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.
Vidhita Raina reports on Krishen Khanna’s lecture on “The Progressives” at London’s Courtauld Institute
Krishen Khanna (centre), Prof. Deborah Swallow (right) and Zehra Jumabhoy (left). Credits: Grosvenor Gallery, London.
“Is the artist only interested in being a unique individual? If I had considered my work to be unique, then I would have continued trying to be unique… and that is not what art is about,” said Krishen Khanna at a talk held at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London on June 8, 2015. This sagacious insight into his artistic motivations was one of the many gemstones that Khanna—a leading Indian Modernist painter—showered upon a rapt audience, eager in attendance to witness one of the stalwarts of Indian art reminiscing about its heydays.
With Deborah Swallow and Zehra Jumabhoy from the Courtauld Institute, and Conor Macklin from Grosvenor Gallery also on the panel, this debate was conducted as part of the “Contemporaneity in South Asian Art” seminar series.
The symposium was full of anecdotes as Khanna brought out his personal archive of letters exchanged between him and his many associates. Khanna’s nostalgic stories about his Bombay Progressive peers were unequivocally the highlights; particularly those involving his erstwhile roommate and one of the most celebrated Indian artists, the late Maqbool Fida Husain. It is common knowledge that Husain introduced Khanna into the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group (or “PAG”, as they were generally called). But the evening revealed one more nugget of information—Husain, during one of his visits to Khanna’s then home in Churchgate, Mumbai, borrowed his copy of the English art critic Clive Bell’s 1914 seminal text Art, only to eventually lose it. This incident, according to Khanna, was a result of “certain forces which operate at the right time”.
Khanna’s association with the PAG, which was formed right on the heels of India’s independence in 1947, led to several accomplishments in his trajectory as an artist. He held major exhibitions in Mumbai and New Delhi in the late ’50s. The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research showed great interest in his work, and its founding director—the esteemed nuclear physicist Dr. Homi Bhabha—bought his very first painting. In 1960, Khanna had his first solo show with Leicester Galleries of London. Here Khanna drew upon a letter written by renowned British art historian, Sir Kenneth Clark, gloriously calling one of his major abstract artworks a “masterpiece”.
Khanna spoke at length about Francis Newton Souza’s role as the driving force behind the PAG, including calling the group as “Progressives”. However, the term was subsequently dropped as many of its members—which also included artists like S.H. Raza, Akbar Padamsee, Tyeb Mehta, V.S. Gaitonde, Ram Kumar, K.H. Ara, among others—felt that it had political connotations. It was a suggestion that rankled with Khanna, as the PAG never saw itself as a political group.
But even as the PAG was beginning to emerge as a new wave of artists in post-independent India unfettered by their political climate—and dissociating themselves from the nationalist spirit of the preceding Bengal School artists in the process—their art, Khanna’s in particular, couldn’t avoid resonating with social, economic and political undertones of a changing nation state.
Born in the city of Lyallpur (now Faisalabad of modern day Pakistan) in 1925, Khanna was, and is, no stranger to political turmoil. Following the Partition of India in 1947, his family moved to Shimla in northern India. Khanna himself accepted a job at Grindlays Bank in Bombay, a position he would hold for 14 years, before finally resigning to focus on his art completely.
Krishen Khanna on the ‘Progressives’ at the Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre, The Courtauld Institute of Art. Credits: Grosvenor Gallery, London.
A self-taught artist, Khanna created works that showed a strong preoccupation with the historical background of his time. For him, the humanistic element in a painting was a paramount. Khanna was deeply concerned with the condition of the individual. It’s an artistic anxiety highly evident in his paintings of tired workers piled in trucks, dhaba owners in twilight moments, and the uniformed “bandwallas”—the last vestiges of long-dead British imperial legacy. In her biography Krishen Khanna: The Embrace of Love, critic Gayatri Sinha has said: “the paintings constitute a powerful psychological engagement, one that also serves as a document of the passage of time in modern India.”
Another aspect of the debate, raised by Conor Macklin and Zehra Jumabhoy, was India’s relationship with Britain, and the impact of the European Avant-garde Movement on the PAG. Just as the modern art of Europe rose from the trenches of the World War I, the trauma resulting from the Partition of India also stimulated a new language of art production in its wake. In an effort to locate a new identity and language for Indian art, many of the modern artists such as Souza, Raza, and Padamsee—having studied or spent time in Paris—inevitably found themselves looking towards Western styles of art.
