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.
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.
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.
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
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