Defining Modernism: Early Works of Progressive Artists Group of Bombay

The zeitgeist of a particular time period can be observed in its social and cultural history, its political and diplomatic atmosphere. The pre-independent time of late 30’s or the decades of the 40’s hence shaped its descendent decades. Many of us may have wished to forget the brutal impact of World War II, the man-made Bengal Famine of 1943, the struggle for Independence and equal ruthlessness unleashed by the British colonial administration or even the holocaust of the Hindu-Muslim riots before and after Partition. But living and breathing in those troubled times were not easy for sensitive souls like the poets, authors or the artists. The instability and seething anger in the society make most of the artists to raise their voice. However, raising voice doesn’t necessarily mean a direct approach of theirs angst. The Nationalistic movement in the fields of visual arts that lead by the Bengal school artists like Abanindranath Tagore, as a matter of fact, was more a passive kind of reaction or answer to the British authority. Although there were men having radical thoughts in mind could not be soothed by the approach of Bengal school. These radical minds wanted to reach higher grounds taking the theoretical and critical knowledge from the Western world, they tried to make an impact on the viewers and lovers of visual art with an approach of a modern outlook towards life.

There is no precise definition of the term “Modern Art”, however Modernism in the fields of Visual Arts can be defined as a radical break with the past and the concurrent search for new forms of expression in favor of newer artistic experiments with the visual language.


The Decades of 40’s witnessed the rise of artists like Somnath Hore, Chitttoprashad in Kolkata; forged from a suppressed angst and misery their radical minds rose against the British imperialistic rule. The same kind of approach was seen in the heart of the nation, Delhi- The setting up of Delhi Silpi Chakra with the artists like Sailoz Mukherjee, B.C. Sanyal, Dhanraj Bhagat, Dinkar Kowshik, and K.S. Kulkarni and followed by Satish Gujral during the year of 1947. In the same year, in the month of December another group formed with such radical minds like F.N Souza, K.H Ara, Sadanand Bakre and S.H Raza and finally followed by M.F Husain and H.A Gade, in Mumbai. The group was called The “Progressive Artists Group”. The title ‘Progressive’ was influenced by the Progressive Writers’ Movement which was started in Indian literature by the Marxist novelists, poets, and authors at a conference held in 1936. The Progressive Artists Group aka ‘PAG’ had an anti-Imperialist outlook and tried to bridge the space between the artists and the life of the general people- it was stated in their short manifesto.

One of the oldest members of PAG. Francis Newton Souza was born in Goa in 1924 to a Roman Catholic family but life was not very easy for as he lost his father when he was only three months old. Joining Sir J. J. School of Art in 1940 was a major turning point as he mastered the academic naturalistic style of painting. But joining the communist party at the later period, influenced him for shaping his rational Marxist ideas- that can be seen in one of his earliest painting called ‘The Goan Peasants’.


The bold and broad broken dabs of rich warm colour tinted the whole image. Using the warm vermillion on the foreground and on the figures somehow suggest the inclination towards the Marxist ideology. The distant church too draped in the strong hue of Vermillion. The peasants are having their meals, their strong muscular built bodies are defined by the bold black contours of the body. The influence of the famous Mexican Muralist Diego Rivera is quite evident in the overall approach towards the figuration and the bold strokes. The ethos and the pathos of the peasants are realistically rendered. However, it’s the reality in the painting, the rawness of the colours that weren’t seen in the contemporary time of early 50’s. Its radical approach towards the visual language that marked the rise of a painter with whom we can certainly relate the word ‘Modern’.

Before the major PAG exhibition (1949) Souza had held his one-man show named as the ‘Farewell Show’. The show includes various other nude imageries inspired after the Khajuraho sculptures. It was here that Souza had exhibited his fully naked Self Portrait which had aroused quite a controversy. The realistic representation of the frontal nudity of the artist himself shocked its viewers. Holding a long flat brush in his left hand the artists gazes to the viewers directly. The known patches of colours are there. The arms are distorted in proportion, quite big and bold for the rest of the body. The checkered floor and a small open window behind the artist, however, did not match in terms of perspective. It’s not the naturalism but it’s all about the fragmented realities around the artist that get conveyed in the painting as he himself felt. In the later period, Souza tried to incorporate the coloristic developments made familiar by the newly discovered both German Expressionist use of color and as well as the Fauvist use of color as we can see in the works of Matisse.


