How to Appreciate and Understand Progressive Art: A Beginner's Guide

How to Appreciate and Understand Progressive Art: A Beginner's Guide

India has witnessed many art movements; among them, the most captivating is the progressive art group formed in Mumbai in 1947. The Progressive Artists Group, or PAG, was a brief art movement where the artists challenged the existing conservative art styles.

Founded in the year of independence, PAG created their own style, or an Indian form of modernism that acknowledged the developments in art in Europe and America.

PAG Group

Historical Context:

The movement was rooted in the socio-political upheavals of post-colonial India, embraced modernist principles, and questioned traditional norms of Indian Art. Led by artists like F.N. Souza, M.F. Hussain, S.H. Raza, K.H. Ara, H.A. Gade, and S.K Bakre (the only sculptor in the group), the group intended to break free from the typical academic realism and create an innovative style deep-rooted in contemporary Indian life. The movement focused mainly on experimentation, innovation and a blend of cultures. The PAG explored various themes, styles, and techniques in their artworks.

The founding members of PAG reflected the diverse social, economic, and & linguistic backgrounds, and such a pluralistic state became the driving force of the group. Later, the group extended to include Akbar Padamsee, Tyeb Mehta, V. S. Gaitonde, and Ram Kumar. The group sought to break free from the revivalism of the Bengal art school and inspire a global involvement of the Indian avant-garde.

The partition was a major theme for the founding members of the PAG, and it became the leading cause of their pursuit of a new standard in India, beginning with a distinctive art style. The group was highly influenced by European modernism, yet it included members who explored various genres. The progressives brought momentum to the art world in a newly independent India. They searched through the rich traditions from the 17th-century Mughal and Pahari miniature paintings to the carvings of Khajuraho temples. They have incorporated elements from various religions to develop a style based on secular modernity.

Diverse Artistic Styles and Techniques:

Brimming with innovative ideas and visions, The PAG had their foremost exhibition of paintings and sculptures in 1949. The artists of PAG followed a wide range of artistic styles as they were influenced by various movements and techniques. They often merged Indian themes and images with European modernism, post-impressionism, cubism, and expressionism.

K.H. Ara, a significant artist among the PAG, created paintings similar to tribal and folk art styles, while F.N. Souza displayed a unique style with a slightly distorted form. Another influential artist, H.A. Gade, focused on creating landscape imagery inspired by abstract painting style. Artists like Raza started with landscapes and gradually moved to geometric abstraction. M.F. Hussain paintings reflected the nuanced elements of folk art, tribal art, and mythology.

Let’s dive into the lives and works of the PAG members!

(Exhibition of the Progressive Artists' Group) 

1. F.N. Souza

The epitome of rebellion and nonconformity, F.N. Souza was the foremost icon of the PAG movement. Boisterous and often rebellious, Souza was expelled from the J.J. School of Art Mumbai for participating in the political movements while studying art. Known for his bold and expressionistic style, his powerful canvases exude graphic and provocative images. Brought up as a strict Catholic, Souza admits that the Roman Catholic church in Goa gave him the initial ideas of image making. At a later time, Souza was moved by the South Indian Bronze sculptures and the erotic carvings on the Khajuraho temples.

Souza’s women were never uncomfortable in their nudity; they don’t hide beneath a veil, and most of the time, they look right through the viewer and are often entangled in the fire of passion. His immense oeuvre also covered distorted forms of landscapes, still life, and various icons of Christianity. His works depicted the tribal art of Goa and the religious zeal of the Catholic church. Souza paintings also displayed the man-woman relationship and their conflicts, strains, and frictions. Often contradicting the ideals of beauty, truth, and goodness, his works peek into that which is considered taboo.

2. S.H. Raza

One of the prestigious artists in the progressive art group, S.H. Raza, was well known for his use of radiant primary colours. His non-figurative works communicated a rather passionate lived reality. The bindus or the dark circles in his paintings exhibited the metaphysical concept of the focal point of ultimate concentration. The flaming colours that surround the dark circles convey a restless energy.

Raza's vast oeuvre captivates one with myriad colours, whether his early landscapes extend into impressionistic and post-impressionistic styles or the later works in his Bindu series. Raza laid the foundation for the art movement in the country and set it on the global map.