Khanna himself was a well-travelled and worldly artist: he was the first Indian painter to be awarded the Rockefeller Fellowship by New York’s prestigious Rockefeller Foundation in1962. As part of this fellowship, Khanna spent time in Japan where he found inspiration in the Sumi-e (Suibokuga) calligraphic style of paintings, practiced by Zen Buddhists during the 14th century. This led to a number of experiments in abstraction during the ’60s and ’70s, which Khanna reflected upon as “a series of events which formulate or assist in formulating the kind of action you have to take”. In the following year, he was invited as the artist-in-residence at the American University, Washington D.C., and exhibited at various museums and galleries throughout the United States.
Besides being a riveting trip down memory lane, the symposium was mainly a precursor to Krishen Khanna’s ongoing retrospective at the Grosvenor Gallery titled “when the band began to play he packed up his troubles and marched away”. A certain homage was paid to the presence of the seminar being held at the Kenneth Clark lecture theatre, named after the eponymous art historian and an old associate of the artist.
Khanna’s talk was one for the history books—significant moments during the early Indian Modernist phase were brought up, including when artist Bal Chhabda opened Gallery 59. It was Mumbai’s first, short-lived art gallery to showcase artworks by the PAG members in 1959. The group may be long gone, but they left an undeniable legacy for India and the world to treasure.
Tarika Agarwal of Saffronart discuss the life left behind by famous artist and collector Bal Chhabda
Mumbai: Born in 1923, in what is now Pakistan, Bal Chhabda was a self-taught artist. Sadly, he passed away in the second week of March this year. He was a man who wore many hats. He started his career with film making but soon gave that up and founded the well-known gallery in Mumbai, Gallery 59. Soon after, Chhabda took to painting as well. And not much later he started collecting art.
Bal Chhabda with M F Husain Image Credit:The Times of India
After the demise of his wife, and his good friends Tyeb Mehta and M.F. Husain in a span of three years, it is a well known fact that Chhabda lost his will to live and became a recluse.
At first glance, Chhabda’s work seems abstract, but on closer inspection it reveals various distorted shapes and forms that create intriguing visuals. He was one of the distinguished artists associated with the Progressive Artist’s Group, which made a tremendous contribution to the modern art movement in India by consciously seeking new idioms. The group included almost all the important artists working in Mumbai in the 1950s. Read more about his practice.
He participated in several exhibitions in India and internationally including Salon de la Jeune Peinteure, Paris, and the Tokyo Biennale, in 1960. He received the Governor’s award, one of the three major awards, at the Tokyo Biennale in 1961. He has also participated in the exhibition, Seven Indian Painters at Gallerie Le Monde de U Art, Paris, 1994.
New York: A few weeks ago, I shared an article by Susan Hapgood on performance art in India commissioned for the Guggenheim’s UBS MAP Initiative on South East and South Asian Art. The exhibition, No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia, features works of some of the most compelling artists and collectives in South and South East Asia today. It is on view at the Guggenheim, New York, until May 22nd, after which it will travel to the Asia Society Center in Hong Kong followed by a venue in Singapore, details of which are yet to be confirmed. All the works in this exhibition have been acquired by the Museum for its permanent collection. The exhibition’s title is drawn from the opening line of the William Butler Yeat’s (one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature) poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928) that is referenced in the title of American novelist, Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel No Country for Old Men. The use of this title brings forth the concept of a culture without borders. The concept has been emulated on the exhibition webpage, which hosts a series of essays on the different facets of art creation from South and South East Asia. June Yap, Guggenheim UBS MAP Curator, South and Southeast Asia, introduces the project in this video. We are thankful to the Guggenheim Museum for sharing this content on our blog.
Here is an article by Mumbai based cultural theorist and curator, Nancy Adajania, discussing two Indian institutions who have largely facilitated the creation of cultural knowledge in post-colonial India, Gallery Chemould in Bombay (now Mumbai) and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi. In the coming weeks, we will be re-posting more essays from this series, and also a review. Stay tuned.