One of the earliest paintings of Husain as a member of PAG was the portrait of Souza done in 1950. The Bare-bodied Souza, cigarette in his mouth, intensely engrossed in painting the canvas; represented by the animated bold contours and accentuate colour that can be associated with the Expressionistic approach in Europe particularly similar in manner to the painter Kokoschka. The use of burnt sienna and burnt umber in rendering Souza’s bare muscular chest and the use of shades of yellow in the background and it the parts of the canvas was quite revolting, keeping in mind the nationalistic approach that many of the artists of the nation took, including the Bengal School. However, the sheer swiftness of the brushwork achieved to get a sense of animation in the painting. As a matter of fact, Husain developed an individual style in the later works which can be described by the sheer simplicity and monumentality of image, achieved through bold lines, bright resonating colour, and heavy brushwork.


The emancipation of colour, one of the various aspects of Fauvists; that somehow inspired Husain, can be seen in his earlier works like the above one. The bold lines and the rich heavy colour gives the painting a sense of monumentality. The lines are so bold that it dominates the whole image, however, creating right balance with the applied heavy colours. The figures are linear in quality, however, a close derivative of folk prototypes that also has the robustness of Indian traditional sculptures. In some portions the outline of the figures extended to planes and merged with other colour, and in some parts, the contours of figurative forms merged with the background colour creating tension between forms and figures.

S.H. Raza was much different in temperament that Souza or Husain had. Studied the Academic approach of painting from Nagpur school of Art, Raza predominantly was inclined towards landscape paintings. Trained in the genre of opaque color popularized by Bendre and Solegaonkar, he also mastered the traditional watercolour landscape paintings with panoramic views but soon evolved a different visual language to narrate his landscapes.


Raza intently discards the old school traditional naturalistic approach towards landscape paintings and evolve his own language that predominant by the ideas of opaque colours that he influenced by the school of Bendre and Solegaonkar. His landscapes thus do not depict any recognizable natural scene but the use of heavy patches of opaque colours celebrates the Nature’s playfulness with colours thus giving his paintings a universal identity. It is quite obvious such radical mind would come into the folds of PAG where the members can share their ideas with others.

Among the other members of PAG, H.A. Gade was sounder in terms of academic background. Earning degrees in science and education from Nagpur University, he completed his initial training in painting from Nagpur and soon completed diploma from Sir J.J School of Arts, Mumbai. Stylistically he was more inclined towards the colour treatment of Raza, however, Gade’s paintings consist more rich and warm colour applied into the simplified form of childlike figures that contoured by bold lines. Gade also experimented with various other directions. He soon joined PAG as persuaded by Raza.


The artists of PAG displayed a willingness, a desire to look towards European modernism to find means to break away from the fruitless pursuit of naturalism or revivalism. And thus almost all of them, at least in the first few years of PAG, went back to the roots of Indian identity, classical traditions of art, the faces and the bodies of the inhabitants of this diverse land, their art, lifestyle and more. On the other hand, the so-called ‘primitivist’ mode of Western modern art also influenced these artists to seek the essence of their own identity in the rich folk culture of their native land.

As a matter of fact, The J.J School of Art (established 1857), formed a major institutional context for the art fraternity in Bombay. A long-standing bastion of conservative values in art education following neo-classical Victorian modes. But soon it began to face changes in the form of the inclusion of training in ‘Indian style’ and mural painting during the tenure of Gladstone Solomon as Director (1919-37). This institution played an important pedagogic role, however, it also gave a structure to these artists like Souza to protest and rebel against. And of course, Husain followed him in joining and forming PAG. The 1940s was a momentous decade. A progression of events and circumstances led to the birth of an independent nation: the Quit India movement of 1942, the Bengal famine of 1943, the breakdown of talks between Gandhi and Jinnah and the subsequent trauma of the partition of India that came hand-in-hand with the euphoria of liberation. In the year 1944 that Jawaharlal Nehru wrote his Discovery of India in Ahmednagar Fort Prison, B. R. Ambedkar was working on What Gandhi and the Congress have Done to the Untouchables. 1946 and 1947 saw Communist-led peasant uprisings in Tebhaga and Telangana respectively. The adoption of the Constitution in 1950 which abolished separate electorates and envisaged protection to weaker sections of society was preceded in 1949 by the formation of the Jharkhand Party.

In the fields of culture a socialist inclination was visible from the establishment of the Progressive Writers Association (1936) and the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (1944), as well as from groups of visual artists who described themselves as “progressive”—the Calcutta Group (1942), Progressive Painters Association, Madras (1944) and of course, the PAG, Bombay, in the year of independence.

It is in this situation that the group of six young men from Bombay who called themselves the PAG sought to make their intervention in terms of a radical bid for a universalized modem sensibility It is significant that of the six members of the Group, three, Souza, Husain and, were from minority backgrounds, a fourth, Ara, had Dalit antecedents.; Their social and economic backgrounds lend a special gravity to their bid for this universalized modernism in the context of the newly-independent India.