(S H Raza, Encounter, Acrylic on canvas, 12 x 12 inches, 2008)

3. M.F. Hussain

M.F. Hussain was one of the significant modern Indian painters who received worldwide recognition. Unlike the rest of the PAG members, Hussain was a self-taught artist who came to Mumbai to become a painter. He was invited by F.N. Souza to join the PAG. Hussain started his career by painting billboards for films and creating furniture designs. Hussain’s paintings also incorporated various folk, tribal, and mythological elements to produce an innovative style of dynamic contemporary art. M.F. Hussain envisioned a secular language that explained India’s diversified culture.

Hussain covered both geographical and conceptual territories and has explored various medium of expressions like painting, poetry, performance, installation, and cinema. He depicted the icons of Indian culture and captured the quintessence of his subjects, such as Mother Teresa and the characters of the epic of Mahabharata.

M.F. Hussain’s famous paintings also include the enigmatic horse series. From an early age, Hussain was intensely fascinated with horses, observing and painting them in their original form with coal and chalk pieces. He also travelled to China, where he learned about pottery horses from the Song dynasty. Hussain’s galloping horses and their elegant strides brim with movement and vitality.

4. K.H. Ara

Born in 1913 at Bolarum, K.H. Ara is a self-taught artist who did not receive any schooling or formal training in Fine Arts. He moved to Mumbai at the age of seven and earned a living cleaning cars and later joined the Salt Satyagraha movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. He is considered the one of the foremost contemporary Indian painters who used the female nude as a subject. His association with the PAG helped intensify his own modernist styles.

K.H. Ara's paintings and drawings, especially still lifes, contain a deliberate roughness. His watercolours are distinct as he achieved to create a likeness to oil paintings by applying colours right from the tube and then spreading it on the canvas in a dry impasto technique. Intuitive and spontaneous, his paintings contain an element of eclecticism representing an exploratory style.

5. H.A. Gade

H.A. Gade is recognised as one of the most exceptional artists in the history of Modern India. He believed in an unconventional and dynamic art style, which enabled him to create unique artworks. Unlike other members of the PAG, Gade had a scientific background. While teaching at the Spencer Training College in Jabalpur, Gade joined part-time at the Nagpur School of Art. He began to paint landscapes and cityscapes in watercolours during this time, inspired by his long-term friend S.H. Raza.

Bringing into line the PAG's ideologies, Gade rejected national symbols and created abstract compositions depicting towns and cityscapes encompassing land and nature. Known for his mastery over colours, his later works are brought to life with oil painting. Gade received a gold medal at the Bombay Art Society in 1956 for his landscape painting in an avant-garde style.

6. S. k. Bakre

Sadanand Bakre, the only sculptor in the Progressive art group, was introduced to the group through his friendship with Ara, who encouraged him to be a part of the founder's team. A meticulous artist, Bakre excelled in clay modelling, plaster casting, and bronze casting. He also experimented with a number of sculptural techniques, and his innovative style was acknowledged with numerous awards.

After travelling to Britain in 1951, Bakre transitioned to painting medium, abandoning sculpture. Inspired by modernism, Bakre created a unique style of painting and sculpting. His specific sense of colour combinations was praised within the artistic community. Bakre used various techniques, such as distortion, to depict the human form, and his canvases were finished in a sculptural manner with geometrical grids. Bakre returned to India in 1975 after his time in Europe.

PAG – Developments and Disbanding

Later, the group included numerous artists like Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, Bhanu Athaiya, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar and Mohan Samant. Bhanu Athaiya, the first Indian Oscar winner for costume design, was also the only female member who exhibited alongside the Progressives. One of the most profound artists of India, V.S. Gaitonde, was briefly associated with the PAG. He is considered an evocative artist who paved the foundations of abstraction in India. He incorporated the elements of Chinese calligraphy and Zen philosophy, which is reflected in his works. Ram Kumar artist was also associated with the PAG in his early times. Ram Kumar paintings depicted the alienated individual in the city and later the dilapidated houses in Banaras which bear a sense of hopelessness.

The PAG was disbanded in the mid-1950s after conducting three group exhibitions in 1949, 1950, and 1953. PAG remains the most prominent and experimental movement in the history of modern art in India.

Also Read: ART AS AN ALTERNATIVE INVESTMENT: IS IT THE RIGHT CHOICE?

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