While doing research for an exhibition on the Progressive Artists’ Movement, which will open at the Asia Society Museum in New York this September, art historian and curator Zehra Jumabhoy learnt of a rumour: the circle of India’s most significant Modernist artists, usually thought to comprise only men, once nominated a woman artist to join the group.

Despite the group’s iconic status, material related to their exhibitions are scattered across private archives, and stories about them can neither be firmly dismissed nor quickly confirmed. Jumabhoy decided to investigate further. When the catalogue of the group’s last exhibition in Bombay in 1953 featured a name that she did not recognise – an unknown Rajopadhye – Jumabhoy turned to the internet. It led her to Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya.

In following this trail of clues, Jumabhoy learnt that there was indeed a woman artist among the Progressives: none other than Bhanu Athaiya, one of the country’s best-known costume designers and the first Indian to win an Oscar in 1983 for her work on Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.

SH Raza, 'Haut de Cagnes', 1951, The Darashaw Collection. Image courtesy: Asia Society.

Athaiya’s understanding of the contours of the human body and the balance between figure and background, which came handy in her work as costume designer, may well have been a result of her training as an artist at the Sir JJ School of Art, where she was taught by VS Gaitonde, another member of the Progressives. In a 1952 portrait, Gaitonde paints Athaiya as an impressive young woman, hair swept up, bird in hand, emerging forth from geometric patterns.

Athaiya’s career as a painter was short. Some of her paintings, reproduced in the 2010 memoir, The Art of Costume Design, show the influence of Amrita Sher-Gil’s earthy palette. Soon after contributing three canvases to the 1953 group exhibition of Progressives artists held at Bombay Art Society’s Salon on Rampart Row, Athaiya began making illustrations for fashion magazines such as Fashion & Beauty and Eve’s Weekly. Shortly after the 1953 exhibition, she quit the world of art for cinema. Her work as a costume designer was preoccupied with defining Indian identity in the wake of Independence. According to Jumabhoy, Athaiya, who was born in Kolhapur, and whose father was also a painter, did not regret this career change. “Bhanu was very aware that she had to earn her own living,” she said. “[KH] Ara was apparently furious and accused her of going commercial.”

MF Husain 'Peasant Couple', 1950, Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA. Photography by Walter Silver. Image courtesy: Asia Society.

The discovery of Athaiya’s membership was too late to include her paintings in the Asia Society Museum exhibition. But the lack of knowledge about her involvement with the Progressive Artists’ Group underscores the necessity of pursuing research even into periods of Indian art history that have seemingly been studied amply. However, when Jumabhoy first discussed her project with members of the Indian art community, many thought the idea was redundant. “Why was I doing a show on the Progressives?” she recalled being asked. “Hadn’t they been done to death? What could I possibly have to say about them that hadn’t been said before? And yet, the more I tried to get the facts about this group that everyone supposedly knew everything about, the less information I discovered there was.”

As the guest curator of the exhibition, Jumabhoy has used information gathered during her PhD on Indian art and nationalism, completed from the Courtald Institute of Art in London, to develop the concept of the exhibition, titled The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India. It will run from September to January 2019. Boon Hui Tan, director of the Asia Society Museum, where the exhibition will be on view, is the co-curator.

FN Souza, Untitled, 1962, Blanca and Sunil Hirani Asian Art Collection. Image courtesy: Asia Society.

While selecting works for the exhibition, Jumabhoy found there seemed to be no consensus about who belonged to the group beyond its core members, namely FN Souza, Ara, SH Raza, MF Husain, SK Bakre and HA Gade. Even the date and place of the group’s first exhibition – July 1949 in Bombay – turned out to be inaccurate. Jumabhoy traced the group’s debut outing back to Baroda, a few months before the one in Bombay. “So, in trying to convince me that this show was old news, I became convinced we had to do this show for new information,” she said.

A central concern of The Progressive Revolution is to re-examine the question of who the Progressives were. Through the selection of artists from the group’s official exhibitions, it identifies the core members and close associates. These include Gaitonde, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee and Mohan Samant. On view will be two paintings from the group’s first exhibition – Souza’s corpulent couple from the 1949 oil-on-board Mithuna (Lovers), and Husain’s rural women in an untitled canvas from the 1940s. Over 80 other artworks, drawn from various public and private collections, largely from India and the US, aim to provide an overview of the kind of art that the Progressives were making in their time. The exhibitions also intends to highlight how they came to be influenced by the national and international sources, while also presenting examples of the artists’ signature works, even if they were made long after the group disbanded in 1956.

Krishen Khanna, 'News of Gandhiji's Death', 1948, Radhika Chopra and Rajan Anandan. Image courtesy: Asia Society.

Among the highlights of the exhibition are Husain’s 1955 painting Yatra, which brings together the artist’s interest in rural India, mythology, pre-modern sculpture and traditional dolls and toys, executed in an earthen palette typical of that period. Raza’s 1984 abstract Satpura demonstrates the artist’s transition from painting symbolic landscapes to an interest in geometry and cosmology, while Mehta’s 1997 painting of Durga’s struggle against the bull in Mahisasura represents one of his most resolved depictions of the myth.

From the Asia Society Museum’s collection, the exhibition has taken Rajput miniatures, Chola bronzes and a Japanese scroll to make links to the group’s varied influences, particularly from India and Asia, and their borrowing from tradition even as they were trying to forge a new visual vocabulary for the newly independent nation. Such juxtapositions will allow audiences at the exhibition to see how some of Souza’s female figures recall Indian sculpture, such as the dancer from the 10th century, or that Pahari miniatures were key references for Gaitonde’s early figurative work, as is evident in the 1948 gouache From Village to the City.

FN Souza, 'Standing Nude', 1957, Private collection. Image courtesy: Asia Society.

Co-curator Tan said that the spirit of the Progressives is emblematic of Asia in the mid-20th century. “One of the reasons I wanted to do this show is that their work was about extending the limits of what was possible in the new India post 1947,” he said. “This is also the story of post-colonial Asia, not just India. When the peoples of Asia were slowly being liberated from colonial rule after the Second World War, their modern art became a way of visualising this new freedom.”

The choice of the word progressive to describe this movement is indicative of the political impulses of the era. “It was a time of great intellectual ferment, the terminology of progress was in the air,” Jumabhoy said. “The socialist connotation of the term was only one of the reasons for the PAG’s choice of nomenclature. They saw themselves as staging a rupture with the past, forging head. Now that India was a free nation, it needed a progressive art.”

Tyeb Mehta, 'Mahisasura', 1997, Rajiv and Payal Chaudhri. Image courtesy: Asia Society.

The pursuit of progress, of being progressive, determined the direction not only in art and culture, but in every aspect of life. However, Jumabhoy believes that even after the formation of the group, which coincided with the birth India, we can learn from the impulses that guided it. “The artists embodied Indian Prime Minister Nehru’s dream of unity in diversity and his version of an Indian secularism that was multi-religious and inclusive,” Jumabhoy said. “Given the political climate in both India and the US today, I think this principle of tolerance – part and parcel of the group’s DNA – is vital to rekindle.”

The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India will be on view at Asia Society Museum, New York, from September 14 to January 20, 2019.