A unique visionary of still-life and nudes: The less-remembered Progressive Artist, KH Ara

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Part of a nude by KH Ara | Via jnaf.org

April 16, On This Day  

KH Ara

He was born into penury on April 16, 1914, and passed away at the age of 71 in June 1985, also in relative poverty.  

But in between, artist Krishnaji Howlaji Ara or KH Ara, an integral member of the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) in Bombay, left behind a rich and fascinating legacy, particularly at the peak of his popularity in the 1950s and ’60s. 

Ara ran away from his Secunderabad house when he was just seven. In Mumbai, he came to live as a domestic help for a household, where eventually, his flair caught the eye of two patrons of the arts — Rudy von Leyden, an art critic from the Times of India, and Walter Langhammer, the Editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India.  

Meanwhile, Ara also took part in Gandhi’s salt Satyagraha and was arrested and jailed for five months. 

By 1948, he had joined the PAG — comprising stalwarts like M F Hussain, H A Gade, S H Raza, F N Souza and Sadanand Bakre.  

Ara began his career doing landscapes and paintings on socio-historical themes, but he is best known for his still life and nude paintings. Some say Ara was, in fact, seen as the first contemporary Indian painter to meticulously use the female nude as a subject “while staying within the limits of naturalism”. 

He initially used watercolours and gouaches, where his use of the impasto effect made them resemble oil paintings — later, he moved on to the use of oil paints, too. 

Blue Landscape by KH Ara | Courtesy Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) | Via Google Arts and Culture
Lest we forgot his sacrifice by KH Ara | Courtesy Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) | Via Google Arts and Culture

According to Google Arts and Culture, “Still life as a genre of painting in India came into its own with Ara.” His experimental, beautiful compositions with bowls, fruits and vases with flowers took on a distinctive style, with a striking roughness in both drawing and applying paint. 

Wrongly depicted female genitalia in some of his nudes drew criticism. Some viewers famously claimed that his “paintings of groups of vases have greater voluptuousness than his nude forms”. But Ara’s nudes are also tagged as a mix of rawness and refinement. They don’t usually face the spectator and are absorbed in their own world, mostly brooding, rarely posed.  

The French influence on Ara was fairly intense, such as that of Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse. 

Red Flowers by KH Ara | Courtesy Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) | Via Google Arts and Culture
Breakfast Table by KH Ara | Courtesy Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) | Via Google Arts and Culture

Ara won several awards in his lifetime; he was founder and secretary of the Artists’ Aid Centre and trustee of the Jehangir Art Gallery, both in Bombay, and both fellow and general council member of the Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi. 

He held several shows with his group but with Souza, Raza, Gade and Bakre leaving India, the band became undone. From 1948 to 1955, Ara held several solo and group shows in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Baroda and Calcutta and later had solo exhibitions across Eastern Europe, Japan, Germany and Russia. 

In a report for the Business Standard, curator Kishore Singh wrote: “Having dropped out of the public eye, he failed to emulate the renown, or prices, of Souza, Raza and Husain (languishing, therefore, on the same plane as the remaining Progressives, Bakre and Gade, though more visible than them).” 

Ara often helped struggling artists from his personal funds; many say his habit of giving away his works generously did not help his financial situation either. He remained a lifelong bachelor and asexual as a person according to his adopted daughter, Ruxana Pathan. 

Nude by KH Ara | Via jnaf.org
Untitled by KH Ara | Via Firstpost