When the group first held its exhibition in then Bombay in 1948. The writings on the pamphlet catalog of the group show penned by Souza is important to look to further understand their outlook towards ‘ART’ more effectively. Souza wrote, ” I do not understand now, why we still call our Group ‘Progressive’….we have changed all the chauvinist ideas and leftist fanaticism which we had incorporated in our manifesto at the inception of the group: To bring about a closer understanding and contact between different sections of artists’ community and the people…we found this in the course of working an impossibility, because there is not only a permanent rift between sections of artists,…. but the gulf between the so-called ‘people’ and the artist cannot be bridged.”

The change in the attitude can possibly be understood as the inner turmoil that the members of PAG had face along with various others artists of that time. The world at large had seen the shifts of Realism to Cubism and Expressionism in the field of Visual Art in Europe. The urge to catch up with the international mode of representation was too influential for the artist of India; however, there is another turmoil of creating one national identity at large which too had a great impact on the artists. Most of the members of PAG was somehow influenced by the Cubist or Expressionist phenomenon which can be justified by the above reasons. The rise of this newly shaped ideas created what we call ‘Modern’ in terms of a whole new approach to representation. Thus they had to reject the past and hold the newly shaped ideologies as old traditional aspects of painting would not justice their ‘freedom of expression.’ As a matter of fact, the stylistic features of Post-Impressionism, Synthetic Cubism and Expressionism made the most profound impact on the artists of PAG and eventually they harnessed these various international theories with national and traditional aspects of Visual language creating one ‘Indian Modernism’- a whole new approach to look at ART which essentially had a nationalistic rendition in terms of stylistic features as well as various subjective exposure.


    Chaitanya Sambrani. (2003). The Progressive Artists’ Group. In G. Sinha, Indian Art: An Overview. Rupa & Co.
    Gayatri Sinha. (2009). Art and Visual Culture in India. Marg Publications.
    Yashodhara Dalmia. (2001). the Making of Modern Indian Art the Progressives. New Delhi.
    Ratan Parimo & Nalini Bhagwat. PAG: An Overview

*The Images are taken from open Web sources.


Framing the Subconscious


              Sometimes something comes along with the course of time and changes everything as it has been known thus far. 1870 onwards the scenario in the field of visual arts in European countries changed by the rise of radical movements like Impressionism preceding by Post-Impressionism and so on. However, 1900 onwards the turns changed quickly in succession of rapidly spreading “Art Movements” in a matter of no time. Within decades of 20’s and 30’s, the whole world witnessed the genius of radical movement like Fauvism, Cubism and henceforth Dadaism. As a matter of fact, the Fauvists by and large emancipated the ‘Colour’ and the Cubist showed the world viewer a whole new fragmented reality, and the anti-art and nihilistic attitude of Dadaism challenged the representational Institute of’ ‘Art’. In midst of this a new ‘Art movement’ emerged in 1920’s and changed the way ‘Art’ was defined. Combining both the ideas and intellect of Cubism and Dadaism, ‘Surrealism’ came into being to cater the world with a whole new approach towards ‘Art’.

With its nucleus in Paris and roots in Dada, Surrealism started its journey after the World War I in 1920’s. The influential force for Surrealism was the newly developed Psycho-analytical ideas of Sigmund Freud. Initially a Neurologist, Freud conceived the ideas of Psycho-analysis and compared the human mind with an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg is actually the conscious being of oneself and the rest of it refers to the unknown realm of the subconscious. However, he also talked about the existence of the ‘Unconscious’ part of a human mind. At a very advanced level, he also proposed the idea of ‘Dream Theory’. Our very notion about dreams is more inclined towards pleasant dreams. However Freud suggested that Dreams can be an excellent tool to understand various aspects of one’s personality and behavior- nothing one does occur by chance, every action and thought are motivated by one’s unconscious at some level. As we all live in a civilized society we have a tendency to hold back our urges and repress our impulses. However, these urges and impulses must be released in some way; they have to have a way of coming to the surface in disguised form of Dreams. And that is where the dream theory comes.

