Tracing the trajectory of modern Indian art

A new series by Art1st brings to the fore the person lying behind the larger-than-life persona of some our greatest artists

Did you know of the quirky story behind Group 1890’s name? And about S.H. Raza’s immense knowledge of Jain manuscripts and Mughal miniatures that led to a message of plurality in his works? Or of Amrita Sher-Gil’s dear friend, Denyse Proutaux, a Parisian art critic, who made an appearance in some of her iconic works like Portrait of Denyse. It is such insights that Art1st’s new series on modern Indian history promises to bring to the fore to help you understand the person lying under the larger-than-life persona of some of our greatest artists. These stories—about unknown facets of well-known artists or tales of art practitioners that have gotten lost in the folds of time—come together to paint a vivid tapestry of modern Indian art. The first in the series traces the trajectory of art in post-independence India and the unique language of indigenous modernism that defined it. 

The Bride’s Toilet by Amrita Sher-Gil. Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Most of us believe that modern Indian art was spurred by the formation of the Bombay Progressive Group, or the Progressives as they are known today. However, to understand the trajectory of this critical period in Indian art, one needs to go back a little into the pages of history to a time when patronage of art changed hands from the royal courts into the hands of the colonialists. Unnamed artists created the Company paintings to faithfully reproduce Indian flora, fauna and cultures for the populace back in Europe. One of the most remarkable painters to emerge in this period was Raja Ravi Varma, who used Western ideas of composition to illustrate figures, especially of notable women characters like Damayanti, from Indian mythology. 

‘Bharat Mata’, Abanindranath Tagore, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

However, as the call for freedom gained strength across the country, and people shifted to the ‘indigenous’, Indian art too witnessed a resistance to the Western academic styles, with artists immersing themselves in the rural, folk and the traditional. One saw the rise of the Bengal School of art, which was considered a blend of the Oriental and the Occidental. “The origin of Bengal art can also be equated with the birth of Indian nationalism. Abanindranath Tagore was the first significant artist to emerge from the Bengal School of Art. He was a major exponent of indigenous values in Indian art and is said to have redefined the meaning of modernity,” mentions an article on the Dhoomimal Gallery website. Instead of looking to the West, Abanindranath turned to the far east, interacting closely with Japanese cultural figures such as Okakura Kakuzo and Yokoyama Taikan. 

Around 1919, Rabindranath Tagore established Kala Bhavan, a school meant to not only train the next generation of artists, but also “intended to foster a sense of community, to create self-aware and principled individuals… . In the last hundred years, Kala Bhavan has been graced by faculty from across India and the world. The holy trinity of modernism in Bengal—Nandalal Bose, Ramkinkar Baij and Benode Behari Mukherjee—spent years there. Many eminent artists—Sarbari Roy Chowdhury, Somnath Hore, K.G. Subramanyan—joined later,” writes Somak Ghoshal in a feature about 100 years of art at Santiniketan. It is these figures who paved the way for indigenous modernism that came to define the most definitive phase of modern Indian art in the country. According to art historian R Siva Kumar, “The Santiniketan artists were one of the first who consciously challenged this idea of modernism by opting out of both internationalist modernism and historicist indigenousness and tried to create a context sensitive modernism.” This can be seen in Baij’s iconic Santhal Family, the iconic work depicting a large Santhal family moving homes with its belongings. 

‘Santhal Family’ by Ramkinkar Baij. Image: Bodhisattwa, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons 

The artists at that time were extremely sensitive to the angst of the time, as can be seen in the works of Hore and Chittoprasad. The latter used pen and ink to create a scathing visual commentary on the disparities prevalent back then. An untitled work from 1946, looks at the unity of peasant and worker unions in the face of the trinity of ‘sarkar’, ‘sahukar’ and ‘zamindar’. He also portrayed the suffering of the common man wrought by the man-made Bengal famine in his sketches. 

However, if the pre-Independence art scene was about pathos, the post-independent one reflected the optimism of a newly Independent India. As galleries and museums were set up, and the government started commissioning sculptures and paintings, artists got a fresh lease of life. They started going abroad to study, and began to gain international recognition while there. SH Raza, for instance, went from Mumbai to the Ecole Nationale de Beaux Arts in Paris, where he studied painting from 1950 to 1953. When these artists came back, they brought with them sophisticated sensibilities informed by international influences—poetry, art, literature—but based their work on earthiness of the land. This brand of indigenous modernism was particularly propagated by the Progressive group of artists, who came together in 1947 with the intention to “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 coordination and colour composition.” 

