An Artist is Born (1917-47)

It is perhaps ironic that though there is so much information regarding the Progressive Artists' Group and some of its more celebrated members, that the material available on H.A Gade should he so insubstantial to the point, almost, of being negligible. What little exists and circulates in the public domain is a rehashing of his painterly qualities as seen by a few critic's and supported by quotes from him, but even these are few and far in between. If Gade let his work speak for himself then, indeed, it has done him disservice. Well-read and articulate, Gade was known to be blunt less brutal than Souza, surely, but able to communicate his views on Modernism as well as art -- which should have earned him a dominant position within the ambit of their membership. Instead, Gade remains a shadow figure, known but not known enough.

This much though, is well enough known, that he was born in 1917, and his date of birth is ascribed to August 15, full three decades before the nation's Independence would be declared on the same date, which raises the speculation whether Gade 'chose' the date after this august event, or whether the coincidence was, in fact, just that and no more. His birth took place in a village called Talegaon Dashasar in what was Vidarbha's Arnaravati district, and is now in the western Indian state of Maharashtra.

Little is documented of his childhood, other than that he was given to sketching, and would often join his grandmother in making ritual drawings (or rangolis) for the Ganesh, Janamashtami and other festivals that were celebrated at home. 'When I was a child I was fond of drawing,' he would confirm, years later, in an interview. He attended Patwardhan High School in Nagpur and was later a student of science at Nagpur University. A bright student - he had topped the matriculation exam from his school -- it was natural he should continue his education, and reasonably clear that he would be a lecturer at some college at an appropriate time.

Gade's university training had prepared him for a career in mathematics, or science, but when his passion for drawing, sometimes for hours on end, led him to enroll, in 1939, as a casual (or part-time) student at the Nagpur School of Art, an alternate trajectory would lead him along a path he had not intended for himself. It was here that he met and befriended S.H. Raza, the only two among the Progressives who became friends even before they launched their careers as artists.

As a student at Patwardhan High School, he had been drawn to a younger student, Lila, whom he would later marry. They had three children, all of them, like himself, educated to take on individual careers, not one of them as an artist. The eldest studied architecture from Baroda, their daughter went on to become vice-principal of a school in Delhi, and the youngest, by coincidence, studied at the same college as his father, in Nagpur, before joining the Medical College there and qualifying eventually as a pathologist. It was he who live with his parents till Gade, in 2001, and Lila, in 2003, passes away.

Did Gade ever wonder about the future, or at least a future in the vulnerable, insecure and penurious world of art? Certainly, he had read books such as How to Paint Water Colours and was not shy of participating in competitions, entering two works as part of a national exhibition in Nagpur. One of them, a figurative painting, won a prize, yet it was as a teacher of mathematics that he began his career in Nagpur. From 1944 to 1948, he taught at Spencer Training College there. But clearly he had not given up his dream of learning how to draw and paint and in 1949 he gained himself a diploma in fine arts from the Nagpur School of Art and, in 1950, a master's degree as well from there. Interestingly, by then he was also living in Bombay, having shifted to that city in 1948.

It was as though with Independence he had decided to opt for freedom from the shackles that had bound his passion for art and before launching himself in its exciting, enervating universe, he wanted to prepare himself through adequate education. Armed with his degrees, he felt confident to take on Bombay.


Grade’s entry into Bombay couldn't have been any more successful. Having submitted the watercolour painting Omkareshwar to the Bombay Art Society in 1948, he bagged the silver medal for the gouache work which showed strong elements of the Modernist style that he would master in more abstract form. Omkareshwar is a pilgrim town on the Narmada's bank, and in attempting to recreate its essence, Gade’s work moved away from the realistic to the modernistic oeuvre that the group that would form the Progressive Artists' Group had been looking out for. He was already familiar with Raza; being recruited into their fold was but a matter of time. How ironic therefore that though his work was what had caught their eye, Gade himself was to report that he 'came to know of modern art after joining the Progressive Artists' Groups’. The two shows of the Progressive Artists' Group, in 1948 and 1949, would prove to be seminal all right, but his talent was not just to be the toast of Bombay for in 1949 he was also invited to exhibit his work at the Salon-de-Mai in Paris as well as at Stanford University.

