The stretch of 1940’s was the period of great national turmoil in India, feeding the creation of several art collectives in diverse fields like visual arts, theatre, literature and so on. Leading nationalist demonstrations against the British Raj, class and religious conflicts, partition of India and Pakistan and such social and political turbulences became the backdrop to many such republic groups especially the Progressive Artist’s Group (PAG).
Established in 1947 in Bombay, just months after the partition, PAG comprised of F. N. Souza (1924-2002), S. H. Raza (1922-2016), M. F. Husain (1915-2011), K. H. Ara (1914-1985), H. A. Gade (1917-2001), and S. K. Bakre (1920-2007) as the core founding members. Other modern artists like V. S. Gaitonde (1924–2001), Tyeb Mehta (1925-2009), Akbar Padamsee (1928-), Krishen Khanna (1925-) etc. were loosely associated with it at a later stage. The group was the brainchild of Souza and its idea germinated from a meeting held on December 15, 1947 by Souza, Raza, Ara and Rashid Husain (critic) against the lack of transparency in judging process at exhibitions. Later the group was completed when Bakre, Husain and Gade joined in, persuaded by Ara, Souza and Raza respectively. One of their aims was to challenge the accepted Academic style of the British and the revivalist movement of the Bengal School.
Although the alliance was forged in 1947, it was only in 1949 that they held their first exhibition at Bombay Art Society’s Salon at Rampart Row. In the coming years they organized their own exhibitions gaining the support from European patrons and art critics like Rudi Van Leyden (art critic of The Times of India), Walter Langhammer (Art Director of The Times of India) who were refugees in India.
The group held a distinctive appeal to the masses as it transcended religious, class and linguistic barriers at the time when these were the prime causes of national conflict. Aiming towards a shared mode of expression they endeavoured into individual techniques and stylistic approach, leading towards the ‘progressive’ modernistic language.
Influenced by the prevailing leftist radicalism that later became one of the reasons for their disjuncture, the group set out to cover the social causes that were gradually leeching the society. Souza, the author of PAG’s manifesto, with the aid of bold strokes exposed the corruptions of the church. He also covered the repertoire of figuration, nude and landscape paintings. Raza adopted many forms, gradually elevating from expressionist landscapes towards geometric abstract paintings. Taking the inspiration from Indian miniatures and Rajasthani culture, he started using the bright and bold colours. Hailing from Pandharpur (Maharashtra), Husain’s initial inclination was towards figurative styles including political figures, working-classes, mythological characters etc. He also experimented with photography and filmmaking later. Like Souza, Ara too experimented with nudes but with a ‘compassionate grace’. On the other hand Gade’s oeuvre was majorly dominated by expressionist landscapes like Raza. Bakre was the only sculptor in the group who excelled in modelling the expressionist figural heads.
While all these artists experimented with their own distinctive styles aiming towards a shared future, their union weakened when Souza, Bakre and Raza moved abroad with Husain, Gade and Ara left behind to focus on their individual works. As a result, around 1956 the group disintegrated.
Although PAG’s lifespan was limited it still has a significant contribution towards Indian history especially Indian Modern Art.