanne’s tilt that presaged the cubist facets of Picasso and Braque. The diagonal table in the painting, with the chequered table cloth, creates a decorative space with which the bowl of fruits and other objects merge and stand apart. The white of the chair divides the perspectival space of the back from the increasingly painterly articulation of the front.” - Jashodhara Dalmia

He constantly experimented with paint to acquire what he describes as the ‘honest expression of form’. His still life paintings have a rough, uneven and jagged look. He paid minimum attention to details.

He painted mostly in water colours but he evolved his own technique by which he made it look like an oil painting. This he achieved by applying his colours straight from the tube and then spreading it in a dry impasto method

Lotus Pond
A landscape painting by K.H. Ara

The French influence on Ara was fairly intense. In the use of luminosity, colour and abstraction Ara’s still-lifes recall the abstract still-lifes painted by Henri Matisse (1869-1954).

Khapoli
A landscape painting by K.H. Ara

Spring festival- The figures are rendered with quick brushstrokes that heighten the energy of the composition.

Around 1960s Ara started to paint yet another classic modernist form- the nude.
They are usually in classical postures against landscapes, looking into the distance. Ara was settled between classicism and modernism.

The nudes that Ara painted usually had their backs turned to the viewer.

In the mid-1970s, Ara emerged with this painting that was both unremittingly modernist and essentially humanist. This huge canvas is quite unlike any other known by the artist.

Here Christ is seen crucified over a sea of human destruction with his arms-extended over mushroom clouds. The moment of the painting’s execution coincided with the ongoing Cold war, when the threat of nuclear war was looming over the world.

K.H. Ara at TIFR
In the years that followed Homi Bhabha’s death in 1966, painting competitions were held in TIFR. K.H. Ara was always there to inspire the children and also act as judge along with faculty members of the JJ School of Art.
K.H. Ara at TIFR
  K.H. Ara with  the children in a drawing competition on Founder’s Day in TIFR. 
K.H. Ara at TIFR
 K.H. Ara  with Prof. B.V. Sreekantan and others at a function on the occasion of Founder's Day at TIFR
K.H. Ara at TIFR
Usually, such events would end with Ara doing a demonstration for his audience. K.H. Ara died on June 30, 1985 in Mumbai. Throughout his life Ara remained a friend of the TIFR community. 
Credits: Story

Photo of paintings- Anil Rane, Jatin Acharya, Hasmukh Chauhan

Archival photo- Photos of K.H. Ara and others- TIFR Archives

The TIFR Art Collection by Mortimer Chatterjee and Tara Lal, published by TIFR, 2010, Mumbai
The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives, Oxford University Press, New Delhi

Finance- Tata Education Trust

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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