Nikolaus Hirsch and Michel Müller with Cybermohalla Ensemble, Bureau of Contemporary Jobs in the Cybermohalla Hub at Sarai Reader 09: The Exhibition, Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, 2012–2013. Photo: Shamsher Ali . Image credit: Guggenheim Museum
Rather than conduct a general survey of contemporary Indian art, I would like to draw attention to two major and formative histories of artistic production and the creation of an infrastructure of cultural knowledge in postcolonial India. These histories, which have not so far received the appropriate degree of critical attention in the Indian art world, were brought dramatically to light by two recent events: first, the death of Kekoo Gandhy, founder of Gallery Chemould, Bombay, one of India’s earliest commercial art galleries; and second, by the fiftieth-anniversary celebrations of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi, a transdisciplinary research institute devoted to the social sciences and humanities.
The Progressive Artists Group surrounded by supporters at the Bombay Art Society Salon. Photo: Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai. Image credit: Guggenheim Museum
Why link two institutions—Chemould and CSDS—that, at first glance, appear to have little in common? Both were founded in 1963 and embodied the impulses of a late Nehruvian modernity, with its simultaneous emphasis on a self-critical national renaissance and an internationalist expansion of horizons. Both institutions have made important contributions to the production and sustenance of a lively public sphere, building coherent communities around themselves: while Chemould was active in mobilizing both the art world and civil society, CSDS has worked in a hybrid space between scholarship and activism.
Khorshed, Shireen and Kekoo Gandhy outside Gallery Chemould, Mumbai. Photo: Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai. Image credit: Guggenheim Museum
Kekoo Gandhy (1920–2012) was a visionary and cultural catalyst who shaped the contours of Indian modernism by generating cultural infrastructure. His tenacious lobbying for private and state patronage resulted in the foundation of the Jehangir Art Gallery and the Bombay branch of the National Gallery of Modern Art. A cultural entrepreneur of great foresight, Gandhy first brought visibility to the works of modernists such as K. K. Hebbar, S. H. Raza, K. H. Ara, and M. F. Husain, exhibiting them at his framing shop, Chemould Frames, in the 1940s and ’50s. From the early ’60s onward, Gallery Chemould, which he cofounded with his wife Khorshed, was housed on the first floor of the Jehangir Art Gallery, Bombay’s first public gallery. Chemould’s small space, which hosted exhibitions of work by significant artists including Tyeb Mehta, Bhupen Khakhar, Nalini Malani, Vivan Sundaram, Atul and Anju Dodiya, and Jitish and Reena Saini Kallat, greeted the visitor with a table for conversation before curving away toward a wall of paintings. At this table, Gandhy shared his dreams of political and cultural freedom with artists, cultural producers, lawyers, and activists.
Gallery Chemould does not fit into a classical gallery ecology because Gandhy did not see the production of art as separate from larger political and cultural questions. During the Emergency (1975–77), when an authoritarian regime muzzled dissent and imprisoned those in opposition, the Gandhys sheltered activists in their home. During the 1992–93 riots in Bombay, when Hindu majoritarian militants targeted the city’s Muslim community, Gandhy contributed actively to the mohalla committees—neighborhood groups that promoted interreligious amity. Whether by presenting subaltern artists for the first time at his gallery (Warli artist Jivya Soma Mashe’s exhibition in 1975, for example) or by helping secure the secular ideals of the republic, Gandhy devoted his life to the pursuit of equity and justice.
Both Gandhy and CSDS (which was founded by political scientist Rajni Kothari and funded mainly by the Indian Council of Social Science Research) believed in sustaining and strengthening Indian democracy—still a work in progress. Early on, academics at CSDS polemicized Western theoretical models of modernity, instead advocating the approach of multiple modernities. After the Emergency, Lokayan, which was linked to CSDS, propagated non-party politics and worked with social movements at a grassroots level, nurturing civil-society activists such as the environmentalists Vandana Shiva and Medha Patkar, who would go on to develop and articulate alternative, sustainable models of development.
