Interview: 'The Progressive Revolution' Co-Curators Discuss India's First Modern Artists
An conversation with Zehra Jumabhoy and Boon Hui Tan
This fall, Asia Society presents The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India, the first comprehensive North American exhibition of the Progressive Artists' Group (PAG) in more than three decades. The first modern artists of the new nation, F. N. Souza, S. H. Raza, K. H. Ara, M. F. Husain, S. K. Bakre, and H. A. Gade, came together in Bombay (now Mumbai) following Indian independence and the 1947 Partition. Instrumental in providing the visual representation of what they hoped India could become, the Progressives were painters and sculptors focused on defining and shaping art for the new state. Although the group disbanded in the 1950s, its legacy remains a potent force on the visuals arts, culture, and politics of contemporary India. We sat down with exhibition co-curators Zehra Jumabhoy and Boon Hui Tan to find out more about the various individuals associated with the PAG, their connection to Asia Society, the long tail of the group's influence, and more.
Who were the Progressive artists and what did they mean to the rise of Indian modern art?
Zehra Jumabhoy (ZJ): Their importance to Indian modernity is very linked to the historical period. 1947 is the birth of the Indian nation-state and you can’t get away from seeing how their visual language is really about defining what kind of India this would be. The other thing that’s happening alongside independence is Partition. The dialogue of Partition is quite interesting because you have the formation of the world’s first Muslim state in Pakistan. Pakistan defines itself as "Muslim Pakistan," so India defines itself as "secular India." Among this group, many of whom are Muslim, it becomes very important to stake themselves as Indian in some way. This is particularly true of artists like Husain and Raza, whose brothers and family went across the border because of their religion and desire to affiliate with Pakistan. All of this is part of the myth of modern Indian art, looking at what constitutes "Indianness" in the first place.
"Who" they are is an interesting question, because there is the question of defining "who they are" and "who we think they are" in the popular imagination. There are the initial six artists that formed the PAG in what was Bombay in 1947 — Souza, Raza, Ara, Husain, Bakre, and Gade. Then there additional artists who participated in the group's second show in 1953 are counted as part of the second wave. But there’s been a lot of debate as to what we call the second set of artists. Associates? Affiliates? Card-carrying members? Because of their association with the six founding members throughout the rest of their careers, artists such as Akbar Padamsee, Tyeb Mehta, Krishen Khanna, V. S. Gaitonde, and Ram Kumar are all part of "the later Progressives."
What are the highlights of the exhibition?
Boon Hui Tan (BHT): There hasn’t really been a museum show in the U.S. that has ever focused solely on the Progressives from the beginning activities of the group to their most recent works. [Ed.: the exhibition includes works from the 1940s to the 1990s.] In this sense, every piece is interesting because so many of them haven’t been shown to the public in decades, and they haven’t been exhibited together in context ever in the United States. Many of the works were featured in the first two group shows (in 1949 and 1953) on which the movement made its name.
ZJ: You get the opportunity to view the works in context and see the archival documentation of the group shows, all for the first time in a public-facing institution.
BHT: Many of the art-historically important works of the group have been dispersed into private collections all over the world, and here they are all on view for the first time together.
ZJ: One point of clarification, this is not the first-ever showing of the PAG, because Yashodhara Dalmia featured many of the artists in The Moderns at the National Gallery of Modern Art’s (Mumbai) inaugural exhibition but she did not address the definition of who the Progressives were in the way we strove to in The Progressive Revolution.
BHT: This is, pretty much, the first U.S. show of artists from the PAG since 1959, when the Graham Gallery here in New York put on Trends in Contemporary Paintings from India, which was curated by Thomas Keehn. Incidentally, Keehn and his wife Martha McKee Keehn first went to India in 1953 on a mission to identify and support cultural activities — funded by Nelson Rockefeller (the brother of Asia Society founder John D. Rockefeller 3rd).
ZJ: The Graham Gallery show was in 1959, the Keehns traveled back and forth between India and the U.S. frequently in the 1950s, and they interfaced considerably with both Rockefeller brothers. In the Trends catalog, we see that John D. Rockefeller 3rd and [his wife] Blanchette Rockefeller already owned pieces by the Progressives as early as 1959 (three years after the founding of Asia Society). Additionally, Rockefeller Grants funded an educational trip to the U.S. for several members of the PAG, including Khanna, Gaitonde, Raza, Padamsee, and Mehta.
