Indian art: The lasting strokes of Group 1890

Group 1890 was a brilliant, if brief, movement in India’s art history
Curated By: Kishore Singh
Published: Oct 8, 2016
Indian art: The lasting strokes of Group 1890

Image by : DAG Modern Archives

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Throughout the 20th century, a number of artist collectives have been formed in India, but only one has remained in popular currency—the Progressive Artists’ Group of 1947. However, another, Group 1890, formed in 1962, has acquired a mythic presence without being much known about. Both were led by stormy petrels—the Progressives by FN Souza and Group 1890 by J Swaminathan — and both had manifestos that spelt out their ideologies.

But there were differences. While the Progressives held two exhibitions before its members left India and the group faded away, Group 1890 had only one before it petered out. And while the Progressives have dominated the market, the Group 1890 artists took a backseat, driven not by markets as much as by the importance of the image to their practice.

Twelve members came together to meet at a friend’s house in Bhavnagar in Gujarat (the house number giving the group its name) in 1962, where they talked and argued before putting their ideas down in a manifesto that J Swaminathan, as their leader, wrote. The following year, the group’s only exhibition, held at New Delhi’s Rabindra Bhavan, was inaugurated by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the presence of Mexican ambassador Octavio Paz, who was, in a sense, also their mentor through adda discussions, and writing for their catalogue.

None of the works at the exhibition sold, though they were remarked upon by critics, and showed the direction to a new modernism. At the time, most of the artists had been awarded and recognised, but their form of abstraction did not receive the adulation of their Progressive forebears. A few did gain popularity—Swaminathan and Gulam Mohammed Sheikh among them—but it is only in now that they have begun to get their due, as recent retrospectives by Himmat Shah and Jeram Patel testify.

Of the 12 members, 10 are discussed in this feature, the remaining two, SG Nikam and Balkrishna Patel, having faded into oblivion.

Leader of the pack
J Swaminathan
b. 1928, d. 1994
The force majeure behind the formation of Group 1890, J Swaminathan was fiery and rebellious. He wrote the group’s manifesto and went on to publish and edit the art journal Contra that took up cudgels on behalf of the art community with national institutions. He was responsible for befriending poet Octavio Paz, getting him to write for the group’s exhibition catalogue and involving him in conversations around art, literature and society. He had lived amidst tribals in central India, and his imagery was influenced by them, as also perhaps the trigger for creating an indigenous modernism that his fellow pack of artists responded to. His work in the 1960s was an abstract response to ideas and forms, and the setting up of the Rupankar Museum of Fine Arts in Bhopal, where he equated tribal and contemporary art practices, was a triumph against such polarities.

Untitled Oil on canvas 1991; Collection: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi