The Progressive Artists' Group & the ‘Idea of India’

Zehra Jumabhoy in conversation with Karin Zitzewitz and Sonal Khullar

Installation view of exhibition “The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India” at Asia Society Museum, New York, 2018. Photograph, Perry Hu; courtesy Asia Society Museum. S.H. Raza.  Untitled , ca. 1940s, Jane and Kito de Boer Collection. Progressive Artists Group, Bombay, 1949. Image courtesy The Raza Archives, The Raza Foundation, New Delhi, India.  In Image (L-R), Row 1: F.N.Souza, K.H. Ara, H.A. Gade; Row 2: M.F. Hussain, S.K.Bakre, S.H. Raza

Installation view of exhibition “The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India” at Asia Society Museum, New York, 2018. Photograph, Perry Hu; courtesy Asia Society Museum. S.H. Raza. Untitled, ca. 1940s, Jane and Kito de Boer Collection. Progressive Artists Group, Bombay, 1949. Image courtesy The Raza Archives, The Raza Foundation, New Delhi, India.

In Image (L-R), Row 1: F.N.Souza, K.H. Ara, H.A. Gade; Row 2: M.F. Hussain, S.K.Bakre, S.H. Raza

Every lover of Indian art knows this story: in 1947, in the immediate aftermath of India’s independence from British rule, six firebrands united in Bombay to forge a modern art for the newly free nation. They were the Progressive Artists’ Group (also known as ‘the PAG’).

The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India, an exhibition guest curated by Zehra Jumabhoy and co-curated Boon Hui Tan at New York’s Asia Society Museum, from September 2018 to January 2019, re-told the tale of the PAG over seven decades after independence. The show comprised paintings and sculptures from the PAG’s core founders—K.H. Ara, S.K. Bakre, H.A. Gade, M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza, and F.N. Souza—as well as later members and those closely affiliated with the movement: V.S. Gaitonde, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee and Mohan Samant. It aimed to showcase how these artists from different social, economic and religious backgrounds found common cause post-Partition of the Subcontinent. While, two of the most prominent founder members of the PAG, Husain and Raza, were Muslim - and, in Raza’s case, his brother, Ali Imam, and mother had migrated across the border to Pakistan – they both remained in India, becoming poster-boys for a ‘secular India’, and living- painting embodiments of Nehru’s idea of ‘unity in diversity’. Their presence in the PAG has often been read as ‘evidence’ that they were committed to the cause of a multi-religious nation. In fact, this carefully plural stance was the hallmark of the PAG. Arguably, it is what made them so ‘quintessential’ to the self-definition of Nehruvian India. The way in which these artists gave this plural notion of India a visual form is what the works in the exhibition, primarily paintings from the 1940s to 1990s, underscored. The Progressive Revolution was divided into three parts: Progressives in their Times, National/International and Masters of the Game. Each section discussed the inter-twining of ideas of the modern, secular and the national. 

S.H. Raza  Bindu , ca. 1980, Oil on canvas, H. 39 x W. 39in. (99 x 99cm), Collection of Jamshyd and Pheroza Godrej, Image courtesy of the lender

S.H. Raza Bindu, ca. 1980, Oil on canvas, H. 39 x W. 39in. (99 x 99cm), Collection of Jamshyd and Pheroza Godrej, Image courtesy of the lender

Modern Indian art has often been accused of being ‘derivative’ of Western styles. Souza and Husain are compared to Picasso, Gaitonde to Mark Rothko, Tyeb Mehta to Francis Bacon. The exhibition sought to undermine such tired criticisms. It argued that while Indian Modernism borrowed from the West (as indeed the Euro-American Modern borrowed from Asia), it also referenced its own traditions. Given this, the curators juxtaposed Husain’s early paintings with Rajput and Pahari miniatures. Padamsee’s controversial nude Lovers (1952) were placed next to an eleventh century devotional sculpture from Nepal of Shiva and Parvati (Hinduism’s ‘original’ divine lovers). The latter positioning was purposeful. In 1953, when the series Lovers was first displayed in a solo show in Bombay, the artist had been dragged off to court on obscenity charges. In the end, the judge ruled in his favor – but, stated that his decision was based on the fact that Padamsee was an ‘international’ artist, inspired by Western painterly conventions. By placing Lovers next to their ‘real’ inspiration, however, the exhibition sought to demonstrate the link between the PAG’s works and Hindu iconography. Meanwhile, Raza’s iconic ‘Bindu’ painting from the 1980s was put beside an example of the Rajasthani miniatures that so inspired him.