Sarai Reader 09, curated by the Raqs Media Collective, Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, 2012–2013. Photo: Shveta Sarda. Image credit: Guggenheim Museum
Academic research conducted at CSDS resonates in public life, particularly in debates conducted around policymaking and the transformation of the media. In 2000, CSDS’s Ravi Sundaram and Ravi Vasudevan launched the new media initiative Sarai, working in collaboration with Raqs Media Collective (artists Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta), to analyze critically the impact of emergent, informal, and independent media in the public domain. Sarai, true to its name, which is taken from a word for public resting place, has become a refuge and transit point for architects, filmmakers, writers, and artists, and has avoided a narrow academicization of knowledge by adopting multiple methodologies. As a Sarai-CSDS fellow myself in the early 2000s, I found the space to generate alternative contexts for new media art and to test out what Okwui Enwezor has called the “will to globality” expressed by subaltern media practitioners in a post-national context—one in which the old certitudes of nationalism have failed, but have yet to be replaced by new interpretative frameworks.
Sarai, along with the NGO Ankur, gave birth to the Cybermohalla project, which works in the interstices between legal and illegal domains, old and new media, creative pedagogy and art, in Delhi’s working-class neighborhoods. Participants in the Cybermohalla project are today published writers and established media practitioners in their own right. In an art world that tends to fetishize creative output as commodity rather than nurture it as conversation, Kekoo Gandhy and Sarai-CSDS (more informally in the former case and more programmatically in the latter) have attempted to produce new socialities in which the Gandhian, the Nehruvian, and the Marxist, the academy-trained artist and his or her subaltern rural/urban counterpart have generated a discourse through the alternately tight and loose weave of consensus and dissensus. Especially over the past decade, when all value seems to have been dictated by the market, it is important to flag alternative frameworks and platforms that have sustained significant forms of artistic articulation and critical inquiry in the Indian art world.
Nancy Adajania is a Bombay-based cultural theorist and independent curator. She was artistic codirector of the 2012 Gwangju Biennale.
Guest blogger, Sabah Mathur reports on a recent lecture at the British Museum on the Drawings of Souza and Picasso
The British Museum, London
London: One of India’s foremost modern artist, Francis Newton Souza, has often been compared to the twentieth-century giant, Pablo Picasso. A recent lecture held at the British Museum (BM), London, as part of the event, Asian Art in London, re-visited the similarities between Picasso and Souza. Sona Datta, curator of Ancient and Medieval South Asia at the BM, explored the relationship between the two artists by juxtaposing their drawings in order to demonstrate the impact of Picasso on Souza.
The talk began by setting the stage for understanding modernity in the Indian context. Being a colonial country, Indian artists were faced with an inherent paradox – a contradiction between the sense of alienation of the individual artist and the cultural cohesion expected of a nation engaged in an anti-colonial struggle. It is important to address what it meant to be both Indian and modern in the Post-independence period. The latter demanded an expression of the universal, while the former called attention to the local.
Tracing the growth of modernism from academic art as taught in the schools set up by the British in India, and the Bengal School to the Progressive Artists Group (PAG), of which Souza was a founding member, Datta discussed the role of the PAG as an important group of modern artists who together formed a brave new world. However, modern Indian art was often regarded as an attempt to play catch-up with European art. It was widely considered to be derivative.
Datta argued that art has always been informed by other cultures. For instance, direct influences were drawn from African and Oceanic art by Picasso, Persian art by Henri Matisse, and Polynesian art by Paul Gauguin. It is by now well established that art does not exist in isolation but always arises out of influences. It would be more fruitful to examine in what sense art is borrowed and how it is invested with meaning.
Souza rejected his art school teachings and educated himself through books, reproductions, and actual works of art to which he could find access. He wrote that he had to teach himself about Western art. Many of his paintings show strong influences of Old Masters such as Titian as well as modern artists, most notably Picasso. Souza’s bold colours, geometrical compositions, and distorted faces are evidence of the inspiration he received from the latter. Man with a Dribbling Nose shows Souza’s mature style with highly distorted features – eyes in the forehead, elongated nose, exaggerated mouth and teeth, and bulging veins. Such heads were a unique invention of Souza’s and they communicate emotions with brute force.
Like Picasso, Souza also conveyed messages about politics, society, sex, and religion through his art. Souza’s Six Gentlemen of Our Time is a triumph of his capacity to probe emotion through significant form. The heads depicted are of men who represent the terrifying post-war atomic civilisation. Datta stated that their structure resembles Synthetic Cubism as practiced by Picasso.
