Rooftop – Where India Inspires Creativity

Learn Indian art online

The Progressive Artists’ Group and the Breakthrough into Modern Indian Art

The Origin of the Group

In the wake of India’s independence in 1947, a group of young, avant-garde artists in Bombay (now Mumbai) sought to redefine Indian art, breaking away from colonial and traditional influences. This vision culminated in the formation of the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) in the same year. The founding members—F.N. Souza, M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza, H.A. Gade, S.K. Bakre, and K.H. Ara—were united by a shared desire to create a new narrative in Indian art that embraced modernism and internationalism while remaining deeply rooted in Indian culture. They aimed to move past the conservative styles and romantic nationalism of the Bengal School, which had dominated Indian art during the colonial period.   

Members of the Progressive Artists’ Group, photographed in 1947. Source: Wikipedia

The PAG’s Philosophy

The Progressive Artists’ Group was driven by a radical ethos that sought to redefine the cultural landscape of India. The PAG rejected the prevailing academic styles, which they felt were shackled by colonial impositions and a regressive adherence to traditional forms. They were inspired by European modernist movements like Cubism, Expressionism, and Surrealism, but they did not merely imitate these styles. Instead, they sought to synthesize modernist approaches with Indian themes and experiences, creating a unique fusion that was both contemporary and deeply rooted in Indian sensibilities. For instance, M.F. Husain’s incorporation of Indian epics and folk tales within a modernist framework allowed traditional stories to be viewed through a contemporary lens. Similarly, S.H. Raza’s use of symbols like the ‘bindu’ drew from Indian spirituality, offering a profound depth to his abstract works. 

F.N. Souza, the de facto leader of the group, was particularly vocal about their mission. He criticized the stagnation in Indian art and called for a break from the “dead conventions” of academic realism and revivalism. The group’s manifesto emphasized freedom of expression, individuality, and the importance of the artist’s personal vision. They sought to create art that was socially relevant, intellectually stimulating, and reflective of the dynamic changes occurring in Indian society.

The PAG’s Initial Impact

The Progressive Artists’ Group’s first exhibition in 1949, inaugurated by writer Mulk Raj Anand, marked a significant departure from the then-prevailing art forms. This exhibition and subsequent ones in Calcutta and Bombay challenged the existing art establishment and were instrumental in shifting the Indian art narrative towards modernism.

But that was only the beginning of laying the foundation for future generations of artists to explore and experiment beyond traditional boundaries. Their impact was both immediate and long-lasting, influencing a wide array of subsequent artistic movements and individual artists.

One of the most significant aspects of their legacy was the establishment of a modern Indian art market. By aligning themselves with international modernist movements, they opened up Indian art to global audiences and markets, creating opportunities for Indian artists to gain recognition and commercial success abroad. Exhibitions in Europe and the United States, facilitated by members like Souza and Husain, helped to cement the global reputation of Indian modernism.

Invitations to the February and July 1949 exhibitions by the Progressive Artists’ Group. Source: Prinseps

The PAG’s emphasis on individual expression and the fusion of global and local elements also paved the way for a more pluralistic and inclusive understanding of Indian identity in art. Their work demonstrated that Indian art could be modern and globally relevant without losing its distinct cultural voice.

Challenges and Criticisms

Despite their monumental contributions, the PAG did not escape criticism. Some detractors argued that their focus on modernist styles alienated them from the broader Indian populace, whose artistic tastes were still rooted in traditional forms. This criticism was particularly relevant in the context of India’s diverse socio-economic landscape, where access to modernist art was often limited to the urban elite.

An untitled piece by F.N. Souza, 1958. Source: Sotheby’s

Moreover, the group’s association with Western art movements raised questions about cultural authenticity and the potential for neo-colonial influences. Critics argued that while the PAG sought to liberate Indian art from colonial constraints, their adoption of Western styles inadvertently perpetuated another form of cultural dominance. This tension between global influences and local traditions remains a critical discourse in contemporary Indian art.

The PAG’s Dissolution

The Progressive Artists’ Group, despite its significant impact on the Indian art scene, officially disbanded in 1956. The initial camaraderie and shared vision began to wane as individual members sought to pursue personal artistic and professional paths, often abroad. F.N. Souza’s departure to London in 1949 marked a pivotal moment, as he sought greater artistic freedom and opportunities in a more receptive international environment. This move was soon followed by other members such as S.H. Raza and M.F. Husain, who also found success on the global stage​.

Internal conflicts and differing artistic visions contributed to the group’s fragmentation. While the PAG was united in its mission to revolutionize Indian art, the strong personalities and diverse styles of its members sometimes led to disagreements on the direction and nature of their collective work. The lack of a cohesive organizational structure further exacerbated these tensions, leading to its eventual disbandment​ ​.

Legacy and Continued Relevance

Although their time was short-lived, The Progressive Artists’ Group legacy lives on. Today, it is celebrated for its groundbreaking contributions to Indian modern art. Retrospectives and exhibitions dedicated to their work continue to attract attention, both in India and internationally. Their legacy is evident in the way Indian art is perceived on the global stage, as well as in the continued exploration of modernist themes by contemporary Indian artists.

First publication of the iconic photo of the Progressive Artists’ Group and their associates in the catalogue for the inauguration of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) Mumbai, 1996. Source: Metromod

The principles of artistic freedom, innovation, and cultural synthesis championed by the PAG have left an indelible mark on the art world. Institutions like the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi and the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai frequently showcase works from the PAG, ensuring that new generations of art enthusiasts and scholars can engage with their revolutionary vision.

Written by Lakshmi Nagaraj, an independent mixed-media artist and arts professional working towards pushing the boundaries of art practices and including marginalised voices while doing so. 

Related Posts