Art

The Plurality and Progressivism of India’s Modern Art Revolution

The Asia Society Museum’s latest exhibition proves that India’s modern artists wove their own way through abstractionism as their country changed around them.

Ram Kumar, “Unemployed Graduates” (1956), oil on canvas, 46 x 26 inches (all images courtesy Asia Society Museum)

In the aftermath of independence, India embraced Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s version of secularism. Multi-religious and ethnically diverse, it was capable of defying Euro-American spectators’ colonial expectations that infighting would prevail. Indian artists sought to visualize the plurality of Asian modernities that their country cradled, establishing their own aesthetic revolution, which encapsulated avant-garde abstraction without bowing to its Western idiom.

Nearly seven decades after India gained independence in 1947, New York’s Asia Society Museum is presenting The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India, arguably the most comprehensive survey ever held in the United States of the Progressive Arts’ Group (PAG), which formed in Bombay (present-day Mumbai) and worked feverishly for seven years before officially disbanding in 1956. Curated by Dr. Zehra Jumabhoy and Boon Hui Tan, the exhibition is something of a spiritual successor to the landmark show Trends in Contemporary Painting from India that traveled throughout the United States between March 1959 and March 1960, as one of the largest presentations of modern Indian painting in the country.

Although Progressive Revolution is concerned with exploring the multiplicity of Indian identity, it charts a very canonical course through the development of abstractionism. Look at paintings on display in the exhibition’s first section devoted to PAG’s origins, and you might mistake a few for lovingly rendered Cubist landscapes of the European countryside. Yet comparisons to the Western canon are a main source of tension for Indian modernists, whose work is constantly portrayed as derivative of artists like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Willem de Kooning. Progressive Revolution aims to immediately upend this assumption; after all, these “Cubist” landscapes are of the beautiful Kashmir province. Many of these paintings also predate the artists’ trips to the West, thereby illustrating that such abstract language may have developed synchronously between Europe and India.

Krishen Khanna, “News of Gandhiji’s Death” (1948), oil on canvas, 33 1/2 x 33 1/2 in.

The second part of the exhibition, titled “National/International,” better indicates the soul-searching of a nation in the wake of its emancipation. Here, artists are concerned with depicting not just their own communities, but a mix of ethnicities, religions, castes, classes, and genders in group portraiture. Krishen Khanna’s “News of Gandhiji’s Death” (1948) provides a striking sociopolitical image of India immediately following Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination. Eleven people gather below a city streetlamp to read the news about the legendary activist’s death. They come from all different walks of life — the modern businessman stopping on his bicycle; the countryside woman with pigtails; men wearing their workday hats, or alternatively, a white taqiyah and red fez. Khanna’s message is clear: although a country may have lost its father, its children will continue on in solidarity.

Unity takes on a different tone in Ram Kumar’s strikingly affective painting “Unemployed Graduates,” created eight years later, in 1956. This work is less about solidarity and more about mass alienation in the modern cityscape. It’s symbolic of a growing distrust of Nehru’s rapid industrialization and modernization of India, and conveys Kumar’s skepticism of urban living. Like starved and lost children, his graduates aimlessly gaze toward the viewer for direction. This is hopelessness made material, an increasingly abstract rendering of human strife.

K. H. Ara, “Untitled (Beggars)” (ca. 1940s), oil on board, 39 x 29 in.

India’s emancipation from the British Raj occurred alongside its bloody partitioning into two separate states: India and Pakistan. Seven decades removed, it’s easy to forget how uncertain those times were for people on either side of the new border. Artist K. H. Ara combines the demographics of Khanna with the angst of Kumar in his 1940s masterpiece, “Untitled (Beggars).” Included in the first exhibition of PAG in 1949, the work speaks to the lamentable socioeconomic conditions of the urban poor in the years following independence and partition.

This section also contains abstract paintings by Vasudeo Gaitonde. When the artist traveled to New York City in 1964, he met Mark Rothko and discovered that they were both inspired by Zen Buddhism, East Asian scroll paintings, and calligraphy. If an examination of East Asian techniques marshaled a new era of abstractionism onto the scene, then Gaitonde’s art more specifically addressed India’s complex relationship with how to visualize spirituality.

V. S. Gaitonde, “Untitled” (1962), oil on canvas, 60 x 104 in.

In the show’s final section, called “Masters of the Game,” Progressive Revolution argues that India’s artists borrowed from a range of traditional folk- and high-art styles to create their own version of modernism. Even though most works in the show’s finale were created after PAG’s dissolution, they all demonstrate a united approach to upending the cultural mores of Indian society. This final section is replete with historical gems and challenging visual splendor. Erotic male and female nudes rule the gallery walls, echoing the poses of millennia-old sculptures. Take a look at “Shiva and Parvati” (from the Transitional period, late 10th to early 11th centuries) and think about M. F. Husain’s “Eternal Lovers” (1968) for a good comparison. Seen in the exhibition’s catalogue but not the exhibition, Husain’s interpretation of the godly duo as a normal couple in naked repose was a scandalous move for Indian society.

Akbar Padamsee, “Lovers” (1952), oil on board, 62 x 32 in.

Husain could only get away with his painting because of the precedent set by a landmark court case involving Akbar Padamsee’s “Lovers” (1952), which alluded to the divine couple of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati (also known as Uma Maheshvara). Inspired by Hindu iconography, Padamsee places the man’s hand on the woman’s breast. This move attracted the ire of India’s conservative establishment, which motivated authorities to charge the artist with obscenity. Padamsee refused to remove the painting, choosing instead to fight for his right for freedom of expression in court. Interestingly enough, the verdict absolving Padamsee reasoned that his scandalous imagery was acceptable because it appropriated the Cubist style from the West; after all, anything goes in European art.

“Shiva and Parvati (Uma-Maheshvara-murti)” (Transitional period, late 10th–early 11th century), Nepal, Kathmandu Valley; copper alloy, 6 1/8 x W. 6 1/4 x D. 4 3/4 in.

My favorite work in the entire exhibition is also technically an outlier. “Midnight Fishing Party” (1974) was created by Mohan Samant, an artist who’s often left out of the PAG legacy although he was invited into the group by Ara in 1952. Samant’s work is a mixed-media delight, spinning together Hindu myths, Christian symbols, African rituals, and Egyptian motifs. The forms in his work are complex paper cutouts delicately folded into a myriad of figures, apparently referencing Indonesian shadow puppetry. There is just so much in this single work to see: gestures to Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937) composition; the visual depth of the deep-blue sea; the underwater topography. Like most of the works in Progressive Revolution, one could scan this canvas for hours and never grasp the entire significance of its meaning. The story of Indian modernism, it appears, is far from over.

Mohan Samant, “Midnight Fishing Party” (1974), mixed media with folded paper on canvas, 70 x 90 in. (photo by John Berens)
Installation view of the exhibition (photo by Perru Hu)

The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India continues through at the Asia Society Museum (725 Park Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) January 20, 2019. The exhibition was curated by Dr. Zehra Jumabhoy and Boon Hui Tan.

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