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Bombay Art Society

  • One of the oldest art societies in India founded by colonial rulers, Bombay Art Society showcased art students and professional artists from all over India, including the Progressive Artists of Bombay.
  • Name:
    Bombay Art Society
  • Kind of Organisation:
  • Introduction:

    One of the oldest art societies in India founded by colonial rulers, Bombay Art Society showcased art students and professional artists from all over India, including the Progressive Artists of Bombay.

    Word Count: 31

  • Content:

    The Bombay Art Society (BAS) is one of the oldest and most enduring art societies in India, founded by the British rulers in 1888 as a venue for exhibitions and to encourage the taste for Victorian academic art among educated Indians. Enjoying both official patronage and that of resident Europeans, the society encouraged local painters, showcasing students of the government-supported J.J. School of Art, such as the portrait painter Pestonji Bomanji and the figurative painter and art teacher M. V. Dhurandhar, maintaining close links with the art school throughout the colonial era. Well-known artists from other parts of India included Raja Ravi Varma, the most important academic painter in India, the landscape painter J.P. Gangooly from Calcutta, Abdur Rahman Chughtai from Lahore, and the iconic Amrita Sher-Gil. The society’s annual exhibitions were great social events, eagerly attended by the public, the artists widely reviewed in the leading newspaper The Times of India, and the prize-winners lionised. A small number of local women artists from the Parsi community, and expatriate European women, also found space in early exhibitions.
    This set of twelve annual exhibition catalogues (1935−1947), offers us an idea of the range of works and the prominent artists, as well as the tastes of the educated public and the general artistic ambience of the city. They also provide a helpful list of artists and their addresses for interested buyers. The inaugural catalogue (1935), the Bombay Art Annual, contains a selection of frequently-exhibited artists, in addition to articles by well-known authors. To select some of the more interesting events: in 1938, the Italian king Victor Emmanuel sent 160 etchings to the annual exhibition. The pioneering modernist, Amrita Sher-Gil’s prize-winning painting, Group of Young Girls, adorned the frontispiece of the 1937 catalogue. From that year, photography was included, indicating the increasing acceptance of photography as art, especially with the presence of Jehangir N. Unwalla, a photographer of international repute. Among foreign painters, Magda Nachmann, a pupil of Léon Bakst in pre-Revolutionary Russia, moved to Bombay (today's Mumbai), with her husband, the Indian revolutionary M.P. T. Acharya; she was a regular exhibitor. The society effected a coup in 1940 by showing in a special gallery, the celebrated Russian symbolist painter, sometime resident in India, Nicholas Roerich.
    The society endorsed the prevailing taste by exhibiting academic artists and the Bengal School orientalists, but in 1936 the art scene began to change with the appointment of Charles Gerrard as head of the art school; he encouraged his students to respond to new movements in the West. The works of three of his students, N.S. Bendre, K.K. Hebbar and Shakir Ali (later a leading Pakistani modernist), exhibited works at the society that deployed post-impressionist brushstrokes. But a proper modernist revolution began with the arrival of Walter Langhammer, a student of the Vienna Academy. In 1937, as the Nazis overran Austria, Langhammer was desperate to leave his homeland. He was hired by the Advertisement Department of the The Times of India in Bombay on the intervention of his friend Shirin Vimadalal. Later he rose to be Art Director. She was his student in Vienna. Langhammer, along with Rudolf von Leyden and Emanuel Schlesinger, fellow central European Jewish refugees, joined Kekoo Gandhy, owner of the Chemould Gallery, in mentoring Francis Newton (the surname Souza was added later, F.N. Souza) and Syed Hyder (S.H.) Raza, both art school students. They were to be the key figures in the radical modernist group, Progressive Artists of Bombay (PAG).
    The catalogues of the society give us a glimpse of the spread of modernism in Bombay, beginning with Langhammer’s debut at the annual exhibition of 1939. The portrait of his friend Shirin Vimadalal, reminiscent of Kokoschka’s colours and brushstrokes, graced the frontispiece of the Golden Jubilee edition (1939). Again, in 1943, his portrait of Rudi von Leyden decorated the masthead. The 1945 show included one work by Souza and seven by Raza. Another founding member of the Bombay Progressives, K.H. Ara, began as a traditionalist, winning the Bombay Art Society prize in 1944. He was soon converted to modernism by von Leyden. Yet another founding member of the Bombay Progressives, H.A. Gade had also been showing at the society from the early forties.
    1947, the year of Indian independence, was celebrated with two exhibitions (the 56th and 57th). At the 57th exhibition, Souza won a prize for watercolours and Raza for oils, while Maqbul Fida (M.F.) Husain made his debut at the Bombay Art Society in the same show. One of the last to join the Progressives, he became the iconic painter of independent India, representing a secular, optimistic future under the first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
    My short essay is based on the rare set of BAS catalogues of the momentous decade, 1937−47, in my possession. To the best of my knowledge, these fully illustrated catalogues of the annual exhibitions provide a vivid and reliable account of the work and scope of the society. During my research I have not come across a similar set anywhere else. I am not aware if BAS or the J.J. School of Art has a similar set. My enquiries in that direction have failed. The catalogue numbers are confusing. It is unclear whether there was a catalogue for 1936 (45th exhibition). 1937 is numbered as the 46th show, followed by 1938 (the 47th show). 1939 is the Golden Jubilee edition and unnumbered. Then, confusingly, the 1940 exhibition is numbered as the 49th. 1941 (50th annual exhibition) is missing, probably because the Golden Jubilee edition came out in 1939.

