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The Legacy of the Progressive Artists Group and the Importance of Secularism in India

An eclectic group of artists, from different backgrounds and styles, united in rejecting nostalgic, orientalist nationalism

‘Today we paint with absolute freedom for content and techniques almost anarchic,’ the artist F.N. Souza wrote in the catalogue for the Progressive Artists Group’s first exhibition, held in 1949 at the Bombay Art Salon. ‘We have no pretensions of making vapid revivals of any school or movement in art. We have studied the various schools of painting and sculpture to arrive at a vigorous synthesis.’ Two years prior, on the eve of India’s independence from Britain, Souza had gathered together an eclectic group of artists, from different backgrounds and styles, who were united under the banner of rejecting the nostalgic, orientalist nationalism espoused by the Bengal School and the Bombay Art Society’s annual exhibitions. Favouring, instead, a syncretic pluralism drawn from India’s rich history, as well as from Western modernists such as Paul Cézanne, the six artists at the core of the group’s initial formation – Souza, K.H. Ara, S.K. Bakre, H.A. Gade, M.F. Husain and S.H. Raza – avowed a secularist vision of the new nation. While the group formally disbanded in 1956, with many of its original members having moved to London or Paris, its dynamic mission lived on in the works of V.S. Gaitonde, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee and Mohan Samant, as well as Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya – the only woman artist associated with the group. In their amalgamation of styles, practices and values drawn from a range of sources, the Progressives sought to mirror the many vernacular, religious and secular strands of India’s heterogeneous culture.

The Progressives’ wide array of techniques and subjects has provided much fodder from which to distill notions of a modernity particular to India, as well as one situated in internationalist discourse. Several exhibitions have tried to do both, such as ‘The Moderns’, curated by Yashodhara Dalmia to inaugurate Mumbai’s National Gallery of Modern Art in 1996, as well as more recent shows mounted at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Queens Museum and Rubin Museum in New York. ‘The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India’, which opened at New York’s Asia Society Museum on 14 September, further underscores the relevance of the group’s pluralist aspirations in the face of a fundamentalist streak of Hindu nationalism that has governed India for the past two decades. The exhibition includes works by the Progressives from the early 1940s to the late ’90s, interspersed with sculptures from the tenth and 11th centuries, locating the artists’ sources in both Indian cultural history and Euro-American abstraction.

Co-curator Zehra Jumabhoy notes that the Progressives functioned as a ‘visual counterpoint to founding Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s plea for “unity in diversity”’. In recent times, this liberal idealism has been consistently put under pressure: consider Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ringing endorsements of Karan Acharya’s militant depictions of the god Hanuman or his praise of Kshitij Bajpai’s communalist political cartoons, both of which instrumentalize Hindutva tropes at the expense of India’s nominal ‘secular’ identity. As Faisal Devji notes in the accompanying exhibition catalogue, secularism in India is a normative notion to which all sides adhere; it is, as Devji writes, ‘an entirely vernacular concept, one seen as possessing a social rather than legal reality’. Despite its shortcomings, the Nehruvian vision of modern India was at least steadfast in its disavowal of state-sponsored fundamentalism.

To unknot the complicated relationship between religious sectarianism and artistic expression, we need look no further than the legacy of Husain, whose career was so dogged by the Hindu right wing from the 1990s onwards that he left India in 2006 for self-imposed exile, after being charged with ‘hurting the sentiments of the people’ for his images of nude Hindu gods and goddesses. Husain’s paintings – along with those of Gaitonde, Mehta and other Progressives – have fetched record-breaking prices in the secondary market, indicating that the legacy of the group’s vision has perhaps been eclipsed by the market economics of an India whose globalized status the artists could have never predicted.

In her collection of essays When Was Modernism? (2000), art historian Geeta Kapur notes that ‘whatever was sanctioned in progressive politics of the post-Independence phase – by a centrist state, the national bourgeoisie, a secular people – has come to be desanctioned by the Hindu right wing’. Yet, Kapur cautions against claiming the Progressives’ secular vision as the only lasting iteration of an Indian modernity, when pro-development politicians have allied with religious nationalists. As fundamentalism threatens forms of secular dissent, it seems vital to re-examine the Progressives’ idealistic vision of India as a nation of commingling and complementary differences. 

Published in frieze, issue 198, October 2018, with the title ‘The Iconoclasts’.

Main image: Maqbool Feda Husain, Autobiography Pechwei, date unknown. Courtesy: Aicon Gallery, New York

Tausif Noor is a contributing editor at Momus and writer based in New York.

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