These comparisons were meant to pinpoint the unique nature of ‘Indian secularism’ post-independence. While in the West, the term is often used to denote the separation between state and church; between religion and politics, the exhibition argued that for the PAG ‘secularism’ meant embracing the subcontinent’s heterogenous, multi-religious heritage. Their visual language often obviously (as in the case of Padamsee, Souza and Husain) fused modern art’s preoccupation with the female nude to India’s own history of erotic-religious art. But how relevant is the ‘idea of India’ that animated the PAG today? Does the fact that Husain was chased out of the country for painting Mother Goddesses in the nude (only to die in exile in 2011), prove that the PAG’s secularism is a currency that can no longer be traded on? With the rise of Right-wing nationalist politics seeping across the world, what does the PAG’s commitment to a heterogenous nation; a multi-cultural past have to offer us today?

Krishen Khanna,  News of Gandhiji's Death , 1948, Oil on canvas H. 33 1/2 x W. 33 1/2 in. (85.1 x 85.1 cm), Radhika Chopra and Rajan Anandan

Krishen Khanna, News of Gandhiji's Death, 1948, Oil on canvas H. 33 1/2 x W. 33 1/2 in. (85.1 x 85.1 cm), Radhika Chopra and Rajan Anandan

The conversation below – a re-staging of the one conducted by art historians Karin Zitzewitz (KZ), Sonal Khullar (SK) and Zehra Jumabhoy (ZJ), at the Asia Society-Columbia conference, The Progressive Genealogy: Art & Culture in Modern India, unpacks the loaded and inter-connected complexities of the modern and the secular given the trajectories of nation-building and cosmopolitanism in the art of those associated with the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG); issues of art, law and the freedom of expression in India; presentations of the female body that haunt much of the Progressives’ work; and the potential that the PAG produced for artistic imaginaries as a collective endeavor.


ZJ: What do we, as art historians, mean by the secular/the modern versus their usage in the current political climate? Does it make sense to speak about an ‘Indian secularism’ in the first place? Karin, your talk at Asia Society seemed to map a more universalist trajectory with Talal Asad, i.e. you traced a relationship with the sacred that I consider specific to India, but which you quite cleverly argued is endemic to the concept of secularism as a repository of religious belief. Usually when one talks about secularism, there is a general tendency to separate state and church, i.e. the concept of politics from religion. My own position is that this separation is never clear cut and needs to be rethought, and that in the case of India this separation never happened during the formation of the modern state. Your own position seems to be more subtle, and take after Asad, that in fact secularism itself is a concept that could include the religious. And this, according to you, is not an Indian issue alone. Would you agree with my extrapolation?

KZ: There is a lot contained in that slash – the formulation of “the secular/the modern” suggests that the two are synonymous, or perhaps that they are intertwined portions of a single historical process.  That idea is fairly close to a common assumption, which is that secularism corresponds to a public sphere purified of religiosity that is itself a benchmark of modernity. However, despite the power that idea of the public sphere holds over the imagination, it has never been achieved in historical fact.  Even as societies like India and the U.S. have kept this norm of secularism in their sights, they have done so despite—or, some argue, because — their history has seen extraordinarily vital religious movements that have, at once, sustained a huge range of communities of various sizes and types and led to oppressive majoritarian politics.  

Tyeb Mehta,  Mahisasura , 1997; Acrylicon canvas H. 59 x W. 48 in. (149.9 x 121.9 cm); Rajiv and Payal Chaudhri, Image courtesy of the lender

Tyeb Mehta, Mahisasura, 1997; Acrylicon canvas H. 59 x W. 48 in. (149.9 x 121.9 cm); Rajiv and Payal Chaudhri, Image courtesy of the lender

My work is built upon historical research and contemporary observations of both societies, which share huge hang-ups about failing to fulfill the secular norm.  The sense that every “secular” society feels itself to be inauthentic in its secularism has informed my reading of debates about the ‘Indianness’ of Indian secularism.  What I like about Asad’s reading of secularism is that it is not universal, per se.  Secularism is rather tied to colonial modernity, defined as a modernity in which the processes of colonization is utterly fundamental.  Colonial modernity—which is, in point of fact, the only modernity—is constituted by markers of colonial difference and acts of violence, including epistemic violence.  Asad argues that secularity, as a way of being in the world, is largely Protestant in its content and understanding of the self.  What I have done in my work, as you suggest, is to look at the promotion of devotional forms of religion—bhakti and Sufism—as the proper terrain of toleration by generations of Indian intellectuals. Ashish Nandy wrote the best known of these arguments, but it really is a more general point.  In between these two arguments, I reflect on the work of people like Jack Hawley, who have traced the complicated history of modern religious thought that link those forms of devotional religiosity to Protestant ideas of belief.  As you know, any intervention in debates on secularism will be profoundly dialogic—these are the authors I have found most useful in understanding how the secular has been articulated within the domain of visual art.

