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K.H. Ara - The Impending Superstar of the PAG Founders

Krishnaji Howlaji Ara is one of the prominent modern artists of India who made their name under the banner of the Progressive Artist’s Group, in their endeavour to transcend existing traditions and mould them to create something exquisite, while applying their own individual identity, creating masterpieces steeped in creativity, imagination and idiosyncrasies; Ara added to this legacy with his stylised landscapes and his depictions of the female nude that won him global praise as perhaps the first contemporary Indian artist to venture into, and systematically use, this theme. Since his first exhibition at Chetana Restaurant in Bombay in 1942, Ara went on to display his paintings at various shows in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Baroda and Calcutta, subsequently moving global with displays in Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany, Japan and Russia, winning admirers internationally, who were enamoured by his works created in watercolours, gouaches and oil; in past auctions, his paintings have fetched up to 7,00,000, 8,00,000 and 13,00,000 in rupees, and some works such as the Drummers have been valued between 25,00,000 and 35,00,000.


Ara was born on April 16, 1914 in Secunderabad to a chauffeur, and the life of hardship compelled him to run off and make a living in Bombay, the city which became his home till his death in 1985. Survival was no easier for him in the new setting and he had to struggle to make ends meet, earning his living by cleaning cars and later by working as a domestic helper, although he persistently took out time to paint; his work caught the eye of the Illustrator’s Weekly editor, Walter Langhammer, and he was so taken by his paintings that he enrolled him in the J.J. School of Art. A nationalist in soul and spirit, Ara joined the Salt Satyagraha led by Gandhi in 1930 and was even jailed for five months, following which he caught employment as a car cleaner with a Japanese firm. It was Rudy von Leyden, an art critic at the Times of India, who encouraged Ara to consider painting professionally, and the artist held his first exhibition in 1942, which was a sensation, catapulting him to regional fame; he joined the Progressive Artist’s Group in 1948, a major break in his art career. K.H. Ara won several accolades, including the Governor’s Award in 1944, a Gold Medal from the Bombay Art Society in 1952 and the Windsor and Newton cash prize; he was a member of the managing committee of the Bombay Art Society, a Fellow of the Lalit Kala Academi and was closely associated with the Artist’s Centre in the Bombay Art District.


Ara entered the art profession with a relative sense of academism, focussing on scenes in his environment, and his paintings were quite reminiscent of Bombay’s colonial painters, occasionally resembling the Bengal School of Art. Some of works seem to be inspired from Cezanne and Matisse, especially his still life paintings in the 1940s and 50s. The artist was very conversant with the style of Modernism, yet he occasionally favoured to dabble in the Classics, resulting in his paintings being a wide and diverse variety that stuck to only one theme- his individuality. Ara emphasised the honest expression of form, and that is what made his female figures so distinctive as he tried to make them as naturalised as possible, and he extended the same dictum to his other paintings, which ranged from landscapes, female bodies and human figure studies to landscapes and socio-economic reflections, all rooted in an extraordinary delight for ingenuity. The artist was most comfortable with watercolours and gouaches, occasionally applying impasto effects to resemble oil imagery, although later on he did experiment with oil but focussed on thin pigmentation that looked almost like watercolours, evident in his works like the ‘Woman with Flowers’.

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