Raza and His Contemporaries – a prolific group exhibition of 20 iconic Indian artists

by Team ACF
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Dhoomimal Gallery’s latest exhibition ‘Raza & His Contemporaries’ showcases India’s iconic artist S.H. Raza’s achievements and his contemporaries in the Progressive Artists Group. ACF gives its readers an insight into the quintessential art exhibition.

Indian art is synonymous to epic artists such as Raza, Souza and Husain. These iconic artists among other legendary Indian artists played a crucial role in overthrowing notions of academic art and creating a strong bid for the liberalizing of practices and shaped modernisms in Indian art.

Dhoomimal Gallery’s exhibition ‘Raza & His Contemporaries’ celebrates S. H. Raza’s achievements as well as those of his contemporaries in the Progressive Artists Group – which included Sayed Haider Raza, M.F. Husain, F.N. Souza, K.H. Ara, S. Bakre and H.A. Gade and the simultaneous emergence of other influential artists of his time such as Krishen Khanna, J. Swaminathan, K.G. Subramanyan, Pradosh Dasgupta, Biren De, Jamini Roy, Zarina Hashmi, Ram Kumar, V.S. Gaitonde,  Sailoz Mookherjea, G.R. Santosh, Biren De, Himmat Shah, Sadanand Bakre and V. Vishwanadhan.

This was the grand generation which worked hard to achieve excellence in art and succeeded in placing India on the international art map.

Curated by Yashodhara Dalmia the exhibition focuses around SH Raza, in his centenary year, as one of the main initiators of the Progressive Artist’s Group, and explores the richly diverse voices and influences that coloured Indian modernism. The exhibition traces Raza’s sweeps of brilliance from primary colours and sizzling Bindu’s to his rise in the international art world in Paris to becoming a household name in Indian art. The exhibition is part of Raza’s centenary celebrations worldwide.

Dalmia is an eminent art historian, independent curator and author of the recent biography ‘Sayed Haider Raza: The Journey of an Iconic Artist’. 

Speaking on the exhibition Dalmia says, “This exhibition highlights some of the foremost modern artists in the country and reveals their contribution to the development of art. In doing so it carves the path that art was to take in the decades that followed. Among these the artist S.H. Raza was one of the leading contributors with his blazing paintings which in their incandescent use of colour and their reflection of the world outside were skilled in themselves and relevant for the viewer.”

“The exhibition presents a new conversation with 20 significant artists who shaped modernism in Indian art -celebrating S H Raza’s achievements alongside those of his contemporaries in the Progressive Artists Group and the simultaneous emergence of other influential artists of his time. The exhibition design will also play an important role in the show, inviting viewers to engage in deeper conversations, many for the first time, with the diverse voices of Indian modern art, and reflect on their relevance today,” shares Uday Jain, Director Dhoomimal Gallery. 

The dawn of modernism by mid-twentieth century was followed with artists overthrowing notions of academic art and creating a strong bid for the liberalizing of practices. “Of these movements, the most vocal and forceful was the Progressive Artists’ Group which was founded in 1947 and consisted of S.H.Raza, F.N.Souza, M.F. Husain, K.H. Ara, S.K.Bakre and H.A.Gade. It critiqued the outmoded practices of schools of art and rejected outright the revivalistic approach of the Bengal School. The Group in its coming together also symbolized the transcendence of the divisions created by religion, regions and caste,” informs Dalmia.

“The artists were young and could barely eke out their existence but strove hard to achieve a language in art which would satisfy their need for expression as well as pave the way for modern Indian art in a nation striving for a selfhood. Relatively unknown at the time some of them were to later become leading figures in art,” she adds.  

The artists met frequently, and held long discussions late into the night to find a means of expression in art which would reflect the needs of the country. As Raza defined it, ‘The real common denominator for us was significant form. We were expressing ourselves differently, we had different visions during the early days but what was common was a search for significant form, each in his own way, according to his vision. In a painted work, howsoever different it may be, say for example Modigliani and Soutine, who both painted nudes, the approach, the vision is different, the sensibility is different and, of course the temperament of these two artists is different. But the common denominator was significant form.’

