F N Souza and M F Husain were integral members of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group and had their own distinct styles. We look at their unique and long-lasting friendship through a painting that goes on auction in the Evening Sale next week.
The Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) was among the most noteworthy artist movements to emerge from the post-Independence era in India. Each of its members defined their own national and personal identity. In the long tradition of artist friendships, the group stands out as one in which the artists maintained lifelong relationships through good and bad times, encouraging and critiquing each other in their personal and professional lives.
The PAG was founded by F N Souza in 1947, and its members included M F Husain, K H Ara, S H Raza S K Bakre, H K Gade, Krishen Khanna and V S Gaitonde. Souza first encountered Husain when he saw his painting, Potters, at the Bombay Art Society’s 1947 group exhibition. Impressed by his talent, he invited Husain to join the PAG. Both Souza and Husain were powerful personalities with their own unique visual language, and forged a friendship that lasted many decades.
A Portrait that Defined their Friendship
Souza and Husain’s friendship developed within a year of the Group’s formation. In 1948, the artists visited the India Independence Exhibition at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, and were strongly influenced by the Gupta sculptures on display. They also visited the Baroda Art Museum with Ara and Bakre. Their travels and shared experiences prompted an exchange of ideas even after the Group disbanded.
Souza’s Portrait of Husain, which goes on auction next week, was painted that year, and reveals his obvious respect for and camaraderie with Husain. It shows an unusually respectful presentation of Souza’s subject, and the lighter palette is one that is sometimes glimpsed in some of Souza’s landscapes. The portrait offers a rare lack of criticism, eschewing Souza’s angry, jagged lines, arrows and pock-marks.
Husain and Souza established an epistolary friendship when the latter left for England in 1949. Souza even referred to Husain as his “best friend”, in a letter to the members of the group, dated 1949.
Husain reciprocated Souza’s admiration, as seen in the portrait he painted of Souza around the same time, which captures Souza deep in the act of painting. The painting was exhibited in 1996 at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, as part of the inaugural show, The Moderns.