The Bombay Progressives: Breaking New Ground at the Dawn of India’s Independence

Witness the radical shift in visual language that coincided with the historic events of 1947, through the paintings of the Bombay Progressive Artists in the Kerala Museum

By Kerala Museum

Progressive Artists Group at their first exhibitionKerala Museum

The Bombay Progressives

The year of Indian independence, 1947, also marked the formation of the  Progressive Artists Group (PAG) in Bombay. FN Souza, HA Gade and others were founder members. Their first formal exhibition was at Bombay Art Society's Salon, then located at Rampart Row in 1949. 

These young artists had leftist leanings and were impressed by the new art movements such as Cubism and Expressionism in post-war Europe. They rejected the historicism of the Bengal School and set out to develop a new modern visual language for independent India. They experimented with form and colour, and many veered towards abstract art. 

Most of the Progressive Artists Group artworks in the Kerala Museum collection are from the later phase of these artists' careers. They are excellent examples of the iconic styles that these artists are celebrated for.

Although the group lasted only a year (it was disbanded in the 1950s), each member of the Progressive Artists Group went on to stellar international careers. They continue to be among the most recognised Indian artists to this day. This photograph is of the Progressives' first formal exhibition at the Bombay Art Society's Bombay Art Salon.

From left to right: MF Husain, FN Souza, SK Bakre, KH Ara, SH Raza, and HA Gade.

Untitled (1989) by Francis Newton SouzaKerala Museum

FN Souza

Labelled as the 'angry young man of Indian art', Souza was expelled from college for creating 'obscene' graffiti and later from JJ School of Art in Bombay for participating in the Quit India Movement. 

A founding member of the Progressive Artists Group, Souza's paintings were commentaries on religion, human relationships and society.

Memoir (Revisit) by Murali Cheeroth at Kerala Museum - Part IKerala Museum

Watch artist Murali Cheeroth speak about reactions to the idea of acquiring a Souza work for Kerala Museum.

Untitled (1975) by Francis Newton SouzaKerala Museum

Souza is famous for his figurative work - often distorted, aggressive and sexualised, full of passionate energy. Also an articulate writer, Souza wrote the Progressive Artists Group's manifesto and many acclaimed essays after his move to London in 1949.

Faces (1978) by Maqbool Fida HusainKerala Museum

Maqbool Fida Husain

MF Husain is perhaps one of India's most recognised artists, both in India and internationally. Largely self-taught, he started his career in Bombay painting cinema posters and designing furniture and toys. He arrived with a bang on the Indian art scene after joining Progressive Artists Group. 

His artistic output was immense and varied and included paintings, prints and films. Husain's vibrant works celebrated all things India, and he drew inspiration from various sources, including Indian mythology and history, nature and urban spaces.

Some of his later works drew harsh criticism from conservative groups in India, and he had to spend the last years in exile in Doha and London.

Varanasi (1988) by Maqbool Fida HusainKerala Museum

In 1973, Husain executed a series of black and white serigraphs capturing the essence of India's spiritual centre: the ancient city of Varanasi. The serigraph in the Kerala Museum depicts women bathing at Varanasi, probably in the River Ganga.

Untitled (1989) by Hari Ambadas GadeKerala Museum

Hari Ambadas Gade

Hari Ambadas Gade was one of India's earliest abstract expressionist painters. His paintings mainly consisted of landscapes, rural scenes and still life. Gade used watercolours extensively in the early stage of his career before switching to oils on canvas.

Gade uses lines sparingly to depict daily life in this idyllic rural scene. Interestingly, his subjects are scattered around the edges of the work, and the centre remains devoid of detail.

In the foreground, a woman in a red and yellow saree works an instrument at the well, probably to gather water to fill the pot next to her.

Next to her, a bull drinks from a trough…

...and a dog watches them both from the corner.

A turbaned man, probably a barber, sits with two others on the stairs of a house.

His neighbour walks towards the open door of her house carrying a pot of water.

Still Life (1967) by Hari Ambadas GadeKerala Museum

In Gade's later works, forms were reduced to minimalist shapes and lines. In this work, geometric forms are overlaid to convey a dense cluster of structures.

Rear View (1991) by Krishen KhannaKerala Museum

Krishen Khanna

Krishen Khanna was working in a bank in Bombay when he was invited to show his works alongside the Progressive Artists Group artists by MF Husain in 1949. 

Born in Lyallpur (now in Pakistan), he trained to be an artist in Lahore and London, migrating to India during Partition. 

Khanna's works are primarily figurative, and he draws on everyday, myth and memory for subjects. This work, 'Rear View,' was probably made specifically for the Kerala Museum.

Khanna's 'Rear View' series depicts the condition of rural migrant labourers he saw in Delhi. The figures in these paintings are often executed in grim greys and browns indicative of the dust that covers them at the end of a hard day.

These anonymous men are usually depicted seated in the back of trucks or huddled together, looking away from the viewer.

In this painting, these labourers seem to be walking away into the evening, over discarded sacks they have around every day.

Boy Eating Watermelon by Krishen KhannaKerala Museum

This work is a part of a series depicting children eating fruits. Its bright colours and playful subject are evocative of the simple pleasures of childhood.

Untitled (1992) by Akbar PadamseeKerala Museum

Akbar Padamsee

Akbar Padamsee was a student at Bombay's influential Sir J.J. School of Art when the Progressive Artists Group was formed. He later exhibited his works with the other artists of the group. 

Padamsee's works are experiments with form and colour. His intellectual exploration of the self and the nature of art has significantly influenced his works. 

Padamsee spends long periods exploring specific styles and themes – for example, he devoted a year in the 1950s to painting only in grey. He works with a range of mediums, from oils on canvas to computer graphics and films.

Untitled (1992) by Ram KumarKerala Museum

Ram Kumar

Ram Kumar is one of India's foremost abstract painters. He started his career painting figures of dispossessed labourers in grim urban landscapes.

Untitled (1991) by Ram KumarKerala Museum

A visit to Varanasi in the 1960s with MF Husain turned out to be a pivotal moment in Ram Kumar's artistic journey. Inspired by the city's spirituality, terrain and structures, he started painting increasingly abstract landscapes.

He began to reflect on the impact of human habitation upon nature. As we can see in this painting, the human figure was to disappear from his canvas eventually.

Credits: Story

Exhibit Curation:
Supriya Menon

Content Editors:
Arundhathy Nayar, Aditi Nayar, Jyothi Elza George & Gopika Krishnan

Malayalam Translator:
Geeta Nayar

Video:
Memoir (Revisited), by artist Murali Cheeroth, created for the inauguration of the exhibition Collecting the Artist: The Madhavan Nayar Collection.
This project received support from the India Foundation for the Arts under the Archival and Museums Fellowship Initiative, with support from the Tata Trusts.

Video recording and editing by Sooraj and Jose Mohan.

Photo of the Progressive Artists Group courtesy DAG Modern.

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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