Talking about the significant forms that the artists picked up during these trying times, she shares, Raza was of the founding figures of the Progressive Artist’s Group he laid the tracks for the art movement in the country and placed it on the international map. “Raza drew from the hot colours of the land to create mesmeric works which were redolent with memories of his country. Based in Paris for the most part of his life, his paintings made in brilliant, primary colours were non-figurative and yet spoke of a passionate, lived reality.”

“The rebellious artist Souza who founded the Group could ceaselessly make immense distortions and a frank exposure of the human body which formed the basic language of a forceful modernism. M.F. Husain’s works reflected nuances of a lived reality with intimate details of street life and the mundane and the ordinary. The veteran artist Krishen Khanna is known for his immensely moving compositions which focus on the detritus of existence. His constant preoccupation with the marginalized figure whether it is the waiters at roadside dhabhas, labourers sleeping beneath trucks or the bandwallas with their ill-fitting costumes restore the dignity of those who are overlooked as well as presages their humanity,” Dalmia shares the iconic artists prolific forms that are studied all over the world.

She continues, “The significant artist Ram Kumar with his swirling streams of paint in Paris and later in Benaras made a bid for encapsulating the surface with an eddying flow. A non-representational painter to the core, V.S.Gaitonde emphatic commitment to the creative process, and his dexterous handling of colour, structure, texture and light, and his intuitive comprehension of forces which alter perception are the ingredients which make up his masterly craft.  Zarina Hashmi creates with singular strokes the homes that she had occupied as her peripatetic existence after the Partition of the country made her shift her base from place to place.” 

 Along with Raza and the Progressive Artists there was a simultaneous emergence of other modernists like Biren De, G.R.Santosh, J.Swaminathan, K.G.Subramanyan, Prodosh Dasgupta and others. She informs, “The Neo-Tantric movement in the sixties saw artists like Biren De and G R Santosh turn towards the Tantra tradition with its cosmogenic diagrams and seek to draw modernist symbols from these signs. Unlike the Neo-Tantrics Velu Viswanadhan’s abstract shapes in blazing reds, blacks and greens on the other hand create a symphonic vision in their juxtapositions of colours. The founder of the short lived but influential Group 1890 in 1962, J.Swaminathan, is known for his ‘numinous images’ which suggest supra-real, magical and mysterious forms which are not constructed but are inherent everywhere in space.”

29062022 Dhoomimal Paintings Shoot

Talking about eminent sculptor Himmat Shah, the curator says, “His far-sighted vision brings about heads which could be considered almost cycladic in their shapes and yet are eminently modernist. Of the modern generation of sculptors who gave shape to a distinct vocabulary, Prodosh Dasgupta’s works stand out for their rhythmic, flowing lines. He introduced a style of three-dimensional figuration which lent itself to abstraction.”

“It was inevitable that Calcutta, the earliest city, would herald modernism and also have an energetic outburst of art activity.” She continues, “It was here that an artist like Jamini Roy created motifs of modern art with sweeping bold strokes, drawing from the everyday life of ordinary people including that of women and the Santhal tribals. In Sailoz Mukherjee art, as distinct from Roy, the simplification of form and stylisation were derived from the works of Matisse as well as folk art and Basohli miniatures.” 

Interestingly, she tells, “This was also the period when the poet Rabindranath Tagore was to establish Santiniketan, the open university outside Calcutta which nurtured not only his artistic skills but also of the famed artists Nandalal Bose, RamkinkarBaij and Binodebehari Mukherjee. A later artist K.G. Subramanyan trained by the doyens of Santiniketan learnt to hone his modernism to the prevailing environment as well as the struggle for liberation from colonialism.”

“A proliferating, multiple-modernism set in by the sixties, as wide-ranging and heterogenous as the country itself, setting the ground for successive generations. The diverse forms which emerged in India hereafter were to signify the need for self-expression and set the path for the course of art in the following decades, concludes Dalmia.  

 It is a proud moment for Indians as a retrospective on Raza has been inaugurated at Centre Pompidou in France on 15th Feb 2023 and will continue till 15th May 2023.‘Raza & His Contemporaries’ is on view until 10th March 2023 at Dhoomimal Art Gallery, G-42, Connaught Circus, New Delhi.

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