Asia Society to present exhibition exploring Modernism in India

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M.F. Husain. Peasant Couple, 1950. Oil on canvas. Peabody Essex Museum, Gift of the Chester and Davida Herwitz Collection, 2003. Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA. Photography by Walter Silver.

NEW YORK – Asia Society in New York City will present a landmark exhibition exploring Modernism in India in the wake of independence, entitled ‘The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India,’ from September 14 through January 20, 2019.

The exhibition in fall will comprise of more than 80 works by members of the Progressive Artists’ Group, which formed in Bombay, in the aftermath of independence. It examines the founding ideology of the Progressives and explores the ways in which artists from different social, cultural, and religious backgrounds found common cause at a time of massive political and social upheaval.

Though the Progressives disbanded in 1956, the ideas and discussions of its members continued to animate and give visual expression to India’s modern identity, with many of the group’s artists creating their most iconic works after this period, according to Asia Society.

Works in the exhibition – primarily oil paintings from the 1940s to 1990s – underscore how these artists gave visual form to the idea of India as secular, diverse, international, and united. Like their counterparts in the West, India’s modern masters mined multiple sources of inspiration, including the subcontinent and Asia, as well as the wider world. They forged their own distinctive styles that were international in outlook while resonating with Indian sensibilities.

The exhibition is organized by guest curator Dr. Zehra Jumabhoy, Associate Lecturer, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London and Boon Hui Tan, Vice President for Global Arts and Cultural Programs and Director of Asia Society Museum in New York. A fully illustrated catalogue featuring essays by leading scholars of Indian art and modern history accompanies the exhibition.

“The works in this exhibition reflect the diversity of Asian modernities, which are not a mirror of the Euro-American experience,” says Boon Hui Tan, in a statement. “Art was also a way for the Progressive Artists’ Group to validate and celebrate a new secular republic that emerged from a rich, multi-religious tradition in ways that remain relevant today. Asia Society is pleased to present the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of the Progressives undertaken in the United States in recent decades.”

Jumabhoy commented: “The Progressives’ Artist Group have come to be seen as the ‘quintessential Indian Moderns. They came from all walks of life: rich, poor, Dalits, Muslims, Brahmins, Roman Catholics. They genuinely embodied Indian Prime Minister (Jawaharlal) Nehru’s dream of unity in diversity and his version of an ‘Indian secularism’ that was multi-religious and inclusive. Given the political climate in both India and the U.S. today, I think this principle of tolerance – part and parcel of the Group’s DNA – is vital to rekindle.”

The exhibition comprises important and visually arresting works from the group’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.

A selection of masterpieces of South Asian and East Asian art, including works from the Asia Society Museum Collection – Rajput miniatures, a sandstone figure, two Chola bronzes, and a Japanese landscape hanging scroll – is also included to show how the Progressives were inspired by South Asian and East Asian iconography and traditional forms in the creation of a new visual language for a new Indian nation.

The exhibition is organized into three major sections plotting the artistic development of the group’s celebrated artists. The first section, ‘Progressives in Their Time,’ considers the group’s origins and early formation, and the context in which the artists were working.

A section titled ‘National/International’ examines the Progressives’ use of multiple sources of inspiration, including India’s high art and folk traditions, and ways that they borrowed from a range of styles to create a distinct mode of expression.

The third section of the exhibition, ‘Masters of the Game,’ comprises some of the artists’ most iconic works created after the group dissolved in the 1950s and its most prominent members had traveled to foreign lands.

The exhibition includes rarely seen historic works from the first and earliest shows of the Progressives. Other highlights include two paintings from Husain and Souza that were exhibited in the first exhibition of the Progressives in 1949, and a painting by Raza that was included in the seminal exhibition ‘Trends in Contemporary Painting from India’.

The exhibition traveled to institutions and galleries throughout the United States between March 1959 and March 1960 as one of the largest presentations of modern Indian painting in this country. Also included is a large-scale crucifixion painting by Souza that has not been shown in more than six decades.

In conjunction with the exhibition, there is a special season of public programs exploring India’s dynamic past, present, and future through performance, film, literature, design, and cuisine.

Several well-known Indian American philanthropists and art collectors are among the supporters of the Asia Society exhibition.

‘Major support’ is provided by Amita and Purnendu Chatterjee, Blanca and Sunil Hirani, Sangita Jindal, Sheryl and Chip Kaye, and Sana H. Sabbagh. ‘Generous support’ is provided by The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, Rajiv and Payal Chaudhri, Kent and Marguerite Charugundla, The Darashaw Foundation, Sonny and Michelle Kalsi, Indra and Raj Nooyi, and The Rajadhyaksha Family.

Also, ‘additional support’ is from Jon Friedland and Shaiza Rizavi; Peter Louis, Chandru Ramchandani, and Lal Dalamal; The Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation; and Kelly and Sundaram Tagore, according to the Asia Society.

Kent Charugundla is one of the foremost collectors of Husain paintings, and has in his possession ‘Lightning’, the largest painting by M F Husain, which stretches 60 feet x 10 feet. It was commissioned by Charugundla at the now defunct art gallery in New York City, Tamarind, and Husain kept coming down to finish it, till he passed away in London, in June, 2011.

The New York City-based Sundaram Tagore, the great-grandson of Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore, who runs four eponymous art galleries, incidentally, will lead this winter, an ‘Indian Modernism Tour’ for over two weeks in India, in partnership with Ventours International Travel. The 16-day art, culture, and culinary extravaganza will also encompass the India Art Fair, in Delhi, during the course of the trip.

The Asia Society exhibition comes at a time when Indian art has picked up steam, and is doing well at auctions globally. Christie’s, who pulled out from India, have had a good response to their Indian modern and contemporary art auctions in New York City, over the last couple of years.

Saffronart’s Summer Online Auction, in June, achieved sales of $11.4 million, with 85% lots sold. The auction achieved world records for six artists, with Tyeb Mehta’s iconic and monumental Untitled (Kali), 1989 – one of only three standing figures painted by the artist – setting a new world record for the artist at around $4 million.

The other five artists to achieve personal world records at Saffronart, founded by husband-wife duo Dinesh and Minal Vazirani 18 years ago, were: N S Bendre’s 1974 painting of Sita in the woods ($199,818); M V Dhurandhar’s watercolor painting Tarabai – Founder of the Kolhapur Confederacy, 1927 ($79,200); a bronze sculpture by Sankho Chaudhuri ($51,876); Dhananjay Singh’s The Last Tree, 2013 ($48,456); and Sheila Makhijani’s What Were You Thinking, 2007 ($18,192).

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: sujeet@newsindiatimes.com Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)

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