The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India is a socially relevant, aesthetically moving, and intellectually inspiring exhibition on view at the Asia Society in New York. Curated by Dr. Zehra Jumabhoy, Associate Lecturer at The Courtauld Institute of Art, London and Boon Hui Tan, Vice President for Global Arts and Cultural Programs and Director of the Asia Society Museum in New York, this show examines India’s social, political, economic, and cultural shifts under the lens of the Progressive Artists Group or PAG, founded in 1947 in what was then-Bombay, now Mumbai, following India’s independence from Britain. This core group of artists, K.H. Ara, S.K. Bakre, H.A. Gade, M.F. Husain, F.N. Souza, and S.H. Raza, to be joined by other artists, V. S. Gaitonde, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee, and Mohan Samant, represented diverse religious and socio-economic backgrounds, but were unified in presenting India in a realistic, post-colonial context. The exhibition presents work spanning from the late 1940s to the 1990s. A stark black-and-white photo of the PAG founding members greets visitors to the exhibition, which is composed of three parts: Progressives in Their Time, National/International, and Masters of the Game.
In response to the tumult of post-partition and the disentanglement from Britain’s Victorian mores, the PAG confronted India’s abject poverty, economic inequality, and burgeoning identity in a series of paintings from the exhibition’s “Progressives in Their Time.” Ara’s “Beggars” (1940s) offers an unforgiving look into the faces of men and women, old and young, some physically broken, others emotionally void, all waiting to find their place in a modern India. Kumar’s “Unemployed Graduates” (1956) considers the identity of the nation’s youth against the backdrop of a developing urban jungle as four recent graduates dressed in ill-fitted, oversized suits stare entreatingly at the viewer asking, “So now what?” Kumar’s disaffected graduates exude isolation in this new urban landscape while Khanna’s “News of Gandhiji’s Death” (1948) juxtaposes loss with optimism through a sea of mourners gripping newspapers, fervidly reading of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination. The mourners, …Muslims, Hindus and Christians unify in grief.
Subsequent works in “National/International” and “Masters of the Game” inch closer to capturing a more defined historically cultural and political narrative through Raza’s meditative “Bindu” (1980s) which merges the colors of Rajasthani miniatures with the circular unity of force and source of power. Khanna’s exquisite work resurfaces in the politically astute painting “The Game 1” (1978). Reminiscent of Cezanne’s “The Card Players,” Khanna’s players in “The Game 1” are military figures playing their hands in the formation of Bangladesh following violence, strife, and again, geographic dissection. A precursor to “The Game and I” is Khanna’s hauntingly prophetic “The Anatomy Lesson,” (1971) in which ominous figures pour over a shroud likely foreshadowing the plans to sever East Pakistan from West Pakistan. Akin to his “News of Gandhiji’s Death,” Khanna approaches political trauma through a distinctly human experience.
It is through the human experience that the Progressive Artists Group documented a nation’s identity within a changing world and with a visual discourse encompassing social justice and personal freedom. While pundits raise their voices on cable news today, wouldn’t be it be much nicer to consider these relevant topics within the walls of a comprehensive and completely satisfying art exhibition?
“The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India” is on view through January 20, 2019 at the Asia Society at 725 Park Avenue, New York, NY