In addition to the moral and political reconfiguration of religion to be found in bhakti, Sufism, and their capture by modern Indian thinkers, there is also the traditions’ great aesthetic contributions.  Lots of Indian intellectuals, from Nandy to Sahmat, take great pleasure in these devotional texts, music, and visual art.  Their experience of the work of poets like Kabir or classical Indian dance is layered. Husain’s absolute fixation on the figure of the bharatanatyam dancer—an interest shared by many of his contemporaries, in and out of the Progressive Artists’ Group—is an example of the role played by devotional aesthetics in the development of at least one artist’s practice.  This observation allowed me to understand the relationship between religious experience and the kind of aesthetic experience valued by many modernist artists in India. It runs through the work of many artists featured in the Asia Society exhibition, but also quite powerfully among generations afterwards. 

In my book, The Art of Secularism, I look closely at a how a set of artists articulated a very careful balance of enjoyment of these aesthetic forms and distance from other aspects of religious devotion in their work.  One case that I do not discuss, because it goes beyond the realm of visual art, is Arun Kolatkar’s amazing poem Jejuri.  Here is the poet both narrating and demonstrating how powerfully he is drawn to the Maharashtrian pilgrimage site referred to by the title, even as he asserts his secular distance from it.  It is one of the greatest articulations of the most common position of the Indian artist vis a vis religious experience, one I recognize not only in Kolatkar’s friends, like Gieve Patel, Gulammohammad Sheikh and Bhupen Khakhar, but in other artists, both younger and older.  

F.N. Souza.  Temple Dancer , 1957. Oil on board. H. 48 x W. 24 in. (121.9 x 61 cm). Ashish and Reshma Jain, New Delhi. Image courtesy of Grosvenor Gallery

F.N. Souza. Temple Dancer, 1957. Oil on board. H. 48 x W. 24 in. (121.9 x 61 cm). Ashish and Reshma Jain, New Delhi. Image courtesy of Grosvenor Gallery

For just one instance, contemporary sculptor L.N. Tallur has addressed the architectural and sculptural record of religious devotion in seemingly every possible way over the past twenty years of practice.  Motivated originally by his training in museology, Tallur’s work has mocked, defaced, and operationalized the sculptural record, using contemporary bronze casts of icons like the Shiva Nataraja. It is a staggering and complex body of work, one built upon a deep engagement with the processes of iconicity as well as the freedom to experiment that is granted by the conventions of contemporary art, including its presumption of secularity.  

Each of the artists I have mentioned articulates a different secular engagement with religious devotion, one appropriate to the particular time and place.  But it is worth noting that they share an overall drive to engage both with the secular norm of the modern/contemporary art world and with aesthetic practices grounded in religious devotion.  In The Art of Secularism, I describe this as “a secular critique of secularism,” meaning a critical engagement with the evolving discourse of the secular in India and beyond.

ZJ: Karin, I think this discussion is really interesting – and, in fact, points to a few issues inherent in the way we are using the term ‘Indian secularism’ here. What, for me, seems especially exciting about contemporary Indian art – such as Tallur’s ancient-looking installations – is that it appears to deal with the failure of precisely the kind of Indian secularism that you are speaking about. In fact, the Nandy-esque critique of the secular in favour a Bhakti-Sufi version of tolerance is the very position that art historian Geeta Kapur proposed in the 1980s and then again with the rise of installation art in the 1990s and early 2000s. What we know about India today is that this ‘everyday, Bhakti-Sufi secularism’ has not saved the day; it has not combated the rise of the Right by appealing to the everyday man in the street. Tallur’s faux-archaeological, pseudo-mythical artefacts are so engaging (and poignant) because they spoof simplistic readings of Indian history in aid of political agendas (whether these agendas are Right wing ones or more palatably liberal and left-y). My interpretation of his work has always been that he doesn’t proselytise a secular art, he throws light on the possibility that this secularism may well be the stuff of dreams.

It’s tempting to see Indian secularism as a singular entity in art history, with an unbroken historical trajectory – i.e. to see it as traveling straightforwardly from the Progressives to the late Moderns (think the Baroda School of Art) to the Contemporary. It’s tempting to do this – but, I would argue, what makes Indian art history so exciting is that the definition of the term secular – what it actually stands for and how it is (and should be) interpreted in an Indian cultural context – has been constantly contested, debated and argued over. The idea of modifying secularism is proposed by Kapur, whose When Was Modernism states outright that she aims to revamp the term to suit India’s changed political climate with the rise of Hindu nationalism; to rescue secularism from the Hindu Right, as it were. Her proposals do this, I argue in my PhD thesis, in a form akin to Nandy’s stipulations. (Even though Nandy purports to dismantle secularism completely, and Kapur to salvage it, they are in fact both recommending overhauling the terminology of the secular to include a more down-to-earth, devotion-based tolerance.) The point of the Progressive Revolution exhibition was to probe the idea that such a revamping of Nehruvian secularism is indeed necessary.

