The early works of Hari Ambadas Gade manifest all the struggles an artist has to undergo before achieving
the painterly form. As landscape painting was part of his genre study, he could be termed a classic modernist.
His ‘plein air’ compositions involved a fundamental element that was characteristic of his works. That he
arrived at this from a scientific point of view, which was his calling, differentiated his work from that of
others, and imbued it with a detached significance. A mathematician and a scientist, Gade was also fond of
drawing and would sketch endlessly in his spare time. When he graduated from the Nagpur University, he
enrolled as a casual student at the Nagpur School of Art, where he was to make his acquaintance with Raza
and the two were to become lifelong friends. In 1948, when he exhibited at the Bombay Art Society and won
a silver medal for his painting Omkareshwar, his work was noticed and he was invited to join the Progressive
Artists Group. This painting marked a watershed for Gade in many ways. In joining the PAG soon after this,
he was to be initiated further into a systematic study of art. Gade stated it quite simply, ‘I came to know about
modern art after joining the Progressive Artists Group’.
Most of Gade’s works depict houses. They provide him with the basic means of building up the surface and
dividing it into rectangular units. Unlike Raza’s landscapes which capture the streets and corners of the city
and its throbbing activity, Gade sought out life in small towns like Udaipur, Nasik and Omkareshwar for
expressing his painterly constructions. Despite his claims to formalism in these early years, these bricklayered houses with small shuttered windows and sleepy facades seemed to be seething with the pent-up
frustrations of its inhabitants inside.
By the late 1950s, the houses started verging on abstraction and became cubes of colour wedged onto the
planar surface to create tonal variations. They no longer resonated with small-town life but instead looked
like precious gems that had been polished to perfection. If his painting was a vital outcry against the violence
that had disrupted the peace of the people, Gade’s stillness brought out the same turbulence through sheer
colour modulation. For him, colour was of the foremost importance and, struck by its emotive quality in an
article he had read in a research journal, he experimented with its endless possibilities. Appropriately enough,
as a student of biochemistry he was able to arrive at its subtle nuances through his knowledge of the
chemistry of colour. If houses form the significant motif of Gade’s work, then he invites comparison with an
artist like Ram Kumar, who painted them obsessively in his middle period. In one of his paintings, there is a
tendency towards abstraction as the shapes of houses dissolve into rectangular blocks of white, grey, blue,
brown, and black. These are strung across the canvas, embedded in a densely textured surface of blue.
It is often been pointed out that Gade left his emotions out of his paintings and made entirely formal works.
These emotions, by his own admission, have to arise from within the painting, ‘Whatever emotion is in a
painting, it is within it, born out of it, and developed within the nature of the medium’. The materials with
which he virtually re-creates forms and emotions on the canvas, then, are the lifeline of the painting for Gade.
In that sense, the painting is not devoid of feeling, or even passion, but the emphasis is on the compositional
Figurative work that entails an investment in emotions was always secondary in Gade’s oeuvre. In any case,
the human form in his paintings was once again grist to the painterly mill. As he stated unequivocally, “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.” One important
aspect of Gade’s paintings is colour, to which he assigns a central role. He states that ‘The juxtaposition of
colour, with its emotive functions, is my primary concern and I receive my pictorial experience through color,
with all its technical and spatial attributes’. It must be borne in mind that like Husain, Gade was very much
rooted in his environment. He was born in a Maharashtrian family in Talegaon village in Amaravati district,
Vidharbha, and grew up watching his grandmother make ritual diagrams for Ganpati or Gokulashtami
festivals. Gade picked up some skills from her and would, in her absence, fulfill the same function. He also
learnt the ‘abhangas' from a retired school teacher whom he considers his real mentor. He would sketch the
whole day as a child and even when he went on to study science in Nagpur, he continued sketching in his
spare time. Not flamboyant by temperament, he conserved rather than extended and in this he achieved a
limited success. If he had struggled to go beyond his own aims he would have acquired an undoubted
greatness. In matching his landscapes to a new vocabulary, he, however, remains one of the first progenitors
of abstract art in India.
Gade died in 2001. Several of his works are with the National Gallery of Modern Art and Lalit Kala
Akademi, New Delhi and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. Several art galleries across
Europe also have his works in their possession.
Excerpts from the book The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives by Yashodara Dalmia published
by Oxford University Press, New Delhi in 2001