The gifts of the magi

The birth of the Progressive Artists’ Group

Unlike the bombs that devastated the planet as the second world war blurred the lines between East and West, civilian and combatant, honour and terror, the bombs that exploded in the salons of colonial Bombay’s art scene in the late 1940s were crisp and bright, smelling of fresh paint and fresh ideas.

Many of Bombay’s art lovers, brought up on the genteel aridities of academic realism, found themselves grappling with shock. What did they find on these canvases bearing unknown signatures? Statuesque women modelled in planes jagged enough to draw blood, strangers to the sedate portraits favoured by the patrons of the age. Landscapes laid in impasto thick enough to chew, startling when mounted beside the delicate vistas and faux Mughal-Rajput miniatures approved by prevailing taste. Voluptuous nudes that had cast aside the coyness of their demure life class counterparts, to delight in the immediacy of skin and breath.

A new group of painters had made up their minds to seize centre stage, convinced that they alone could pick up the storyline of the Contemporary in India from where it had been dropped in 1941, after the deaths of the brilliantly idiosyncratic Rabindranath Tagore and the flamboyant but demon-haunted Amrita Sher-Gil.

Souza and Ara, Raza and Husain, Gade and Bakre: these young men were "strange and powerful animals", as one of them recalled fondly, in the course of a conversation with this writer some years ago. They were intense; and intensely frustrated with the canons that guided the practice of painting and the conventions that conditioned its reception in society. They were eager to record unfamiliar sensations, to grasp new and vibrant ways of putting brush and knife to canvas.

Even as India attained independence, they banded themselves into the short-lived but legendary Progressive Artists’ Group. Husain, the oldest, was slow to come on board; Souza, the youngest, was the febrile leader and ideologist. Amazingly, and this is a tribute to early post-colonial India’s – and specifically to early post-colonial Bombay’s – inclusive spirit, most of them belonged to religious minorities that had been shaken and dislocated during the partition that had been the dark twin to independence, their sense of self challenged and their reasons for belonging questioned.

Between the 1940s and the 1980s, the Progressives established themselves as the standard-bearers of India’s first post-colonial generation of artists and dominated the art scene in this country. They decided to explore a path distinct from the indigenously achieved modernism of Santiniketan, the utopian forest-university that Tagore had established in Bolpur, in the tribal heartland of eastern India. For the brilliantly eclectic Santiniketan artists, the toy-making and bell-casting techniques of tribal shamans went into the same crucible as Brancusi’s sculptures and Picasso’s epiphanies.

But the Progressives were Bombay artists. Although they were later to change their minds, the hinterland of India represented all that was to be left behind; the future lay elsewhere, in the metropolitan centres of the West. They were intense in their engagement with Art (they always speak of pictorial practice in the upper case), certain that it should be autonomous (even if they were not always certain of what it should be autonomous of), and quick to dismiss many who did not belong to their circle as social decorations, charlatans, or simply, as ‘non-artists’. They were convinced, also, that they should aim for standards of excellence that were international rather than merely local. And yet, these firebrands may never have been transformed into the sophisticated and magisterial figures that they later became without a crucial encounter that stimulated their energies, catalysing their enthusiasm into achievement.

The volatile Souza may well have wasted his life in prolonged tirades against god, the state and society, like many other Goan cranks. Husain may have hesitated, despite his resourcefulness and pragmatism, to break free of his anchorage in the Muslim artisanate and upper working class and redefine himself as an international nomad. The cautious Raza may not have received the impetus, so early, to book a passage to France and devote himself to a switching between the parentheses of Indic metaphysics and European urbanity.

These young men may not have transformed themselves so radically without the gifts of three eastward bound magi of Central European provenance answering to the names of Rudolf von Leyden, Walter Langhammer and Emmanuel Schlesinger. Without this troika of expatriate patrons who introduced them to the powerful languages of European modernism, the Progressives may well have remained raw, troubled rebels with the vaguest glimmering of a cause. And how intriguing that these magi should themselves have been affiliated to a minority group that had been stigmatised in Europe, herded into annihilation or driven into exile.


This meeting between the Central European magi and the future masters of post-colonial Indian art is a classic example of the enabling fortuity of the great city, the serendipity with which a global metropolis can nourish intercultural encounter. Von Leyden, Langhammer and Schlesinger were refugees from a Europe overshadowed by the Third Reich, who had made Bombay their home. Situated safely midway between the embattled harbours of the second world war’s eastern and western theatres – with Marseilles and Suez at one end, and Shanghai and Singapore at the other – Bombay played host to a varied cast of characters transiting from one uncertainty to another.

