Group 1890: An Antidote for the Progressives?
by Sandhya Bordewekar
Group 1890 surfaced as a sparkling quasar in the darkish, stormy skies of the Indian art world of the early 1960s and then as quickly collapsed into a black hole and disappeared from sight.
What was Group 1890? Why was it formed? And what was its importance vis-à-vis the Bombay Progressives? Group 1890 was a collective of a dozen artists led by J Swaminathan, the others being Ambadas, Jeram Patel, Jyoti Bhatt, Raghav Kaneria, Balkrishna Patel, Gulam Mohammad Sheikh, Reddappa Naidu, S G Nikam, Rajesh Mehra, Himmat Shah and Eric Bowen. It was ‘officially’ formed when the artists met in Bhavnagar (Gujarat) on August 25-26, 1962, at the home of Jayant and Jyoti Pandya, friends of the artists. The Group took its name from the number of the Pandya residence!
The Group’s manifesto was adopted on July 19, 1963. The very first paragraph explains its significance vis-a-vis the Bombay Progressives: “From its early beginnings in the vulgar naturalism of Raja Ravi Varma and the pastoral idealism of the Bengal School, down through the hybrid mannerisms resulting from the imposition of concepts evolved by successive movements in modern European art on classical, miniature and folk styles to the flight into 'abstraction' in the name of cosmopolitanism, tortured alternately by memories of a glorious past born out of a sense of futility in the face of a dynamic present and the urge to catch up with the times so as to merit recognition, modem Indian art by and large has been inhibited by the self-defeating purposiveness of its attempts at establishing an identity.”1 The manifesto reveals the deep anguish and frustration about the then accepted practices of art-making felt by a section of the young Indian artist community of the late 1950s-early 1960s, and their fervent desire to forge a native but contemporary language of art. Though the manifesto does not explicitly nail the Bombay Progressives, one can easily deduce who they meant when the description read ‘hybrid mannerisms resulting from the imposition of concepts evolved by successive movements in modern European art’. It is also obvious that the Group was unequivocally rejecting current art practices of Indian artists, having analyzed astutely where these were coming from.
The manifesto defines the Group’s own understanding of the creative process as different from the work of art that generates as its result. They write, “To us, the creative act is an experience in itself, appropriated by us and therefore bearing no relation to the work of art, which creates its own field of experience, as the experience of copulation is not the same as that of the offspring.”2(emphasis mine). The work of art, then, stands strong and steadily alone, isolated from any props that the artist might want to provide it with. This could be interpreted as the crux of the manifesto; it is a truly amazing articulation. Moreover, Group 1890 was perhaps the first serious effort of contemporary Indian artists as a group to question, understand and formulate their own theory regarding art creation. Most significantly, it did not advocate any specific mode or manner in art. This made it different from other art movements where the focus was predominantly on advocating a style/manner in art-making.
The fact that Group 1890 comprised artists from all over India (except the east!) also reveals the extent and depth of the dissatisfaction prevalent in the Indian art world. With the manifesto ready, the Group decided to have a show and make the manifesto public. The exhibition, held at the LKA Gallery, New Delhi, had each artist showing 8-10 works. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurated the show, whose catalogue essay, Surrounded by Infinity, was written by Octavio Paz, then Mexican Ambassador to India. Paz understood the artists’ cause and identified with it. He was initially puzzled but later impressed by the strange name adopted by the Group. He wrote, “1890 is neither an aesthetic formula nor a political or moral password. In reality it means nothing. And in this deliberate absence of ideological meaning I find the significance of the movement… The paradox of the movement, moreover, is not new. Many centuries ago it was illustrated by Zeno and his famous arrow which does not advance but nevertheless moves. Vibrating and still, the arrow is always at the same distance from the target. No. 1890 is not a figure merely designating a meeting place. It is an arrow shot by a group of brave young men. Each aims at a different target - and that target is the same for all. 'The target is unreachable. We are surrounded by infinity.”3
This was the first and the last exhibition of the Group, which was so unfortunate. It had articulated a way ahead that could have changed the way contemporary Indian art evolved. Yes, the ideals it had set were certainly challenging and I think only Ambadas, Himmat Shah, Jeram Patel and Swaminathan were really able to conform to them in the work they did subsequently. Soon after the exhibition the Group disintegrated. Himmat Shah was already in England when the exhibition took place. Sheikh followed soon afterwards, and Ambadas went off to Europe. Others went away to their respective professions and other commitments.
There were a number of efforts made to revive Group 1890, but they were unsuccessful. That moment could never be brought back; and it was in that moment that the Group 1890 lived and breathed. Perhaps it was in this brief moment that they also challenged the might of the Progressives.
1. Introduction to the Manifesto of Group 1890, sent to me by S. Kalidas, J. Swaminathan’s son.
3. Octavio Paz’s piece for the catalogue of Group 1890 first and only show in Delhi, 1963.