However modern Omkareshwar proved to be, Gade had a lot of learning, and growing, to do. He had begun by painting landscapes, first in watercolour and later in oil, guided by Raza, who was at the time also a landscape painter and helped him with pointers on how to use the palette knife and brush. Gade’s interested in landscapes had begun in the scenic town of Jabalpur, where the Narmada flows through a canyon-like stretch of white rocks, and though he would veer towards abstraction very soon, he never abandoned the painting of landscapes, travelling extensively throughout India to draw inspiration, and imbuing them with tonal variations but keeping the pared down essence of colours with which he had begun his painterly journey, intact. Later too, when his abstracted forms were drawing attention, it was once again his use of colour and its application that would create a thrall. While he has submitted works to participate in exhibition in Bombay and Calcutta while still working in Bombay, it was the awards that gave him the confidence to throw in the gauntlet and embrace the ‘adventure’ that would give shape to his artistic career, proving, he once said, to be a ‘difficult one’. In an interview to The Daily’s S.I. Clerk, he said,

‘I met a small band of artist such as Husain, Ara, Raza, Newton(since known at Souza) who were trying to leave the trodden path of the Bombay traditions- bad, realistic Victorian style - and find new approaches for their visual and emotional expressions. They had not yet formed in a group. They saw in my work something different and promising and in tune with their own understanding and approach. And when they formed a group, they invited me to join it.

‘Individually we were working in our homes/studies and used to meet once a week. We did not restrict ourselves to any specific style --- oriental or Western, traditional or avant-grade. Our search was for the basic permanent values in a genuine work of art and our efforts were as to how to inculcate them in our personal expressions.

`We had group and individual shows and we also participated in all-India competitive exhibitions. Our work drew particular attention of the connoisseurs, the critics and art patrons. We even got invitations from other countries to participate in exhibitions there. Thus we could claim to have laid the foundations of contemporary Indian art under the banner of the Progressive Artists' Group’.

There is certain sparseness in Gade's canvases critics are quick to attribute to his training in science. ‘Gade's temperament is unmistakably scientific,' wrote S. A. Krishnan for a catalogue for Gade in 1961, ‘He owes it as much to his scientific education as to his native approach to life and its many problems. It is this scientific temperament that is largely responsible for his keen, analytical attitude and approach to artistic problems.' He goes on to quote Gade himself on this aspect of his painting and the charge that was often brought to bear on his work, labeling it as lacking in emotion.

I am scientific in my temperament,' Krishnan quotes Gade as saying. 'It is part of me and, perhaps, it is seen in an exaggerated measure because of my education. But so insistent is this faculty that I am told I am denied emotion entirely. "This is not true. I think quite a lot about a painting and rationaIise for a long time, but when I start painting it is the emotion that is at work. I paint passionately, leaving intellectual problem in the background. As a colourist I owe much to emotion. Perhaps I have described myself as a dual personality. I believe all artists are. What differentiates the work of one from the other is the emphasis of one of these traits.’ Krishnan was to comment that he found his work indicative of ‘deliberate organisation and restraint’.

The Fifties was definitely Gade’s great period of experimentation. In the second catalogue of their exhibition, his Progressive peers had made note of his style: ‘His media are opaque watercolour, and sometimes tentative oils. His subjects are invariably landscapes, the compositions of which are based on Cezannian principles.He paints for values far beyond the sphere of realism. With intuitive feeling for colour, and deliberate formal organisation, he achieves aesthetic order’.