Kapur’s ‘tough love’ remodeling has meant that Indian art historians inspired by her (think Chaitanya Sambrani) have often dismissed the Progressives for being too caught up in a ‘Nehruvian secular’ moment; for espousing a moribund secularism based on rationalist, universalist principles – i.e. for being less ‘of the people’ in their secularism than, say, a Bhupen Khakhar and his contemporaries in the Baroda School. I wanted to re-open that dialogue about ‘progressive secularism’ in India: what was it really about? Was it really that different from the devotional version that Kapur was championing through the Baroda School? Or were there similarities? If there were similarities in the PAG’s attitude to India’s unorthodox devotional history to the artists that Kapur recommends for their ‘revamped secularism’ to what extent can we trace the problems (and perhaps find the solutions) to the today’s national dilemmas in their work?  I still don’t know the answers to these questions. But, I thought they were worth posing. So, the show was a visual manifestation of this quest. 

Sonal, relatedly, I wasn’t sure whether you felt that the term ‘Indian Modern’ made sense as a concept either. Perhaps, we could discuss whether it is valid to speak about an Indian modernity as distinct from a more universalist attitude towards the ‘modern’ or the ‘secular’ – am I making too much of an issue about the fact that the Indian experience is substantively different? After all, I love the way Rebecca Brown dismisses the idea of an ‘alternative modernism’, and in a way the show was an attempt to flesh out this point. In the ‘National/International’ section of The Progressive Revolution, I juxtaposed modern Indian art with Asian antiquities from the collection of JD Rockefeller the 3rd, because I wanted to show that modernism is itself hybrid. That right at the heart of the American modern – which is exactly what the Rockefeller family represent – was a ‘dream’ of Asia. i.e. the modern is always a hybrid and split concept, always haunted by its so-called Other. I wondered, Sonal and Karin, if you have some thoughts about the term – would you agree that modernism has ‘alternative’ iterations – or is it the very nature of the modern that needs to be questioned?

S. H. Raza  Satpura , 1984, Acrylic on canvas H. 47 x W. 94 in. (119.4 x 238.8 cm), Minal and Dinesh Vazirani, Image courtesy of the Lender

S. H. Raza Satpura, 1984, Acrylic on canvas H. 47 x W. 94 in. (119.4 x 238.8 cm), Minal and Dinesh Vazirani, Image courtesy of the Lender

SK: In my book Worldly Affiliations (2015) and elsewhere, I have argued against  understanding modernism in India as an ‘alternative’ or vernacular’ deviation or derivation from a singular European center, and instead as a transnational, cross-cultural, and collaborative process, system, and method that developed across global South and North during the long twentieth century. Accounts of alternative and vernacular modernisms can consolidate the hegemony of Euro-American developments, establishing them as a norm for art everywhere and position other modernisms as anomaly or anachronism. Modernity unfolded asymmetrically across societies in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas and generated complex and plural articulations of modernism. Recent exhibitions such as Gutai: Splendid Playground (Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2013), Nasreen Mohamedi (Met Breuer and Reina Sofia, 2016), and Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-1965 (Haus der Kunst, Munich, 2017) have focused on these articulations and compelled us to rethink Eurocentric and Greenbergian narratives of modern art. 

The careers of the artists who are the subject of Worldly Affiliations, including M.F. Husain, a founding member of the Progressive Artists Group (PAG), can be related to non-western and postcolonial artists across the globe, including Diego Rivera (1886–1957), Lin Fengmian (1900–1991), and Lionel Wendt (1900-1944). These artists shared an admiration for Western artists, a critique of imperialism, a commitment to nationalism, and a self-understanding as national subjects and world-citizens. That said, the history of British colonialism in India engendered specific relationships and responses, for example, a division between art and crafts in the colonial art school and indeed at Kala Bhavan, the art school of the anti-colonial nationalist university established by Rabindranath Tagore in Santiniketan in 1918. A preoccupation with the village and city – as metaphors for and materializations of East and West— was a legacy of Gandhian anti-colonial nationalism that carried on well into the postcolonial period. Hence Amrita Sher-Gil’s and Husain’s depictions of peasants and rural life despite being quintessentially urban artists. At the same time, these artists’ works consistently gesture toward or directly cite artistic developments in the West: the models of Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne for Sher-Gil and the models of Paul Klee and Pablo Picasso for Husain. Artists such as Syed Haidar Raza and Francis Newton Souza, who left India to pursue careers in Paris and London in the 1940s and 1950s, further complicate the notion of an Indian modernism apart from European modernism, In Bombay, the influence of European émigrés and exiles on PAG such as Rudy von Leyden, Walter Langhammer, and Emmanuel Schlesinger, who championed central European Expressionism, was considerable, to say nothing of the impact of the Bauhaus exhibition in Calcutta in 1922. Therefore, I am reluctant to declare the exceptionalism of modernism and modernity in India despite its distinctive features. Our histories of modernism and modernity must account for the force of the nation-form along with imperial, transnational, and diasporic movements of art and ideas. 

