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Charles Petras

  • Charles Petras was the founder and director of the international cultural centre Institute of Foreign Languages, an avant-garde theatre director and a very active promoter of international understanding and world peace.
  • Charles
  • Petras
  • Karl Petrasch, Karl Petraš, Carl Petraš, Charles Petraš

  • 01-07-1906
  • Vienna (AT)
  • 01-06-1952
  • New Delhi (IN)
  • JournalistDirectorLanguage TeacherWriterTheatre MakerArt ManagerTranslator
  • Charles Petras was the founder and director of the international cultural centre Institute of Foreign Languages, an avant-garde theatre director and a very active promoter of international understanding and world peace.

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  • The only existing portrait of Charles Petras, 1947 (The Indian Listener, vol. XII, no. 3, 1947, p. 77 © All India Radio, New Delhi. Photo: Margit Franz 2021).
  • Man Athirst is the title of Charles Petras’s unpublished, handwritten and hand-drawn volume of poetry, which he wrote in the winter of 1943/44 in the Premnagar central internment camp. Every poem symbolises the pursuit of a life of freedom; some symbolise the hunger for art, culture and self-determination.
    The left-wing, cosmopolitan, international journalist, world traveller and supporter of decolonisation, Charles Petras (originally Karl Petrasch) was politically and culturally socialised in so-called ‘Red Vienna’. Petras made friends with writers and intellectuals such as Egon Friedell, shared the stage with Marlene Dietrich and Peter Lorre and received his first directing lessons from Carl Forest and Max Reinhardt. After studying law and philology in Vienna and philology in Liège (Belgium), he spent time in France that shaped his artistic perception and provided a political and journalistic turning point. He wrote for the Marxist, anti-capitalist and pacifist weekly Monde by Henri Barbusse and for the Parisian La Paix Mondiale (Global Peace, translated by MF). From 1925 he worked as a reporter, writing in French for the Franco-Belgian press, as well as for daily newspapers, weekly magazines, and journals in other countries. By 1930, while living in Belgium, his network had become global and he became friends with the son of the political activist Sarojini Naidu, who helped facilitate his interview with Gandhi on non-cooperation (29 October 1931). The interview appeared in Monde in February 1932 and was reproduced in the London Communist Labour Monthly in April 1932.
    Following his artistic inclinations, he became a manager and promoter of young artists like Iden Ianchelevici (1909–1994), a Romanian sculptor living in Belgium, and the Belgian writer Charles Louis Paron (1914–1986). In 1935 he left Europe for good and, armed with a number of journalistic commissions, set off on a three-year overland trip from Belgium to China accompanied by his author friend Paron and a dog, on a bicycle-cum-sofa vehicle.
    In September 1937, while waiting for his companion to return from military service in Belgium, journalist Petras also began working as a language teacher in Bombay. He taught French at the Modern School of French for the Alliance Francaise and temporarily taught German as a substitute teacher at the Balak Mandir High School in Matunga. In this southern Indian migrant suburb of Bombay, he lived in Kanti Mahal, a modern (apartments with attached toilets) two-storey Art Deco building in Tejookaya Park.
    However, his uncertain legal standing and desperate financial and professional situation led him to make fatal contact with the German Club, the spearhead of the Nazi organisation in Bombay at the end of the 1930s. The proposal to open an English-German institute with the support of the German Club to teach German to all classes; his negotiations with the German Club and the German India Institute to be hired as a language teacher and his “flirting with people of all kinds” would lead to him being interned during World War II. Neither his support for the escape of his Jewish dancer friend Hilde Holger from Vienna nor his entry into the anti-Nazi wing during his internment were able to convince the British authorities of Petras’s loyalty to the Allies, and they even threatened to repatriate him at the end of the war.