The French poet, André Breton, who was known as the “Pope of Surrealism.” wrote the Surrealist Manifesto to describe how he and the ‘surrealist’ minds influenced by the hidden aspects of human minds thanks to Freud and wanted to combine the conscious and subconscious into a new “absolute reality”. It’s that reality that exists but we cannot see it or rather say do not want to see it. He wrote, I believe in the future resolution of these two states — outwardly so contradictory- which are dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, a Surreality, so to speak, I am aiming for its conquest, certain that I myself shall not attain it, but too indifferent to my death not to calculate the joys of such possession.” But the important question was how to get this ‘Super-reality’- the unconscious part of the mind that is always guarded by the conscious efforts. Initially, with the aid of drugs or alcohol, Surrealists poets and writers tried to play games to bring the unconscious mind to the surface.  The surrealist artists tried to draw “automatically” to be free of the constraints of traditional representational art and they drew exquisite corpses or composite drawings to create new thoughts for the resulting figures that could not be imagined under ordinary circumstances.  There is much in Surrealism that is manifested exercise of free association derived from Sigmund Freud but the artists like Joan Miro, Max Ernst, and several others tried to incorporate that free association into the realms of visual arts practices.


Melancholy and Mystery of a Street, 1914

As a precursor of the Surrealist artist, the Italian painter Giorgio De Chirico produced empathetically ambiguous works of art in late 1910 that can be related to the later Surrealist works. Chirico painted series of cityscapes and shop windows that were a part of the movement called Pittura Metafisica; his ambiguous cityscapes flooded with the strange sunlight of autumn afternoons with long shadowy characters placed in vast open squares with public monuments that manifested his works with mystic reality. His vision can be read in one of his painting, “Melancholy and Mystery of a Street”, 1914. This simplistic representation of a steep street across the buildings filled with sinister air- small silhouetted girl with her hoop in the foreground, the empty van, the ominous shadow of a man emerging from behind the building- all of these elements make the painting more mysterious and creepy. Thus his ‘Metaphysical Towns’ had been a great deal of influence for both the Dadaists and, later, the Surrealists. The eerie mood and the visionary quality of the paintings of Chirico inspire later Surrealists who sought to portray the worlds of Dreams.


The Robing of the Bride”,1940

Initially a Dada activist, Max Ernst Became one of the early adherents of the surrealist circle of Andre Breton. Before joining Surrealists, Ernst incorporated found objects in his works and explored various other experimenting ways to bring innovation in the language of visual art. Working under the banner of Surrealism, Max soon began making paintings that shared the mysterious dream-like quality that cannot be experienced in the real world we know. In one of his later painting, “The Robing of the Bride”,1940, he created this dream-like atmosphere by painting some mere mystical composite creature: half-men, half-bird. The center in occupied by a mighty owl-headed caped naked female figure that directly stared back at viewers. In the left, sleek bird-men, perhaps Ernst himself, pointed an arrow towards his red-caped companion. The arrow, however, symbolizes the phallic sign; and the second nude female figure, eyes closed, brushed aside to the right while a many-breasted, pregnant hermaphrodite is seated in the right hand lower corner. The whole composition represents an unnatural combination of thinking but that was the field of exploration for the surrealists. Ernst own words can explain it further: “..Thus I obtained a faithful fixed image of my hallucination and transformed into revealing dramas, my most secret desires”.



The Harlequin’s Carnival, 1925


Categorized as ‘the most Surrealist of all’ by Andre Breton, Joan Miro’s works contained elements of fantasy and hallucination. Miro achieved this devising an innovative method: he started his paintings by scattered collage composition and the shapes of the colleges became motifs for his thoughts. Miro himself described his process as a back and forth switch between conscious and unconscious image making:”…I begin painting and as I paint the picture begins to assert itself, or suggest itself under my brush. The form becomes a sigh for a woman or a bird as I work…..the first stage is free, unconscious….the second stage is carefully calculated.” His words echoed in one of his works, “Harlequin’s Carnival”- a party of imagery beast takes place in a room that opened to the sky by a small window to the right. It shows the abstraction that he was led by his calculated ‘unconscious’ mind to create something absurd looking creatures. He carefully used primary colours in this painting that are set off by the thin, mid-tone wash of the floor. This painting is in the truest sense, spontaneous expression of the little known submerged unconscious part of life.


The Treachery of Images, 1929

How do one relate a rational image to its irrational title that suggests the exact opposite, defying the norms of meanings? The image that we can see is the meticulously rendered depiction of a briar pipe by one of the celebrated Surrealist painter Ren  Magritte, done in late 20’s. This work is called” The Treachery of Images”. However one would not justify the title as long as he or she observe the caption beneath the image, contradictory to the obvious: ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ means ‘this is not a pipe’! Magritte thus gave disruptive shocks to the viewers by challenging their expectations based on logic and common sense. Indeed, a treachery of the image!