In this exodus were men and women who had narrowly escaped the SS, leaving behind sumptuous apartments or villas in Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, Vienna, Salzburg, Budapest, Prague and many other glittering cities that had fallen under the jackboots of Hitler’s armies. Like their diasporic forefathers, who had been forced from their homes first in the Levant and later in Reconquista Spain, these representatives of the refined German-speaking Jewish elite had carried into exile what was most precious to them: their culture. Theirs was a connoisseurial heritage, its amplitude measured in musical scores and instruments, paintings and books.

Von Leyden, Schlesinger and Langhammer had arrived in Bombay at various points after the Nazis had seized power in Germany in 1933 and re-established their interrupted lives. Each had prospered reasonably by the mid-1940s and found a place in their host society: Langhammer was art director of The Times of India; von Leyden was a senior executive with the Swiss-Jewish firm of Volkarts and also art critic for The Times of India; Emmanuel Schlesinger owned a pharmaceuticals firm. Together, they had formed a circle into which they gradually invited some of the most gifted young artists who had appeared on a scene benumbed by British colonial taste. The Progressives were invited to the Sunday morning meetings that Langhammer held at his home, which von Leyden and Schlesinger also attended. Here, these transplanted Europeans would open before their protégés the sophistications of the Eden they had known and from which they had been expelled.

For the Progressives, whose knowledge of modern Euro-American art came mainly from art books printed on war quality paper and confined to black and white reproductions, the full-colour amazements of Schiele, Kandinsky, Kokoschka, Rouault, Modigliani, Klee and Picasso, these were invaluable lessons. In retrospect, it also seems clear that the troika also infected their acolytes with a nagging sense of discontent and dislocation, the belief that the horrors of experience could only be healed by the affirmations of art, which could only be found in the lost Europe of their nostalgia.

To the Progressives – both the nucleus of founder members and their associates, Akbar Padamsee, VS Gaitonde, Tyeb Mehta, Krishen Khanna and Mohan Samant, life could no longer go on as before. They were seized by a yearning to travel, to unchain themselves from the familiar. Despite Nehru’s stirring evocation of the "soul of a nation, long suppressed, [finding] utterance" at the threshold of independence, the new India had begun to devote itself obsessively to the practical rather than the imaginative aspect of collective life: while culture was celebrated and even institutionalised as a monopoly of the dirigiste, developmentalist state, cultural practitioners did not necessarily receive support unless their activities could be brought into the ambit of an official national art. If they could paint murals and produce public sculpture, this was acceptable; more conceptual, experimental or private departures were not regarded as pertinent.

The Progressives, like many other young artists elsewhere in India at this time, wanted to remake themselves in societies that were hospitable to the imagination and where they did not have to assert their preference to be artists rather than engineers, social workers or medical practitioners dedicated to the task of building a new nation. Most of them went westward: some to Paris, others to London, one or two brave souls to New York. Some settled in their new homes; others returned after varying periods of residence abroad; and yet others among them have shuttled back and forth for decades.


The trouble with latter-day magi, as O. Henry’s Christmas parable suggests, is that their gifts can go tragically awry. While the Central European troika gave the unruly talent of the Bombay artists a sense of direction and purpose, their patronage also had a certain negative and even limiting effect. The acolytes, flying on their guides’ instructions to Europe, missed the transatlantic flight of talent, capital and knowledge that had already taken off during the war. Painters and critics, collectors and dealers, museum specialists and historians had all escaped the Nazi onslaught to settle in the USA, mainly in enclaves on the east coast. Apprenticing themselves to the School of Paris, which was already fading before the School of New York, some of the Progressives condemned themselves to years of epigonic work justified by an exhausted rhetoric of originality and heroic quest; a fate from which they were not released until changed historical or personal circumstances allowed them to grow beyond the context of their apprenticeship.

Fortunately, some of the Progressives and their associates took up the challenge of formulating an artistic language that addressed its immediate location and yet could communicate across borders without restricting itself to the auto-Orientalism of ethnic or nativist choices. As the impact of personal encounter and the charisma of their European mentors faded, the Progressives could discard the biases and preferences they had imbibed, and distil the lesson of transcultural receptivity from their encounter with the magi.

Over the decades they have opened themselves to diverse artistic lineages, becoming attentive, variously, to impulses that came from T’ang painting and the Japanese ukiyo-e prints, from Gupta sculpture and the Rajput raga-malika paintings, from cinema and mathematics, Sanskrit grammar and Santhal mythology. The leading spirits of the Progressive Artists’ Group emerged strengthened from this confluence of lineages and have remained committed to a lifelong quest for the crucial rather than the alluring image, seeking it through the icon of the heroic survivor, the allegorical tableau, the visionary landscape and the symbol that mediates between time’s decay and the luminosity of the eternal.

Archived from Communalism Combat, August-September 2007, Anniversary Issue (14th), Year 14    No.125, India at 60 Free Spaces, Art




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