    Finally, in April 1946, after spending 80 months in a “human desert”, he was released − a “man athirst”, hungry for life, self-determination and artistic expression.
    He now began to make his pre-war ideas a reality and founded the Institute for Foreign Languages (IFL) in order to generate income. This initiative brought together his left-wing political and pacifist ideas, his art promotion initiatives and his avant-garde theatre experiments of the interwar period. He dedicated the next, and what were to be his last, six years of his life to these ideas by establishing the IFL as an important linguistic, international cultural and meeting place in Bombay. There he helped to define and promote participatory and egalitarian forms of local and international exchange, communication, and cooperation. In addition to the language school, a translation agency, a bookstore and a travel agency, he founded an IFL club with membership open to everyone, regardless of money, creed or race. Promoting world peace was high on his agenda. He organised United Nations Day celebrations on 24th October every year, first inviting the Bombay diplomatic corps and later bringing the subject closer to the people by hosting cultural activities featuring local artists.
    Charles Petras interacted with avant-garde and politically active artists of the time in Bombay, such as the left-wing members of the Progressive Artists’ Group. The Souza in the 1940s exhibition catalogue shows Petras with F.N. Souza, V.S. Gaitonde and S.H. Raza at the Bombay Art Society salon in 1948 (Souza 2018, 20). In 1950 Raza exhibited his Kashmir paintings at the IFL, and later Gade (1951) and M.F. Husain (1951 in Delhi, 1954 in Bombay) had solo shows there.
    The IFL not only provided space for exhibitions, concerts, vocal performances, piano recitals and literary readings, but also focused on the discussion and performance of plays. This started with professional groups encouraging theatre lovers to act and perform themselves, a kind of experimental theatre following the international traditions of the Little Theatre Movement, but developed into the production of more intimate, non-commercial, not-for-profit and reform-minded plays with Petras as the driving force. With a group of five, Petras set up a studio theatre group in Delhi and founded the IFL Little Theatre. In 1950 Petras had expanded the IFL to Delhi and ran the branch from Davico’s in Connaught Circus.
    “Petras rented the first floor of a Connaught Place building and staged the noted French playwright Jean-Paul Satre´s No Exit on a bare platform with the audience on three sides. Later, he also produced some fabulous plays like the well-known French writer Albert Camus´s The Misunderstanding with impressionistic colours and a crazy decor. Theatre enthusiasts such as Joy Michael, Michael Over[man] and Jamila Vergehse worked under this cigar-smoking, paunchy, black-bearded French-style, director”, remembers Anupam Kher (Kher 2019, 117).
    Bernard Shaw’s Inca of Perusalem was also performed in the midst of the audience. Petras was the producer and made history in New Delhi with his small number of productions that laid the cornerstone of an English theatre avant-garde in Delhi and also challenged the Bombay theatre audience. For his avant-garde commitment Petras paid a heavy price. Following the example of his idol Mahatma Gandhi, he embarked on a hunger strike in protest against a judicial eviction action by his theatre landlord and died on 1 June, 1952. After his death, all traces of the IFL in Delhi were lost.