The formal scale would remain a mark of his particular style all his life. Even fellow artist Badri Narayan observed that ‘Gade arrives at emotion and its equivalence in pictorial terms by a personal system of arrangements of interacting shapes while he simultaneously defuses or eliminates non-art elements, and structures his visual statements to what is the very essence of painting -- the primacy of paint.' No wonder he would come to be known as a colourist extraordinaire. Badri Narayan found that he would 'disdain non-pictorial or un-pictorial allusions to anything outside the painting itself', but assessed him as an artist of great self-confidence; 'he possesses an ease which is a challenge to prevailing canons of pictorial taste, as he endorses very simply the painterly qualities rightful to a painting - nothing less, nothing more.’

'Gade himself would admit to his primacy as a colourist. 'The juxtaposition of colours with its emotive functions is my primary concern and I receive my pictorial experience through colour, with all its technical and spatial attributes,' he would report. 'I am obsessed by colour. I speak in colour. A painter must be a colourist first, whatever else he may or may not be’. In the preface to an exhibition in 1957, he had noted that ‘I have no story to tell, no literary message to give, no social commentary to make in my pictures. M paintings are just paintings, disseminating my ideas and experience as a “painter”.

In time he would paint a few human figures, pared down to their essence of shape and colour, and the occasional still-life, but it was his landscapes and abstractions that would define him, and within that limited universe, the ‘house’ would be his stellar fixation. Omkareshwar had got him his first major critical acclaim, it consisted, of course, of a huddle of houses, a subject he would return to in both his rural as well as urban landscapes, whether in Red Roofs, Constructions in Ruin, The Yellow, and Green, Dolls’ House all the way to the iconic Kashmir and, later, Anand Parbat which were, again, characterised by a very spare form and a hegemony of colours. Critics would label even his abstract work as ‘figurative abstraction’ because it was still easy to discern the cognisable form which inspired the composition, something he himself referred to as nothing more than ‘personalised exaggeration’.

Art writer and critic Yashodhara Dalmia would refer to ‘(t)hese strange uninhabited houses’ as something situated outside time and in their enclosed world, where they radiate a kind of triumphant gleam’. She also noted, ‘The uneasy dislocation they sometimes convey could also rise from the new- found internationalism, which does not allow rootedness. At the same time, the whole world is at their feet, and the winged houses can be placed in any country, any town.’

When three of the six Progressive took off for European shores, it was Gade who remained as the secretary of the group, organising its activities for the growing band of artists who now aligned themselves with it. When the group, such as it was now, dissolved in 1954, Gade was among the main pivots behind the formation of the Bombay Group, through it never achieved the resonance of the Progressive, whether then or in later years as a reference point. That group too disbanded in 1958, the year Gade quit Bombay to shift to New Delhi, where he would be based for the next two decades.


Unlike his peers who were making a success of their careers - Souza, Raza and Bakre were overseas, Ara was a cause celebre, Husain the artist about town - Gade was not making any headway with his. It was particularly ironic because even then he was talked about as a painter’s painter and a colourist beyond compare. But as one of the earliest abstractionists in India, he was having a difficult time making ends meet through painting, and the need to put food on the table prompted him to take up a job in New Delhi. The Central Institute of Education there had appointed him a lecturer for training art teachers, and it was a job he would keep till his retirement in 1977.

Clearly, his day job took precedence while he was in Delhi, and he gave his own painting a lower priority. There are, of course, some works dating from those two decades, but as he became more absorbed in his students’ work, he neglected his own painting. If the New Delhi years brought some stability to his life - he was able at least to afford a middle class life for his family, and his son Sanjeev Gade says, ‘I was the luckiest as the youngest in the family since everything was provided for, and I don’t remember my father saying no to me for anything’ - it took a toll on him as an artists. Apart from exhibitions at New Delhi’s Dhoomimal Art Gallery first in 1957 and then in 1961, he all but disappeared from galleries, making just the one appearance at Jehangir Art Gallery, before succumbing, once again, to the soporific of near-anonymity.