FN Souza with Raza and Padamsee in Paris in 1952. Photo: Bhanumati Padamsee, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

According to an article on the Critical Collective, a digital initiative by art curator and critic Gayatri Sinha towards building knowledge about the arts in India, it was F.N. Souza, who initiated the Progressive Artists’ Group. “By the time the group became operative, he had already made a name for himself, having dashed off — after his expulsion from the art school– several hundred paintings… . Apart from Souza, there were five other members of the Group. There was Raza, who was not only well known, but a much envied and emulated landscape painter in Bombay — irresistibly charming as a person, sophisticated in his technique, lyrical in sensibility. In contrast to Raza, [K.H] Ara was quite an unsophisticated but impetuous and vital person whose work Souza had found stunning because of its direct intuitive modernism.” 

Nari – 1998, S H Raza, Acrylic on Canvas, 47.0 x 23.5 in. (119.4 x 59.7 cm)

Mithun III – 1963, M F Husain, Oil on Canvas, 50.5 x 38.2 in (128.3 x 97.0 cm)

The piece further talks about how Husain came to be part of the group. In 1948, one of his paintings, Potters, had been put up in Bombay Art Society’s annual exhibition and it jumped out because of its vitality. Souza tracked Husain down and asked him to join the group. The other illustrious members of HA Gade and Sadanand Bakre and the group was active till 1951. In 1949, Souza reformulated the manifesto in the catalogue of the group’s exhibition. “I do not quite understand now, why we still call our Group “Progressive”. We have changed all the chauvinist ideas and the leftist fanaticism which we had incorporated in our manifesto at the inception of the Group. We found this in the course of working an impossibility…the gulf between the so-called people and the artists cannot be bridged,” the article on the Critical Collective quotes him. In 1950, VS Gaitonde, Prafulla Dahanukar, Krishen Khanna and Mohan Samant joined the group, but with Souza and Raza leaving India soon after, the group was disbanded in 1956. 

Gaitonde is one artist, who was placed at this watershed moment in Indian art, but has found his due only recently, many decades later, with scholars and critics delving deep into the many layers of his abstract works. In Sonata of Light, art critic and research writer, Roshan Shahani, plunges into the ocean of possibilities that the largely abstract work presented to the viewer. “For instance, in the study of directions and movements of paint layers, washes and ink drawings, I was persuaded to grasp meanings that emerged about stillness and a passing of time, and about infinitely changing aspects of space and the conscious mind,” said Shahani in a media interview when the book was released. 

Artists of that period—Gaitonde, Raza, Souza, Ram Kumar, Krishen Khanna, Akbar Padamsee, Tyeb Mehta—continue to be relevant today, with art enthusiasts studying their language of modernism, and the kind of plurality—social, religious and cultural—they depicted. “He [Raza] had knowledge of Jain manuscripts as well as of Mughal miniatures, and used them both. This message of plurality is so important, especially in today’s world,” mentioned art scholar-columnist Uma Nair, who recalled Raza’s love of poetry and remembers discussing the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke with him. “And this universality is the reason why his works did so well at auctions,” she says. 

Tyeb Mehta. Image: Cea, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Common

Tyeb Mehta’s work drew from everyday scenes and the common man. In the 1960s, the falling figure became an important motif for him. Another of his works, Rickshaw Puller, shows a trapped rickshaw puller, for whom the vehicle has become an extension of himself. And there is the iconic Mahishasura, which shows Goddess Durga grappling with the demon. Just like Chittoprasad, who came before him, Mehta too portrayed signs of bondage and suffering, but in his unique abstract way. 

Provenance, Tyeb Mehta, Gallery Chemould, Bombay, 1976, Christie’s, London, October 5, 1999 (lot 74)
Eminent private collector, New Jersey, USA, 2018, Private collection, New Delhi

Any study about the history of Indian modernism would be incomplete without the mention of Amrita Sher-Gil, who was born in 1913 to Marie Antoinette Gottesmann, Hungarian-Jewish opera singer and Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia, a Sikh aristocrat, scholar and photographer. In 1929, she enrolled to study art at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where she created portraits of her friends and acquaintances, such as Portrait of Denyse, about art writer and critic Denyse Proutaux. This important rediscovered portrait painted in 1932 headlined Christie’s South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art Auction held earlier this year. 

‘Group of Three Girls’ by Amrita Sher-Gil. Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

However, Sher-Gil’s return to India in 1934 marked a significant change in her style. As she got influenced by Ajanta and Ellora sculptures and miniatures, her works acquired earthy tones, and her paintings were inspired by her immediate surroundings. Particularly significant in this context is In the Ladies’ Enclosure, an oil on canvas painted in 1938, which depicts a group of women gathered in a field. In a media interview, art historian and curator Yashodhara Dalmia, who has authored Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life, stated that the colour palette was reminiscent of early Rajput miniatures. In the Ladies’ Enclosure is one of her largest works from the late period of her short but prolific practice, before she passed away in 1941. “Her paintings are lauded for their timeless themes and qualities that powerfully resonate with women’s narratives even today,” mentions a blog post on Saffronart, published on July 8, 2021. 