Personal Values”, 1952

The interesting aspect of Magritte’s works is that his paintings take the form of a dialogue with the world and question the reality of real phenomenon and their relation to the painted image. One of his other works, “Personal Values”, 1952 depicts realistically rendered some toiletry objects in a closed room. But the disrupting scale of the realistic objects thus transforms this banal harmless painting into something very puzzling and annoying. The bed, the wardrobe is true to life-size whereas the comb, the shaving brush, the match-stick or the wine glass is depicted in such scale, way beyond our logical understanding of the objects. This trick was his trademark to reach to a certain level of reality that exists but cannot be seen: the unconscious. A similar approach is echoed in his own words: “The true art of painting into conceive and realize paintings capable of giving the spectator a purely visual perception of the external world.”The surrealist works of art that successfully evokes the most difficult questions about the possible realization of dreams in canvas and the symbolic functions of imagery are referred to the most celebrated surrealist painter of all whose “paranoiac-critical” method (in which


The surrealist works of art that successfully evokes the most difficult questions about the possible realization of dreams in canvas and the symbolic functions of imagery are referred to the most celebrated surrealist painter of all whose “paranoiac-critical” method (in which one thing is seen in terms of another) marked his sense of Unconscious and Subconscious in more complex manner: Salvador Dali. The most important thing to remember that the dream for Freud and Breton was a direct path to the unconscious, the way in which a dream deals with its subjects, distorting and allowing contradictory facts. The manifestation of a dream, what one remember when woke up, possibly masks hidden meanings which may be revealed by the dreamer’s association by complex analysis. Salvador Dali presented his complex paintings whose contents were the truest manifestation of the dream world. Dali described his creative process: “to materialize the images of concrete irrationality with the most imperialistic fury of precision…in order that the world of imagination and of concrete irrationality may be as objectively evident…as that of the exterior world of phenomenal reality.” His words are best reflected in one of his most celebrated works, ‘The Persistence of Memory’, a haunting space filled with allegorical elements where time has ended.


The Persistence of Memory,1931

Dali brought his visions and fantasies to life by achieving meticulously detailed realistic rendering of objects, as he stated, ‘ hand-painted photographs’. It’s this realistic representation of something irrational and absurd that added the dimension of the unconscious. In ‘The Persistence of Memory’ Dali created an alien landscape filled with allegorical elements, tinted in bright and gloomy colours with detailed objects in logical explanations. The clocks are melted, one hanging from a lone olive tree, other lying dead on a raised platform on the left. The depicted Horizon is based loosely on a landscape near Portlight, northeast Spain and an absurd looking limped head lies in the middle upon which the fourth melted watch rests. A single and apparently dead olive tree signifies the dreamlike characteristics of the painting and also refers to that fact that olive groves were available in the region Dali came from; however traditionally, olive branch is the symbol of peace, purification and plenty. The clocks over the platform and the grotesque looking creature are melted and softened and no longer appears to be familiar or rational to our preconceived ideas and also defines the fact that time has stopped in that strange place. The red clock at the foreground that heavily filled with insects, insects that usually associated with decay resulting in death. A kind of representation referring memento mori. On the other hand, a dormant head lies slumped across a small stone ridge. Interestingly, it is often thought to Dali’s self-portrait in profile. However its shape derived from a large standing rock near the coast at Cadaques. Although this particular absurd looking creature had already appeared in his other works like, ‘The great masturbator’ and ‘ The enigma of desire’, both from 1929. The long eyelashes and the protrude tongue-like shape also add a dimension of eroticism. Dali rendered every detail of this dreamscape with precise control to make the world of his painting as convincing as possible although the subject is somewhat irrational that come from his unconscious.

Movements like Surrealism stems directly from the effects of modern age warfare. As Europe was left devastated and disillusioned after years of fighting in World War I. The effects of the war were visible everywhere in Europe as populations became stagnant, economies plummeted, buildings remained in ruins and many survivors suffered from depression. The general population had a feeling of utter destruction at the hands of man.  Emerging from this chaos, however, new artistic, political and scientific ideas developed in Europe. Surrealism influenced by these factors too, however, the realization and discovery of unknown Subconscious and Unconscious by Freud fueled the Surrealist ideas.   Throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, Surrealism enjoyed widespread acclaim culminating in the International Surrealist Exhibition held in London in 1936. Surrealist theory embraced the irrational in human thought and behavior and practiced in the visual arts by the most complex minds that framed the Unconscious. Thus the biomorphic forms of Jean (Hans) Arp and Joan Miró and the realistic visions of Salvador Dali referred to the inner fear and unknown feelings of oneself that can only be encountered without being conscious. As we the viewer engages ourselves with the imagery of Unconscious, at such times we probably agree to what Edgar Allan Poe once wrote:

                                      “All that we seen or seem

                                  Is but a dream within a dream.”