M. F. Husain  Yatra , 1955 Oil on canvas, H. 33 1/2 x W. 42 1/2 in. (85.1 x 108 cm) Collection Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi

M. F. Husain Yatra, 1955 Oil on canvas, H. 33 1/2 x W. 42 1/2 in. (85.1 x 108 cm) Collection Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi

KZ:  Sonal’s book is very powerful in its absolute refusal to place a qualifying adjective in front of the word, modernism.  I think we are very close to a turning point in the history of art, in which the very stubborn idea of modernism as an exclusively Western enterprise will be denaturalized.  All that would entail, and I am deliberately understating the difficulty of this task, is our remembering the past in a sustained enough way to counter decades of purposeful forgetting.  It took effort to forget so much about artists from outside of Europe and the United States, not to mention artists of colour in the West and women all over. The historical record is just so rich, and is now, we can hope, being richly illustrated in museum collections across the world, as well as in the texts through which we learn art history.  

ZJ: So Karin, how would you say that your version of the ‘secular nation’ might address the cosmopolitan? My own definition of the nation is as a more paradoxical entity – hence the section of the show “National/International”. Firstly, I aimed to undercut the idea of nationalism that the far-right proposes today: that it is a closed off, nationalist enterprise. But secondly, I also wanted to discuss the fact that these early Indian modernists were working with a concept of nationalism that was secular, plural, and cosmopolitan as well. Perhaps, it is because of how the PAG included and addressed Bombay’s cosmopolitan history that we think of them as the ‘Bombay Progressives’. This despite the fact that their first show was not in Bombay, and that very few of the ‘original’ six even remained in the country – by 1956, the PAG had completely dissolved. Their heritage as ‘Bombay’s quintessential Moderns’ (no doubt promoted by the auction houses many of who operate out of ‘Mumbai’ as India’s financial capital) continues to be linked to the seminal phase of India’s national building and, vitally, to Bombay’s cosmopolitan connection to this.

Akbar Padamsee.  Lovers , 1952. Oil on board. H. 62 x W. 32 in. (157.5 x 81.3 cm). Collection Amrita Jhaveri.

Akbar Padamsee. Lovers, 1952. Oil on board. H. 62 x W. 32 in. (157.5 x 81.3 cm). Collection Amrita Jhaveri.

My point is that we have to understand that for Souza to go off to London and Raza to go off to France was not a negation of a national narrative in favour of a cosmopolitan one – but an extension of the national, through a particular reading of the international. These artists felt that because they were now citizens of a Free Nation, a free India, they too had a right to a place in the inter-national dialogue of the Modern. For me, the great sadness (and the historical wrong this show sought to ‘right’ as it were) was that they were more ‘progressive’ in their attitude than Euro-American art history was ready to be at that time. For the latter, the PAG remained ‘Indian artists’, whereas for these Moderns because they were Indian, they felt they had a right to be seen as Just Artists….

My argument is that if we allow the definition of the cosmopolitan to be separated from the way we define the national, then we have very little wiggle room to contest Hindutva when they castigate the liberal art world for being ‘anti-national’. In this sense, I absolutely agree with Geeta Kapur, we cannot give up on the idea of the nation – to walk out on it, means we no longer have a stake in defining it. In today’s India – such a definition is vital.

Shiva and Parvati (Uma-Maheshvara-murti) . Transitional period, late 10th–early 11th century. Nepal, Kathmandu Valley. Copper alloy. H. 6⅛ x W. 6¼ x D. 4¾ in (15.5 x 15.9 x 12 cm). Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.48. Image courtesy Asia Society.

Shiva and Parvati (Uma-Maheshvara-murti). Transitional period, late 10th–early 11th century. Nepal, Kathmandu Valley. Copper alloy. H. 6⅛ x W. 6¼ x D. 4¾ in (15.5 x 15.9 x 12 cm). Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.48. Image courtesy Asia Society.