One of the major reasons for his obscurity was the scarce appearance of his work at exhibitions. Other than the group's shows of the Progressives in 1948 and 1949, and the group’s exhibition till 1955, he had almost no shows to his credit. The exhibitions he participated in at Paris and Stanford in 1951, at Basel in 1951 and again in 1957, and in the Venice Biennale in 1954 and 1957, were in those years too far to have resonances back in India. In 1955 and 1956, he was part of a programme of contemporary Indian art travelling to the USSR, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria, again out of sight in India. With his shift to Delhi in 1958 and a working life once again as a teacher, Gade-the-artist in effect had smothered himself.

As a teacher of art, he now worked in various medium with his students, whether pottery or wood sculpture or painting, and it was natural for him, given his temperament, to neglect his own work. What little he painted was at the studio in his workplace, and nothing at all in his home at Anand Parhat, which was close to the university but little more than a house for him and his family. It was here he painted his Anand Parbat, a year after he shifted to the city, a luminous work with the abstracted shapes of houses emerging as a mass from a glowing blue. Sadly, few of his works would have the same intensity of colours in his later years, though the forms remained as clinically sharp, and bare, as before. In Delhi, Gade no doubt had to forge new friendships, and his tenure as a teacher at an important institution must have helped push him into the social ambit of the art world, yet there appear to have been very few relationships he forged. Certainly, there seem to have been a limited number of people who came home - his son Sanjeev remembers only Badri Narayan, Krishnan and Raza on his visits to India, among them - and the limited material available on him seems to hint at an almost willing exile from public life. If there was rancour at this self-imposed banishment, no one seems aware of it. That he had not developed any roots in the city where he had stayed the longest so far was clear from his flight from Delhi, back to Bombay, as soon as he retired, in 1977.


Gade must have craved returning to Bombay but did the city live up to his expectations? Most members of the Progressives and Bombay Group were fairly well established, and even though art remained a profession of indulgence rather than monetary consideration, established artists at least were doing reasonably well. But Gade, absent from the Bombay scene, little seen, in fact, at all in India after the mid Fifties, found himself once again an outsider, looking in and watching others make a success of themselves.

`He started painting at home, disappearing into his studio, where he would remain unmindful of time, of hunger and thirst,' his son Sanjeev Gade, who lived with him till the end, recalls. Much to the irritation of his wife, who found the rhythm of her household disturbed by her now retired husband, and his son, who found the stack of paintings eating into their precious storage space - Gade, famously, refused to hang his own works on the walls of his home - the artist continued to toil. The exhibition that took up his time was one he was organising himself. It was held from January 15-20, 1980, at the Jehangir Art Gallery. Whether because he had lost the rigour, or because he was too long distanced from his painterly years, Gade's work even now found no, or at least few, buyers.

Though outspoken among an increasing diminishing circle of friends, Gade kept mostly to himself - though he spent time at both Jehangir Art Gallery as well as at the Bombay Art Society - his views largely unvoiced. Even at the opening of the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bombay, in 1996, the inaugural show, The Modern, acknowledged him only perfunctorily. It was a slight he either wore lightly, or kept to himself. No one remember, him complaining. But then, few remember too when he slipped away from life, in 2001. The eulogies were few, the media almost absent.

Unnoticed though he might have gone, his work has survived him and is showing signs - of the longevity he might have hoped for, but did not, unfortunately, survive long enough to see in his lifetime. Yet, when he spoke about art, it was with the intuitive sensibility of a Modernist. Consider, for instance: `I know people only as shapes. A human being or a tree for me is a colour area, nothing else because I dislike illustration. An illustration is not a modern painting and I avoid it. Not that I have not done figures but for me they are important only to the extent that they formulate certain aesthetic relationships.’ Spoken, as one might say, like a teacher.

Sign In Close
Only Critical Collective subscribers can access this page.
If you are already a subscriber, then please log in.
 Forgot Password?
Subscribe now

The Photography Timeline is currently under construction.

Our apologies for the inconvenience.