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The Progressive Revolution Questions India's Modern Identity

Published on
October 24

My first time visiting the Asia Society earlier this month was also one of my first legitimate ventures into the Upper East Side. I can say I picked the right time to explore a new part of the city. The day I went was the type in early autumn that kindles an innate instinct to be an intimate setting. As I made the walk up Park Avenue from the subway, I realized that this neighborhood was exactly such a setting: stately apartment buildings on manicured residential streets painted the image of a close-knit, albeit exclusive upper-middle class life in Manhattan.
 

I could not help but feel, then, that this life was a world apart from a museum of Asian art and heritage. Entering through the heavy revolving door almost gave me the impression that I was stepping into a foreign embassy. I had come to see the Asia Society’s recently inaugurated exhibit, The Progressive Revolution, featuring the work of the Progressive Artists’ Group.

Formed after India gained independence in 1947, the group was comprised of artists that eventually came to define the modern art movement in India, such as K. H. Ara, M. F. Husain, S. H. Raza, and F. N. Souza. They, among others, played a critical role in forming India’s new postcolonial identity—one defined by a diversity of religious and cultural backgrounds and, of course inescapably, the West.

Perhaps primed by my surroundings, I was struck by how much of the time I used a Western perspective as a reference for the work of Indian modernists. This is something I have continually grappled with as someone of Indian heritage who grew up in the United States. While I at first tried to restrain this frame of reference, lest it dilute the significance of the artists’ work, I came to realize as I made my way through the gallery that the complexity of India’s relationship with the West has come to define its modernity. Many of these artists faced similar quandaries as to what role the West should play in their art.

This was greatly reflected in the paintings I saw by Francis Newton Souza, who was raised a Roman Catholic in the Indian state of Goa, a former Portuguese province. Clearly attached to his homeland, several of his works recreated the lush tropical landscape and village scenes of Goa in exuberant yellows and pinks. At the same time, he experienced frustration and difficulty receiving recognition for his experimentation in India. His work was subject to censorship by Bombay authorities, who were shocked by his unashamed use of nudity in his paintings’ subjects. For Souza, the West became a beacon for unhindered creative expression, and he moved to London to further his career.

In fact, a great deal of the Indian artists featured in the exhibit spent periods of their lives in Europe: S. H. Raza moved to Paris, and M. F. Husain, Tyeb Mehta, and S. K. Bakre all spent time in London. There, they received the recognition that they might not have found by staying in their home country (Raza became the first non-French artist to win the Prix de la Critique in Paris), but were also met with rejection and hardship (Souza spent the beginning of his time in London in poverty, working for almost a decade until his work was critically recognized).

Was it not unusual that so many of these artists who were considered formative in redefining India’s national identity spent significant portions of their lives away from their home country, often even in the country from which India itself had just gained independence? I asked myself this question as I approached the later rooms of the exhibition, in which some of the artists’ best-known works were housed. It was here that I began to more deeply understand that the original concern I had with my Western approach to the artwork was exactly what the collection as a whole was aiming to represent. In these rooms, I saw distinctly Indian subject matter filtered through a European lens: Partition allegorized as many pale academics about to perform an autopsy, or a scene from Hindu mythology of the goddess Durga fighting the buffalo demon Mahishasura in the warped style of Picasso. These provided a response to my earlier question by way of asking another one: how could it not be unusual that the West played such a large role in the lives of these Indian national artists, when the West itself played such a large role in the history of India?
 

Meditating on these difficult questions was the essence of my visit to this exhibit. I left the museum still concerned about how I use the West as a default comparison for even my own heritage. But with this came a broader sense of how impossible it is to pinpoint which tradition is contained within the other. Just as the influences of Western modern art movements were encapsulated in the artists’ reflections on a new Indian nation, so too the essence of these artists’ homeland was infused in the European modern art sphere. As I exited the museum through the revolving door and back into the worldliness of Manhattan, I considered this relativity with regard to my surroundings. Had I stepped into a foreign place by entering the Asia Society, or by leaving it?
 

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Image Credit (second down): Tyeb Mehta. Mahisasura, 1997. Acrylic on canvas. H. 59 x W. 48 in. (149.9 x 121.9 cm). Rajiv and Payal Chaudhri Collection.