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Krishnaji Howlaji Ara

Indian Modern Artist
Born 1914, Bolarum, Andhra Pradesh, India
Died 1985, Mumbai
Lived and worked in Mumbai

Krishnaji Howlaji Ara was one of the founding members of the Bombay Progressive Group. Although his works are undervalued as compared to his contemporaries Husain and Souza, Ara was well known as the first Indian artist to paint a vast number of female nudes. Apart from nudes his admirers have lauded his interesting rendering of still lifes. A lack of formal training invited negative criticism about his art, but Ara successfully developed his own language of expression.


Certificate in Foundation Course, Ketkar Institute of Art, Mumbai

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UNDERSTANDING Krishnaji Howlaji Ara

Being part of the Progressives was Ara's heyday

As one of the founding members of the Bombay Progressives, along with greats such as F. N. Souza, S. H. Raza and H. A. Gade, Krishnaji Hawlaji Ara's contribution to the Indian Art scene is noteworthy. Although critics have questioned his works as lacking in formal art training, Ara was the first Indian painter to paint a sizable number of female nudes. Later, once Raza, Souza and Husain moved out of India, Ara founded the Artist's center in Mumbai.

He is quoted as brandishing “the honest expression of works” and its importance in his oeuvre. A driver's son who ran away from home, he came under art critic Rudy Von Leyden and Art Director Walter Longhammer's radar, both of who were instrumental in the shaping of Modern Art in Bombay during the 1940s and 1950s. Towards the end of his life he lost a lot of the fame he had acquired during his prime. It is rumored that he gave away his works generously, which might have been the reason why his paintings never sold at the level of his peers.

Krishnaji Howlaji Ara​, Nude with Bird, 1960, oil on canvas, 35.5 x 23.5”

Objects and landscapes appear in Ara's still lifes

Apart from nudes, Ara made a good number of still lifes. Some influences of Cezanne and Matisse can be seen in his still lifes of 1940s and 1950s, and though he was well versed with the formal ways of Modernism, Ara also successfully drew inspiration from the classics.

His still lifes are a combination of landscape and objects. For instance, in this ' Untitled' watercolor work, Ara has painted a vase and a bowl of fruits with a backdrop of mountains and a dull grey moon. The colors of the fruits create a stark contrast with the sober grey that dominates the entire piece. The use of light and white is specific to his style, along with the impasto effect, with the stills like visions from gaps in walls or holes in door. The work is not a landscape, neither is it a vase and bowl of fruits. Something of Ara’s mood and his character is captured in the depiction, rather than just an imitation of objects.

Krishnaji Howlaji Ara, Untitled, watercolour on paper, 29.5” x 21.5”

Intuitive, expressive art is Ara's claim to fame

In the beginning, Ara took on an academic approach to his art, painting scenes from his surroundings and portraits reminiscent of Bombay's colonial painters. Gradually elements of the Bengal School began to show in his work, which in the end transformed into his own expression of a sophisticated dialectic. With the true insight of a self-taught artist he said, "Expression for me does not reside in passions glowing on a human face... Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter's command to express his feelings. "His still lifes and nudes both have a rave charm as far as color scale and rendering skill were concerned. His art has always been intuitive, imaginative, spontaneous and improvised.

Krishnaji Howlaji Ara, Railway Station1, gouache on paper, 11 x 19”

Ara and The female Nude

Ara’s works focus on an ingenious rendering of subjects, especially the female nude. He started his career by painting landscapes and eventually moved on to still life and human figures. Most of his nudes seem to exude an overt sense of sexuality and raw power, save a few softer renditions like this ‘Untitled’ work.

While painting nudes, Ara largely took on a minimalist approach, not really paying too much attention to background detail. This peculiar kind of sophistication, which he aimed to standardize across all his works, was met with mixed reactions. On one hand, the solitariness of the subject helps the viewer to focus on the emotion of the piece. On the other, critics felt that due to the lack of formal training his figures were anatomically incorrect, especially with reference to the displacement of female genitalia. Interestingly, in an interview with his adopted daughter Ruxana Pathan, she reveals that Souza and Raza had convinced Ara that Chinese women had horizontal vaginas. This misinformation might have been the cause of his wrongly depicted genitalia.

But despite this technical flaw, the lonely, detached auras of his nudes have an alluring quality.

 Krishnaji Howlaji Ara,​ Untitled, watercolour on paper, 35 x 22.5”

Krishnaji Howlaji Ara,​ Untitled, watercolour on paper, 29 x 21”