Francis Newton Souza, Six Gentlemen of Our Times, 1955 Image credit: WORDS & LINES , by Francis Newton Souza (First published in 1959)
A more direct inspiration can be seen in Souza’s Young Ladies in Belsize Park which is a reverberating echo of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Souza’s adaptation is essentially a brothel scene. He actually lived in this area of London and the nearby red light area afforded an interesting inspiration for this work. While Souza’s colours are much darker, the structure and thematic similarities to the original are clear.
Les Damoiselles D’Avignon by Pablo Picasso Young Ladies in Belsize Park by Franic Newton Souza
Datta pointed out that both Picasso and Souza had a tremendous fluidity of line. This is clearly visible in the following drawings. Both artists were excellent draughtsmen and were aware of the importance of line in their work. Souza said, “The outline is the scaffolding on which you hang your painting. It is the structure without which art cannot exist and becomes wishy washy. Cezanne is nothing but structure. Within the structure you add paint and paint and structure are one and the same. There is a totality about it.”
(Left) Two Women Seated by Picasso, 1970 and (Right) Souza’s Woman on a Sofa, 1962 Image credit: Francis Newton Souza Bridging Western and Indian Modern Art by Aziz Kurtha, Grantha Corporation, 2006
The distinctions and similarities between the two artists become clearer upon comparing Picasso’s Femme au Chapeau and Souza’s Untitled (Head of Picasso). The influence on Souza’s work is obvious, but in his work the facial features are more visible whereas in Picasso’s work they are tending towards the abstract.
Souza was a dominant force in developing modern Indian art and created a new artistic grammar for India. He was also an inspirational figure during the 1950s in the London art scene. Picasso meanwhile, is widely acknowledged as the most influential twentieth-century artist who created Cubism along with Georges Braque during the early 1900s. Both artists were inspired by their predecessors but reworked the art of other masters to create their own idioms. Their results were original. For instance, although Souza was influenced by a number of Western artists he mixed his art with his knowledge of Indian styles and motifs.
Both Souza and Picasso were artistic geniuses in their own way and they believed in their work. Souza, like Picasso, stood outside the regular society in a way. Born in Portuguese occupied Goa into a Roman Catholic family, he struggled against adversity from the very beginning. His father died when he was just three months old and the following year, his sister aged two, also passed away. In 1929, when Souza was only four, his widowed mother, heaped with debt, fled with him to Bombay. There Souza contracted smallpox and was sent back to Goa to be looked after by his grandmother.
Souza was fascinated by stories of tortured saints told to him by his grandmother and the grandeur of the Church had a profound effect on him. He was influenced not by its dogmas, but its architecture and the splendour of its services. Souza developed a strong anti-clerical streak. His denunciation of the clergy with all its vestments of religiosity and an underlying manipulation of power was expressed in a number of works. A characteristic example of this is Souza’s Death of the Pope where the dead Pope is a skeleton of a man rather than a grandiose figure, and the priests with their ghoulish heads, stand before him. Datta pointed out that Souza’s Catholic guilt and tragedy left him feeling alienated as an individual and in a way this was like fodder for his creativity.
Deviating from the discussion about Souza and Picasso, a member of the audience also put forth an interesting question regarding Souza’s relationship with another master of modern Indian art, MF Husain. In response, it was pointed out that it was Souza who had recognised Husain’s genius during the 1940s and had brought him into the fold of the art world, selecting him to join the PAG. Later during the 1980s Husain invited Souza to open his retrospective held in India. Interestingly, Souza once said that he had taught Husain everything he knew!
This highly confident attitude was typical of Souza, a characteristic that he shared with Picasso. Each of these artists tore the rule book and produced art that was full of emotion. Although Souza does not have any direct descendants in the sense of artistic style, he certainly left a very powerful influence on many other Indian artists with his intense personal vision and eclectic body of work.
A trained lawyer, Sabah Mathur has a keen interest in South Asian art. She recently completed an MA in Fine & Decorative Art at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London. Her MA thesis was titled “Monochromes and Chemicals: Understanding Francis Newton Souza’s Avant-Garde Experiments with Black Paintings and Chemical Paintings”. She has worked with Saffronart as well as the Modern & Contemporary South Asian art department at Bonhams.