Art News & Views

The Unspoken Histories and Fragment: Bal Chhabda

by Snehal Tambulwadikar

The history remembers and reminisces those with success, the pioneers; the steps are not counted, just trod upon. The origin of the art work and the artist are interrelated, but the art work is something else, something beyond either of them. The zeist becomes more crucial, and all that falls together makes the art. Progressives were and are celebrated, now that each one of them becomes a master, the making of masters becomes significantly imperative. The most spoken of group of artists today, it also is one of the sadly documented one, like major of Indian artists, with limited books with meagre information. Though much late, it’s time we start gathering the bits and moments which make up the whole history. Bal Chhabda, the loyal friend Husain mentions, is the significant piece of the jigsaw called PAG.

Bal Chhabda, today known as an avid painter, becomes a significant foot stone for the Progressive and Masters like Akbar Padamsee, with his Gallery 59 (named after the year of its establishment). He becomes the first gallerist to show the modern in making. Husain remembers Bal Chhabda as his most loyal accomplice in most of his chats, in some places mentioning him as one of the good modern Indian artists, with likes of Tyeb Mehta and Krishen Khanna; while Chhabda decides to be hushed, like he has been most of the times.

Chhabda (born in 1923 in Pakistan), entered the creative realm with interest in motion pictures, with his early ventures in Ahmedabad. His earliest attempt was a film named Do Raha (Director:Bal Chhabda; Producer: Progresive Pictures; Stars: Jagdish Sethi , Kamal Hassan, Murad, Nalini Jaywant, Pratima Devi, Shekhar; Music: Anil Biswas; Lyrics: Sahir Ludhianvi), which had a storyline with artists. It had Hussain portraying himself as an artist, while Sadanand Bakre as a set designer. Though the film was an absolute disaster, the friendship nurtured between the PAG and Chhabda blossomed. Husain, who began his artistic endeavours with painting of film posters in 1937 after coming to then Bombay, always had a heart for films, and Bal Chhabda proved to be an exciting spring for the same.

In 1952, after the fall of Do Raha, sauntering in Warden Road, Chhabda bumped into Hussain; after a long catching up at a streetside café, and Husain took him along to the Bhulabhai Institute, the baode of artists from all avenues then, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ebrahim Alkazi, Tyeb Mehta, S.H. Raza, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar V.S. Gaitonde and likes. By about 1954 Gaitonde and Husain urged him to paint, “why not?” they asked. Then one day at Volga Bar, the moment came in and emerged the first of works of Chhabda. Says Chhabda, ‘I had for the first time in my life, an irresistible urge to capture the curve of her arm, the sway of her shawl, on paper, seeing which Husain clapped. Everyday after that I hung out at the Ritz bar, the Ambassador, different clubs, bought crayons, sketched and drew, while Husain applauded.” His first really significant work, is a 4 by 3 feet painting, The Devil’s Workshop which won him the Salon the young Painters’ Award; Raza and Akbar Padamsee’s works had been sent back from the same. The same work won him the International Governor’s award at Tokyo. But Chhabda, for reasons unknown refused to sell, rather would represent the Progressives in 1959, after he began showing his works in 1958. 2003 had his retrospective, Husain sending out invitations (Husain mentions Chhabda as one of the most promising modern artists in India at many places).

Chhabda seems to have been the earliest patron of the modernists, also the financer; Sadanand Bakre, Husain, Mehta, Akbar Padamsee - whom he terms in his own unique vocabulary as ‘us geezers’. They seem to have been very palls with one another, though Chhabda himself has not shown his radical attitude other than his unattainable support to the Progressives. Husain recalls him paying for the maska bun and chai at the Irani restaurant. Gaitonde, after he left his home, went to Chhabda’s place to stay, and Chhabda till today flaunts the Gaitonde outstanding works at his place. Akbar Padamsee, in one of his interviews remembers the early days of Progressives, when he exhibited with them. Husain had his painting for Rs. 700, he himself for Rs. 300 and Raza for Rs. 2000, which really infuriated Husain. The next day Husain put up his work for Rs. 3000, and nothing made much of difference since no work was sold. The only buyers Padamsee remembers that time are Krishen Khanna and Husain, who purchased his works exhibited in Chhabda’s gallery. Chhabda supported these artists in such a period, whether for his love of art, his vision or is sheer amiability remains a mystery.

Chhabda is also the earliest of persons to relate Husain to films; Husain who toyed with the idea of coming to Bombay and joining the film industry as a set designer, began instead to paint cinema hoardings. When Pather Panchali was made in 1955, Husain created brilliant series of painting based on the film. One particularly remembers the strong bullock image from this series at it was exhibited at the Memorial Institute in Bombay Babubhai early in 1956. Husain made Through the Eyes of a Painter in 1967. His first film, this is a vibrant collage of vignettes of rural Rajasthan. He also made a short film Umbrella (Haloi said that Husain's short film Umbrella), which helped by Chhabda.

Chhabda today owns under his shed the treasure of early modern masters, a Huge Gaitonde which he bought in 58’ for Rs. 1, 800 for his then interior designer girlfriend could not convince her clients to have it put up at their place. Also he possesses the immensities of Gaitonde, sized 7 feet by 16 feet which he took up for Rs. 1, 500 for he found no buyers. He has all the PAGs, the Krishens, the Razas and the Husains, even a metal mural by Vithal and Husain.

Unfortunately, today, when we have Raza and Padamsee of the Masters, Chhabda denies to be verbal, and one is left grappling at the fragments of our own history, which is very non-meticulously documented. After glorifying the PAG for years along, not all of the artists are really known. Art history remains at the base of gathering data more than philosophizing the core issues. Chhabda with his ‘accidental artistry’, remains as the mute but prime supporter of the Progressives, witness to the one of the most vitalizing forces in modern Indian art. His contribution though not all known, undoubtedly makes a mark, as all his ‘geezers’ form the modern Indian idiom.


1. Nisha Jamwal, Accidental artistry, January 26, 2003

2. Dnyneshwar Nadkarni, A Look at the Relationship between Painters and Cinema

3. Khalid Mohammad, Going Away Barefoot, Hindustan Times, June 10, 2011

4. Yashodhara Dalmia, The Making of Modern Indian

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