KZ: Cosmopolitanism is an excellent category with which to frame the process of remembering.  This outlook—worldly, thoughtful, and secular—was absolutely central to self-fashioning of the artists associated with the PAG.  In The Art of Secularism, I trace those cosmopolitan commitments up to the present, and show how they were inscribed in the imaginative geographies of the city of Bombay and the Faculty of Fine Arts at Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda.  My purpose in that text is to examine how these commitments faired during the solidification of Hindu nationalism across India, which is symbolized in my book by the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992, but which far pre-dated what scholars in the 1990s called the “crisis in secularism.”  Across that text, I examine how the vulnerability of cosmopolitanism in a Shiv Sena-ruled Mumbai was always contested, even in its supposed heyday of the early post-colonial period. I also seized upon a discussion I had with Gulammohammed Sheikh about violence in late-1960s Baroda to find within his body of work an insistent questioning of the so-called secular consensus some decades before the onset of the more recent crisis.  Since my book’s publication, the importance of the Shiv Sena’s symbolic (and literal) capture of Mumbai and the tactics used by Narendra Modi’s regime in Gujarat in the early 2000s has become obvious. There are imaginative resources, I argue, in the secular critique of secularism assembled by these artists. Even though it happened to be published in the year Narendra Modi came to power, my book is not a pessimistic account of a secularism eclipsed, but rather a story of the resourcefulness of art as secular practice.  

The Shiv Sena and the BJP were aligned with the groups that brought charges of obscenity against M.F. Husain, beginning in 1996, which is the event I use to frame my book.  These charges, though ultimately unsuccessful in a court of law, were relatively successful in changing public opinion about the artist, who had long used the nude to celebrate an Indian visual culture that included Hindu iconography.

ZJ: What did Husain’s dilemma constitute – i.e. what was Husain’s ‘problem’ as you see it, Karin ? Was it substantially different from Padamsee’s in the 1954 court case launched against him? Do you think that Padamsee’s early run in with the law – where conservative elements refused to accept that the work was a reference to Hinduism’s own erotic art – was a foreshadowing of what happened to Husain over his depiction of a nude Mother India?

KZ: Although the case brought against him was personally devastating, Padamsee was able to have some confidence in the courts, because the law was on his side—it specifically excluded works of art from the category of obscenity.  He had strong witnesses, including the expatriate art critic Rudy von Leyden, to argue for the value of his painting as art. But this was a crucial period, internationally, for cases of obscenity. The landmark judgment in favour of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover came almost a decade later, so it was not yet a settled issue.  And so Padamsee’s case contributed to a broader articulation of how sexuality could be dealt with in art, one that could have implications for artists and writers through the English-speaking world.

That makes it quite different from what Husain was up against [in the 2008 case Maqbool Fida Husain v. Raj Kumar Pandey], which was the use of the legal category of obscenity to register a different complaint, which was “offenses to religious sentiment.”  That is a separate legal category from obscenity, one with a higher burden of proof—it would have been necessary for Husain’s accusers to prove his intent to offend. Obscenity was the backup plan, one tied to a well-documented use of such lawsuits by Hindu nationalist groups as a technique of harassment.  Unfortunately, the need to defend him against such harassment has made it quite difficult to take apart the role eroticism plays in Husain’s painting, which changes quite a bit over time. Paintings like Between the Spider and the Lamp (1956), in which very real women are portrayed in the form of muses, may be less outwardly erotic in their representation of the female figure than the later drawings and paintings seized upon by Hindutvavadis.  Across his career, Husain celebrated the feminine as a force that ultimately serves the male artist’s creation. That strikes me as deeply regressive. But, although some historians have taken on that question, fewer have done so than there should be, in part because it was so important to defend Husain, particularly while he was alive.

K.H. Ara,  Untitled (Large Nude) , 1965. Oil on canvas. H. 68 7/8 x W. 27 1/2 in. (175 x 70cm). Collection of Jamshyd and Pheroza Godrej. Courtesy of the lender.

K.H. Ara, Untitled (Large Nude), 1965. Oil on canvas. H. 68 7/8 x W. 27 1/2 in. (175 x 70cm). Collection of Jamshyd and Pheroza Godrej. Courtesy of the lender.

ZJ: Perhaps we can return to the regressive presentations of the female body and notions of a ‘feminine force’ that haunt much of the Progressives’ work later – but for now, I wonder if part of the problem here is the ancient idea of India as being conjoined with the body of the Mother Goddess (a concept that Gayatri Sinha, following in the footsteps of Sumathi Ramaswamy, has connected to the 12th century Puranas). This devotional notion is responsible for Husain’s portrayals of Mother India fused to the map of India. One could argue that nationalism per se – however inclusive – is itself a rather sexist concept: it often gets its ballast from the idea of a fertile Motherland, stretching back through the mists of time. Hence, I am not sure that we can – or should – castigate the Progressives for this species of regressive politics: they weren’t the sole perpetrators of it, one could argue that it was a dilemma that dogged Modern art per se. If the Modern and the National are inter-linked concepts then, one could ask whether this ‘regressive’ view of female identity is an inherent problem for both.