What was the relationship between the Progressive Artists' Group, their activities in India and the United States, and Asia Society?
ZJ: I was very interested in the idea of Indian modernism and its intersection with national identity. These days, nationalism has a bad name. Post-Trump, post what's happening in India at the moment, the whole idea of nationalism is something we immediately associate with a very parochial idea. But during the period of the Progressives, in both India and America, the ideas of nationalisms weren't so closed off. Part of what made something "modern" was the fact that it was international, hence the "National/International" section of the exhibit. The same thing was happening with the Rockefellers. They’re contributing to an American dialogue on progress. John D. Rockefeller 3rd ends up founding Asia Society and comes from this legacy that reinterprets America's progressive moment, heavily influenced by industrialization, and attempts to give it a better name as well as an international name in terms of making the connections with Asia.
The Rockefellers' interest in India takes off in the mid-1950s, and look at what else is happening at that point in history and in India: 1955 was the Bandung Conference and the non-alignment movement. There are letters between Rockefeller and various U.S. government actors saying the influence on India of the U.S.S.R. and China, of the Communist Bloc, was inherently much bigger because Nehruvian India was very socialist. [Rockefeller] proposed the way to counter this influence was through culture. In the middle of this American modernist movement, there was this knowledge that you have to reach out and market American culture. Organizing these modern art exhibitions within India and funding Indian art created a resonance between Indian and American modernism so that each could have political influence in the end.
BHT: There is this post-war American project ... now it's very well-known that many of the post-war modern art initiatives, especially the Abstract Expressionists, were all closely associated with the CIA. This interaction was one part of that larger push towards cultural influence.
What would you say is the lasting legacy and impact of the Progressive Artists' Group on both arts and society?
ZJ: So what I think you'll find in India today is a closing-down of the idea of the nation. Since the 1990s, you have this closing down of the idea of "India." It's a closing down that does not admit the visual iconography that you so associate with the Progressives and their particular interpretation of the secular. Where this becomes absolutely evident, where that visual language absolutely is no longer enough, to sell that idea to the general public anymore, is in the case of Husain. Throughout the '60s and '70s, he was the painter of Indian politics, to an extent that the art world was looking down on him. He was the voice of the secular during Indira Gandhi's reign. Whichever way you look at it, this is the artist so identified with the state during this period, and the very same artist who, 20 years later, runs so completely afoul of the state that he’s hounded out and dies in exile. And his last statements during the over 300 court cases he went through was, "I'm an artist, I'm an Indian. That's all."
What is the contemporary perception of the Progressives and their current place and legacy in Indian cultural history?
ZJ: There is this younger contemporary artist, Atul Dodiya, whose work riffs a lot on the Progressives. Part of this is that the notional group of Progressives [Ed.: not the historical/specific group] kind of have a bad name because they sell for so much money. When I first started working in India, we were really ashamed of the Progressives and so no one admitted that so much of the economy of the art world depended on them. Now we are starting to re-evaluate them, their artistic merit. There's this idea of the then-modern (the time of the Progressives) that the contemporary art scene in the 1990s was really blamed for all of [India's] problems: the political unrest and division of the nation, the destruction of the Babri Masjid [mosque], and rise of the Hindu Right. There was a backlash among the contemporaries who all looked back and asked: what the hell happened? How did we go so wrong, and is the reason why that the whole idea of Nehruvian India was flawed in the first place? The prevailing school of thought then was that idea of the modern has to be thrown out because it was the wrong kind of modern.
BHT: What is also interesting and beyond India is that we are in a moment, in the global art discourse, that is interested in other modernities, how art scenes outside the Euro-American spheres are multifaceted, how they created and reflected their own modernities. The Progressives, because of the historical conjunction in which they arrived, all these things about the nation, it's a particular, very specific kind of a multifaceted modern art. I think it's interesting in the context of the global interest in teasing apart the other paths that people have taken that is very different from Europe and America, part of a reassessment, discovery, excavation of modernity. Modernity is not one road, there are many many detours.