Exhibition, Review: “The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India”

National artistic vanguards tend to come in two types. Some groups, like the revolutionary muralists in Mexico, consciously set out to depict an aspect of their country: its people, its landscape, its culture. Others, like the American Abstract Expressionists, develop a novel style or approach, make an aesthetic breakthrough, which only later comes to be associated with the country of its origin.

F.N. Souza: Tycoon and the Tramp, 1955
F.N. Souza: Tycoon and the Tramp, 1955 © Richard Goodbody/Shumita and Arani Bose Collection, New York

Over seventy years after its founding, it remains unclear whether India’s Progressive Artists’ Group (1947–1953) is a national vanguard of the first or second type. Art historians like to peg them as a band of dyed-in-the-wool regionalists, and the Bombay-based collective is commonly identified as the prime mover of a rooted and authentic Indian modernism. From time to time, PAG’s members—the “Progressives,” as they are now called—even made remarks to this effect. One of the founders, S.H. Raza, insisted late in life that the group’s goal was to articulate “an Indian vision and Indian ethnography.” 


Curators Zehra Jumabhoy, a professor at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and Boon Hui Tan, the director of the Asia Society Museum, have organized some eighty works, mainly paintings, across three sections. The first, “The Shock of the New,” serves as an introduction to the Progressives. The second, “The People of the New India,” presents overtly political paintings. The third, “National/International,” is a showcase of the group’s formally innovative work. In this way, the second and third sections compete with one another, neatly falling on either side of the vanguard question, one foregrounding content, the other form. Viewers have to decide which answer holds up better. (There is also a brief coda titled “Masters of the Game,” which gathers the greatest hits, or some of them, at any rate.)  

“The Shock of the New” is a recreation of the Progressives’ first major show in 1949, in which the founding six members—Souza, Raza, M.F. Husain, K.H. Ara, H.A. Gade, and S.K. Bakre (the group’s sculptor)—displayed their best early work. It wonderfully captures the excitement of the period, when old conventions were cast aside and new approaches sought out.

In the mid-1940s, there were two reigning schools of art in India, mutually opposed and equally dour. Colonial art institutes promoted a watered-down version of academic naturalism; and the so-called Bengal school, which grew out of the nationalist movement, championed a kind of Orientalist revivalism (Hindu goddesses, timeless village pastorals, and so forth). The Progressives rejected both these approaches, and did so with impudence. “We have no pretensions of making vapid revivals of any school or movement in art,” Souza wrote in his manifesto.

Instead, they looked to advanced European painting, introduced to them by Walter Langhammer and Rudolf von Leyden, Austrian refugees who mentored the group and championed them in the press (von Leyden was the first art director of The Times of India). The Progressives’ early work shows traces of Expressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, and even Primitivism—none of it fully digested and much of it put to strange ends.  


The curators frame ... a kind of aesthetic idealism. They argue that the Progressives were depicting the two main national ideologies of the era: Gandhi’s vision of a “folk” nation rooted in its villages and Nehru’s creative theory that a country was strengthened rather than weakened by its dizzying ethnic and religious differences. Given India’s current political set-up—Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an inspiration for Islamophobes around the world—it’s unsurprising that Jumabhoy gives extended play to the second idea. “It is important to notice [that] their visual language was deliberately constructed to make a case for a secular India,” she writes in her catalogue essay. “The Progressives… made a case for a plural nation, providing a visual counterpoint to Nehru’s plea for ‘unity in diversity.’” 

A painting by Krishen Khanna best illustrates her point. News of Gandhiji’s Death (1948) is a tableau of ten people reading about the great man’s assassination in the evening paper (the figures are organized around a streetlamp).