Relatedly, I wanted to ask Sonal: do you think the idea of a ‘national dilemma’ is even a valid category anymore? I realize that finding out what went ‘wrong’ with the idea of the early Indian nationalism was an agenda of the show and hence became an obsession with me: but taking a step back from it, I wonder if the problem is not with the articulation of Nehruvian nationalism (or even its abuse by the Hindu Right), but just with nationalism per se? This show was a kind of thought experiment: I wanted to investigate ways of talking about the nation as a more inclusive entity… and explore the idea than one can be both national and international; nation-sensitive and trans-national at one and the same time. The New York Review of Books as well as Art in America’s feature both produced critiques of the exhibition which criticized its nationalist agenda - the reviews (as I see it) failed to understand that the terms ‘national’ and ‘international’ were not used on an ‘either or’ basis, they were meant to investigate how they might work together. i.e. that one needn’t give up on the idea of the nation in order to criticize far Right versions of nationalism. In some ways, this is a sort of Geeta Kapur line (but I think Kapur is a little romantic in terms of what she thinks art can achieve).

Sonal, I am particularly interested in what you might say to this because of your concept of ‘worldly affiliations’, that is also akin to Iftikhar Dadi’s idea of a ‘transnational art’ that is not narrowly nationalistic. However, with Dadi, my question always seems paradoxically unanswered: the “art of Muslim South Asia” as he sees it, is almost a paean to Pakistani nationalism (which anchors itself in the concept of a distinct ‘Muslim’ experience for its identity, after all), while at the same time shrugging off the idea that there is such a thing as ‘Pakistani’ art. What do you think the transnational stands for? Do you propose going ‘beyond the nation’?

SK: For artists and intellectuals in modern India, a commitment to the nation, which is to say, to particular ideas of citizenship, community, secularity, and freedom, did not preclude international engagements. They practiced what I have called ‘postcolonial worldliness,’ and asserted citizenship in national and international community in ways that had been impossible under colonialism. This cosmopolitan impulse is visible in the art of the PAG as well as many other modernist careers in India. Postcolonial worldliness was my framework to critique a flattening of artistic practice in the name of the global, and also a narrowing in the name of the national.

K. H. Ara.  Untitled,  ca. 1950s. Oil on canvas. H. 63 x W. 48 in. (160 x 121.9 cm). The Darashaw Collection. Image courtesy of the lender

K. H. Ara. Untitled, ca. 1950s. Oil on canvas. H. 63 x W. 48 in. (160 x 121.9 cm). The Darashaw Collection. Image courtesy of the lender

In the 1980s and 1990s, a group of scholars associated with the now defunct Journal of Arts and Ideas emphasized the national distinctiveness of Indian art and its deviation from Western norms. Here I’m thinking of the work of Geeta Kapur, Tapati Guha-Thakurta, Kajri Jain, and Ashish Rajadhyaksha, and the related scholarship of Christopher Pinney, Jyotindra Jain, Richard Davis, and Sumathi Ramaswamy. Responding to charges of deformity and delay leveled against modern Indian art, these scholars explained its difference from models in the West. They provided alternate frameworks for analyzing image production and visual culture in India, but tended to overlook careers and imaginations such as those of Mulk Raj Anand or Amrita Sher-Gil.

The nation of modernism cannot be reduced to or equated with that of the anti-colonial nationalist movement or the postcolonial development state. Indian artists from Amrita Sher-Gil and K.G. Subramanyan to Bhupen Khakhar and Gieve Patel were critical of British colonialism and Indian nationalism, and created works that opposed dominant visions of the nation. K.H. Ara’s painting (Untitled, 1950s) of a bespectacled ragpicker, possibly a self-portrait of the artist, with a red scarf registers an incomplete arrival into freedom and democracy much like Husain’s Man (1951). Born to a Dalit bus driver in Andhra Pradesh, Ara worked as a domestic servant in Bombay before becoming a professional artist. The nation was often represented in idealized forms of woman, adivasi (tribal or indigenous person), peasant, and village. Ara’s painting rejects those forms, and calls attention to other experiences, identities, and sites.   

 ZJ: Does the Progressives ‘heroic’ model of identity still have resonance today? Or does Husain’s case prove otherwise, i.e. that such heroism sets itself up for fall? I am especially interested in the role this leaves for the artist in today’s world – how is he/she expected to conduct themselves? What has happened to the concept of ‘the artist genius’?