Another group, besides the Progressives, which deeply influenced the trajectory of modern Indian art and its transition into the contemporary, was Group 1890, formed in 1962 with twelve young artists as its members—Jeram Patel, Himmat Shah, Raghav Kaneria, Rajesh Mehra, J Swaminathan, Gulammohammed Sheikh, SG Nikam, Balkrishna Patel, Ambadas, Jyoti Bhatt, Eric Bowen and Reddappa Naidu. The group was named after the house number of a friend, who hosted the meeting in a plotted colony in Bhavnagar, Gujarat, where the group started as an intervention to re-examine the state of Indian art practice and to step away from the continued championing of Western Modernism in Indian art in the 1950s-60s. 

The manifesto, dated August 31, 1962, outlined this vision “We had multiple dreams. Some materialised and some didn’t,” stated Sheikh in a media interview, who along with Bhatt and Mehra, has been a sort of a record keeper of the group. He revisited memories of the group through a volume and exhibition organised by DAG in 2016. In 1963, the group held its only exhibition at the Rabindra Kala Bhavan, Lalit Kala Akademi, after which the member artists went on to carve their own trajectories. “As a movement, the group has always been spoken about as very significant. However, over the years, people have lost sight of the manifesto and its driving force,” stated Kishore Singh of DAG at the time of the retrospective, which focused on the one ideal that united all the members of the group — the autonomy of the image. “For artists such as Patel and Shah not to play to the market was significant, and perhaps, representative of the group,” stated Singh. 

Of the various members of the group, Shah and Patel, along with Nasreen Mohamedi, explored the fragility of paper at a time when the Progressives had made canvas painting popular among artists. It is this facet that the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art showcased in its exhibitions, ‘Hammer on the Square’ devoted to Shah and ‘The Dark Loam: Between Memory and Membrane’, the first ever retrospective of Patel. The KNMA came across very old drawings of Patel’s from the 1950s and 60s, which were never sold. One of these was the Hospital series created with short dense strokes using a crow quill. “The drawings have razor sharp lines and the images have a sense of brutality. One can see a preoccupation with death and decay in the series,” said Karode at the time. “Hence, you see haunting skeletal images, apparitions, and a sense of vulnerability of the skin.” 

Cholamandal Artists Village. Image: Destination8infinity, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

At the time that Group 1890 and its member artists were moving away from conventions, another collective was trying to break the distinctions between art and craft. KCS Paniker, who was at the helm at the Government School of Arts and Crafts, Chennai, created a unique brand of interculturalism at the time. Under his influence, the idea of line and surface began to gain prominence and went on to inspire artists like SG Vasudev. “When I joined, students were encouraged to interact with craftspeople, as a result of which my interest in craft grew. In the final year, when Paniker asked us what we wanted to do next, a lot of us said that we will take up jobs. But he was not in favour of that. He wanted us to extend our art and craft context so that we could earn a living,” stated Vasudev in a media interview. “So, I took up batik and products made by me began to be sent to trade fairs in London and Paris.” Paniker, along with Vasudev and a few other batch mates, formed the Cholamandal Artists’ Village in Injambakkam, on the outskirts of Madras, where one could find artists like KM Gopal, M Reddeppa Naidu, and S Nanda Gopal engaging with craftspersons. 

One also saw a move towards minimalist abstraction in the works of artists like Mohamedi and Zarina Hashmi. Born in Aligarh in 1937, Zarina, who preferred to be addressed only by her first name, explored the notions of migration, memory, and shelter in her work. S Kalidas in Zarina Hashmi: Sacred Geometry of Light and Darkness, writes that while the artist worked with sculpture, drawing and printmaking, it was the latter that she was most fascinated with, and her favourite medium was paper. Kalidas states that for her, paper was like skin. “It can be stained, pierced and moulded, and it still has the capability of breathing and aging,” he quotes her as saying. 

One of the most significant artists to emerge in post-Independence India, Nasreen Mohamedi (1937–1990) created a body of work that demonstrates a singular and sustained engagement with abstraction. “Her minimalist practice not only adds a rich layer to the history of South Asian art but also necessitates an expansion of the narratives of international modernism.” mentioned the curatorial note from the KNMA about her exhibition held in 2016. “Mohamedi mainly worked with gestures of pencil and ink on paper, experimenting with organic forms, delicate grids, and dynamic, hard-edged lines. Her cosmopolitan outlook enabled her to draw upon a range of aesthetic sensibilities, from the poetry of Rilke and Camus, as well as Indian classical music, to the modernist architecture of Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh.”

It is artists such as these who presented different strands of the visual language in post-independence India, adding to the tapestry of modernism in their own unique ways. Their legacy served as an inspiration for artists to come, who carried forth the idea of breaking from convention and moving away from the norm to create a vocabulary that speaks of the times. 



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