    Word Count: 1086

  • Final departure from Europe: Charles Paron and Charles Petras leaving Brussels, 5 June 1935 (Balteau, Bernard, and Luc Norin, Helmi Veldhuijzen. Ianchelevi ou la matire transfigure. La Renaissance du livre, 2003, p. 54 © Musée Ianchelevici La Louviére, Archive).
    Report on IFL exhibition featuring Iden Ianchelevici, a Belgian friend of Petras, July 1949 (IFL News, vol.1, no. 3, August–September 1949, p. 3. Private Archive Margit Franz © Musée Ianchelevici La Louviére, Archive).
    French amateur theatre, spring 1949 (IFL News, vol. 1, no. 1, April–May 1949, p. 3. Private Archive Margit Franz © Musée Ianchelevici La Louviére, Archive).
  • Art Deco Mumbai. “Kanti Mahal – Tejookaya Park.” 22 June 2017, Art Deco Mumbai, Accessed 1 April 2021.

    Bombaywalla Historical Works [Simin Patel et al.]. “Aurora, Matunga.” 13 December 2018, Bombaywalla Historical Works, Accessed 28 March 2021.

    Franz, Margit. “Exile meets Avantgarde: ExilantInnen-Kunstnetzwerke in Bombay.” Going East – Going South. Österreichisches Exil in Asien und Afrika, edited by Margit Franz and Heimo Halbrainer, CLIO, 2014, pp. 403–431. Academia, Accessed 16 June 2021.

    Franz, Margit. Gateway India. Deutschsprachiges Exil in Indien zwischen britischer Kolonialherrschaft, Maharadschas und Gandhi, CLIO 2015 (especially chapter: 6.1. Kunstvermittlung: Das Institute for Foreign Languages von Charles Petras als interkulturelles Kultur- und Kunstzentrum, pp. 248–265. Academia, and chapter 8.3. Literarische Betrachtungen, pp. 348–356 : Lyrik Accessed 26 June 2021.)

    Franz, Margit. “From Dinner Parties to Galleries: The Langhammer-Leyden-Schlesinger Circle in Bombay – 1940s through the 1950s.” Arrival Cities. Migrating Artists and New Metropolitan Topographies in the 20th Century, edited by Burcu Dogramaci et al., Leuven University Press, 2020, pp. 73–90. Project Muse, doi: 10.1353/book.77990. Accessed 30 March 2021.

    Kher, Anupam. Lessons Life Taught Me, Unknowingly: An Autobiography. Hay House India, 2019.

    Petraš, Charles. “Man Athirst: Poems.” (unpublished and handwritten book of poems, Hilde Holger Archive, by Primavera Boman-Behram, London, 1944).

    Souza in the 40’s, exh. cat. Grosvenor Gallery / Sunaparanta Goa Centre For The Arts / Saffronart, London / Goa / New Delhi, 2018, Accessed 1 April 2021.

    Word Count: 240

  • Charles Petrasch (Carl Petras) – Austrian Internee Question of His Transfer from the Central Internment-Camp to A Parole Centre (National Archives of India, New Delhi, 1940), Home Political/EW/1940/NA/F-66-9-7.

    Hilde Holger Archive, by Primavera Boman-Behram, London.

    Musée Ianchelevici Archives, La Louviére.

    Private Archive Margit Franz, Sinabelkirchen.

    The Times of India (Mumbai) Archive, via Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin: Accessed 30 March 2021.

    Word Count: 68

  • Margit Franz
  • Bombay, India (1937–1939); Internment in Ahmednagar, Dehra Dun (1939–1946); Bombay (1946–1950); New Delhi (1950–1952).

  • Kanti Mahal,Vincent Road, Matunga, Bombay (545, Kanti Mahal, Tejookaya Park, Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar Rd, Kings Circle, Matunga, Mumbai, Maharashtra 400019, India) (place of residence 1939); Menkwa Building, Outram Road, Fort Bombay (now Buddha Bhavan, Purshotamdas Thakurdas Marg, Fort, Mumbai) (Place of work 1946–1950); Jehangir Building, 133 Mahatma Gandhi Road, Bombay (now Mumbai) (Place of work from 1950).

  • Bombay
  • Margit Franz. "Charles Petras." METROMOD Archive, 2021,, last modified: 14-09-2021.
  • Picture of Rudi von Leyden’ s Bust by Sadanand K. Bakre

    The picture of the previously lost and recently located sculpture by Sadanand K. Bakre reflects the relationship between the artist Bakre and the art critic Rudi von Leyden.

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    Hilde Holger

    Hilde Holger brought her expressionist dance practice from Vienna to Bombay, collaborating with local and exile artists, and opening a dance school.

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    Institute of Foreign Languages
    Language SchoolExhibition SpaceLibraryTheatre

    With its wide range of cultural activities, the Institute of Foreign Languages − founded in 1946 by the Viennese emigrant Charles Petras − became a glocal contact zone in Bombay.

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    Iconic Photo of the Progressive Artists’ Group and Their Associates

    There are two versions of the PAG photo at the opening of M.F. Husain's first solo exhibition in 1950 (published in 1996 and 2003) and two narratives about the opening.

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