KZ: I am not sure that the heroic category of genius holds in the present, but there are lingering effects of one of its aspects:  the burden of representation.  The burden to represent one’s community—however defined—has far outlasted the idea of inspiration that was applied to figures like Husain.  Authors writing about his work in the 1950s and 1960s really did see him as a mediator of national identity.  All the metaphors we might use to describe that—son of the soil, for instance—are now stale, but were then applied with little irony.  Over the past couple of decades, artists in South Asia have undermined the question of representation in so many different ways.  Those techniques have carved out newer roles for the artist today, ranging from that of public intellectual to celebrity to community organizer. 

SK: The model of artist as hero, as male genius with female muse, certainly sustained the practice of the Progressive artists. However, this model also had distinct trajectories in modern India. Souza remembers the formation of PAG as a collective endeavour and group action: “Ganging up in a collective ego is stronger than single ego.” Thus, the modern artist was a heroic, pioneering, risk-taking, and rebellious individual, and a member of an association. The notion of a loose and shifting artistic association propelled not only PAG, but also the All India Progressive Writers Association (AIPWA), the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), and other groups that emerged in postcolonial India such as Group 1890, active in the 1960s, and the group of artists who showed together in the exhibition Place for People (1981). Art was “creative action,” as the critic Mulk Raj Anand wrote to Souza.

M.F. Husain. Villagers, 1955. .Oil on canvas. H. 5 x W. 25 1/2 in. (12.7 x 64.8 cm). Ashish and Reshma Jain, New Delhi. Image courtesy of Grosvenor Gallery

M.F. Husain. Villagers, 1955. .Oil on canvas. H. 5 x W. 25 1/2 in. (12.7 x 64.8 cm). Ashish and Reshma Jain, New Delhi. Image courtesy of Grosvenor Gallery

Artistic heroism was troubled in other ways too. Souza’s remarkable autobiographical essay “Nirvana of a Maggot” (1955), describes the artist as “a blooming maggot on a dung heap” with the “nose of a fetus.” Citing Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915), Souza offers a strange and compelling portrait of the artist as an abject and alien anti-hero, not unlike the protagonist of Adil Jussawalla’s long poem “Missing Person” (1975), a “mix” and an “Also.” Souza’s painting Tycoon and the Tramp (1955), contemporary with “Nirvana,” bristles with anger and alienation, conveys splitting and doubling, and locates the postcolonial artist between tycoon and tramp, anticipating Jussawalla’s critique of that artist as a bourgeois individual twenty years later.

F.N. Souza  Tycoon and the Tramp , 1955, Oil on masonite H. 32 x W. 56 in. (81.3 x 142.2 cm), Shumita and Arani Bose Collection, New York. Photography by Richard Goodbody

F.N. Souza Tycoon and the Tramp, 1955, Oil on masonite H. 32 x W. 56 in. (81.3 x 142.2 cm), Shumita and Arani Bose Collection, New York. Photography by Richard Goodbody

Neither the model of hero nor anti-hero applies exactly to artists in contemporary India, though Atul Dodiya has played with these modernist notions in his work. Indeed, such notions have been subject to feminist, Marxist, and Dalit critiques since the 1970s. However, the Progressive artists’ self-understanding as citizens remain influential today. Award wapsis (returnees) such as Uday Prakash, Nayantara Sehgal, and Ashok Vajpeyi, who have returned prestigious literary and artistic awards bestowed by the state since 2015, attest to how Indian artists have been unwilling to accept an implicit ban on the freedom of expression. While such acts cannot be directly traced to the PAG, they bear witness to the persistent effects of modernism, of art as action, translation, and expression in a social and political world that is far removed from Nehruvian India. The wapsis’s returns perform dissent, protest, and critique that I dare say would make Souza “happy as a barbarian,” which is how he described his primitive, postcolonial, Progressive artistic self over sixty years ago.


Karin Zitzewitz is Interim Chair of the Department of Art, Art History, and Design at Michigan State University, where she teaches art history.  She is the author of The Art of Secularism:  The Cultural Politics of Modernist Art in Contemporary India (Hurst/Oxford University Press, 2014) and The Perfect Frame:  Presenting Indian Art:  Stories and Photographs from the collection of Kekoo Gandhy (Chemould Publications and Arts, 2003).

Sonal Khullar is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Washington. She is the author of Worldly Affiliations: Artistic Practice, National Identity and Modernism in India, 1930-1990 (University of California Press, 2015). Her current research focuses on conflict, collaboration, and globalization in contemporary art from South Asia.

Zehra Jumabhoy was the Steven and Elena Heinz Scholar at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, where she completed her doctorate and is an Associate Lecturer, specializing in modern and contemporary South Asian art. The Progressive Revolution, was inspired by her PhD on the intersection of Indian art with nationalism.

Borderlines would also like to thank Elaine Merguerian, Communications Director, Asia Society, for assistance with the images.