    Word Count: 915

  • Known addresses in Metromod cities:

    K. C. Marg, Bandra Reclamation, Bandra West, Bombay (now Mumbai).

  • Signature Image:
    Title page of the catalogue for the Golden Jubilee Exhibition, exh. cat. Bombay Art Society, Bombay, 1939 (© Bombay Art Society, Photo: Partha Mitter 2021).
  • Media:
    Francis Newton [Souza], Prosperity, Cat. no. 17, n.d. and S.H. Raza, Bori Bunder, Cat. no. 65, n.d. Detail of an inside page, exh. cat. The Bombay Art Society, 1947, 21 (© Bombay Art Society, Photo: Partha Mitter 2021).
    Walter Langhammer, Portrait of Mrs. Shirin Vimadalal, 1939, Detail of an inside page, exh. cat. The Bombay Art Society, 1939, Frontispiece (© Bombay Art Society, Photo: Partha Mitter 2021).
    Title page of the catalogue for the 57th Annual Exhibition, exh. cat. The Bombay Art Society, December 1947 (© Bombay Art Society, Photo: Partha Mitter 2021).
    A.J. Patel, Sabita, cat. no.727, n.d. and J.N. Unwalla, Screened, cat. no. 721, n.d. Detail of an inside page, exh. cat. The Bombay Art Society, 1939, 46 (© Bombay Art Society, Photo: Partha Mitter 2021).
  • Bibliography (selected):

    Bernstein, Lina. Magda Nachman: An Artist in Exile (Modern Biographies). Academic Studies Press, 2020.

    Franz, Margit. “Graz – Wien – Bombay – London: Walter Langhammer, Künstler und Kunstförderer.” Historisches Jahrbuch der Stadt Graz, vol. 40, edited by F. Bouvier and N. Reisinger, Stadt Graz – Kulturamt, 2010, pp. 253−276.

    Mitter, Partha. Art and Nationalism in Colonial India 1850–1922. Occidental Orientations. Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 69–72.

    National Portrait Gallery. “Walter Langhammer 1905–1977.” National Portrait Gallery, Accessed 18 March 2021.

    Story of a Hundred Years: The Bombay Art Society 1888–1988, edited by Baburao Sadwelkar, exh. cat. The Bombay Art Society, Mumbai, 1989.

    Word Count: 93

  • Author:
    Partha Mitter
  • Date of Founding:
  • Participants (selection):

    Abdur Rahman Chughtai, Amrita Sher-Gil, Charles Gerrard, H.A. Gade, Jehangir N. Unwalla, J.P. Gangooly, Kekoo Gandhy, K.H. Ara, Magda Nachmann, M.F. Husain, Pestonji Bomanji, Rudolf von Leyden, Shakir Ali, S.H. Raza, Walter Langhammer.

  • Metropolis:
  • Entry in process:
  • Partha Mitter. "Bombay Art Society." METROMOD Archive, 2021,, last modified: 24-06-2021.
  • Kekoo Minochair Gandhy
    Frame Shop OwnerGalleristArt Collector

    Starting from a cosmopolitan milieu for young local artists, Kekoo and his wife Khorshed Gandhy developed a business model that turned the frame shop into Gallery Chemould.

    Word Count: 27

    Magda Nachman Acharya
    ArtistTheatre DesignerIllustratorTeacher

    The political turmoil of the twentieth century took Magda Nachman from St. Petersburg to Moscow to the Russian countryside, then to Berlin during the 1920s and 1930s and, finally, to Bombay.

    Word Count: 31

    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.

    Word Count: 28

    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.

    Word Count: 28

    The Leydens: Sculpture, Paintings, Cartoons

    In 1948 Albrecht and Rudi von Leyden sold their personal works of art in order to set up an “Artists' Aid Fund”, which became an institution in the following years.

    Word Count: 29

    Open Studio Evenings by Käthe and Walter Langhammer

    The painter Walter Langhammer and his wife Käthe built an informal infrastructure to promote local avant-garde artists and regularly invited them to Open Studio Evenings at their studio.

    Word Count: 29

    GalleryFrame Shop

    Chemould’s history stretches from its beginnings as a manufacturer of chemical mouldings and frames in 1941 over to a hub for art circulation displaying a variety of artists in Bombay.

    Word Count: 30

    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.

    Word Count: 27

    Jehangir Art Gallery
    Art GalleryAuditorium HallLibrary

    Efforts to create spaces for the democratic presentation, discussion and reflection of art in Bombay after independence led to the establishment of the Jehangir Art Gallery in 1952.

    Word Count: 27

    Studio Berko
    Photo Studio

    Studio Berko was run from August 1939 to 1944 by the Hungarian Jewish avant-garde émigré photographer Ferenc Berko. It allowed him to make a living at a time of global political upheaval.

    Word Count: 30

    Rudolf von Leyden
    GeologistAdvertisement SpecialistJournalistArt CriticArt CollectorCartoonist

    The advertisement expert, Rudolf von Leyden, became a major art critic and art historian in Bombay in the 1940s, advocating an urgent need for modernism in art in post-colonial India.

    Word Count: 30

    Emanuel Schlesinger
    Factory OwnerTechnical DirectorArt CollectorArt Critic

    The art collector Schlesinger provided primarily financial aid by creating working opportunities for young artists in post-independence Bombay, and initiated the corporate culture of buying art.

    Word Count: 26