The enduring significance of the artist whose work was erased from art history

“Better had I died,” wrote Francis Newton Souza about a debilitating childhood bout with smallpox that left his face permanently disfigured, “I would not have had to bear an artists’ tormented soul, create art in a country that despises her artists and is ignorant of her heritage.”

The great, relentlessly pioneering artist (1924-2002) wrote those lines in his Fragment of an Autobiography, which was published by Villiers in London in 1959 during difficult years when both money and fame remained mostly elusive. Although that plight did alleviate somewhat – including a singular albeit brief heyday as an acknowledged London luminary alongside masters of the contemporary canon like Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon – the mixed reception on his homeland has never improved, beyond the shallow vagaries of an essentially ignorant art marketplace.

That is why, even now, despite any number of auction records, there is no meaningful scholarship to be found anywhere about Souza, and innumerable fakes continue to be attributed to him, in fact constituting the majority of what goes on sale under his name in India. This grotesquely shameful charade is cynically, cyclically perpetuated by unscrupulous business interests, which in the final analysis comprise almost all of what passes for the desi art world.

If that is the plight of Souza, whose paintings are internationally celebrated, on permanent display at the Tate Modern in London and National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, and regularly snapped up by international collectors for prices that long ago crested above the benchmark of a million dollars, what about everyone else? Have we progressed at all from what this son of Saligao, Goa, and the Crawford Market neighborhood of Bombay complained about, or do we still despise our artists and ignore our heritage?

Here, even the most wide-eyed optimist must concede the report card is notably poor. Indian art has established a fairly robust marketplace at the high end – thus the fetish for Souza and his contemporaries, even if the paintings are conspicuously dubious – but we have almost no catalogue raisonnés, and only a handful of serious retrospectives have ever been held for even the most celebrated artists. That vacuum of understanding allows anyone to mouth any kind of absurd gibberish, and get away with it. This is how the committed desh bhakt M.F. Husain became tarred with patently ridiculous slurs and then forced into exile in the UAE, and also explains how and why the unwaveringly hard-edged modernist Vasudeo Gaitonde is being steadily repositioned into some kind of woolly-headed quasi-spiritual mystic.

Understanding the extent of this uniformly pathetic scenario, there is perhaps some cold comfort to be derived from the happenstance of an even earlier pioneer’s work remaining so totally unknown that it has not yet been perverted. This is the curious case of Angelo da Fonseca, whose magnificent oeuvre was created in yawning obscurity that only deepened further after his death in 1967.

Misunderstood, misrepresented, and purposefully ignored throughout the intervening decades, the main body of his paintings somehow survived intact via the extraordinary faith, courage and determination of his widow, the indomitable Ivy da Fonseca. Emerging now in the light of the 21st century, it is amply clear these paintings are of immense global significance. What is more, their publication in this meticulously compiled and lovingly produced volume (see angelofonseca.com) feels nothing short of miraculous. Out of nowhere, in an astonishing twist of fate, it seems justice will finally be served to Indian art history, more than 50 years after the artist himself departed our world.

How did this staggering lacuna occur in the first place? Why did Fonseca’s irresistibly gorgeous paintings disappear so thoroughly from our collective understanding that even the nearly-1,000-page Encyclopaedia of Visual Art of Maharashtra – which lists hundreds of artists – fails to record even an inkling their presence? The short answer is that there have been several layers of bigotry at work, starting with the fatally flawed global backdrop, as Dr. Rupert Arrowsmith has described in his invaluable Modernism and the Museum: Asian, African, and Pacific Art and the London Avant-Garde (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Arrowsmith lays out the problem on the very first page: “There is a problem with the study of Modernism as a global phenomenon. Histories of the period have been written, until very recently, by scholars with little or no knowledge of the culture provinces other than their own, resulting in a situation where the dots of apparently discrete geographical regions are not adequately connected by lines of influence.”

These blind spots have “led to a distorted view of Modernism as essentially a European invention, with comparable movements on other parts of the globe characterized as imitative of ‘advanced’ art and literature in Europe, or – paradoxically – as reactionary and propagandistic. The possibility of multi-directional, transnational exchange in aesthetic concepts, art-historical knowledge, and literary and artistic technique is thus discounted, played down, or at best acknowledged in tentative and misleading ways.”

That sweeping failure of international (read: Western) scholarship was gravely compounded in India after 1947, when an urgent – but wrong-headed, and ultimately destructive – revisionism swept aside and covered up the complex landscape of modernism in India in favour of the Tagores and their “Bengal Renaissance.” Unsubtly excluded from this lobotomized “nationalist” art history was the spectacular cultural wellspring of the entire west coast, but especially the parade of extraordinary artists from Goa who flooded to and through colonial and mid-20th-century Bombay to constitute what Ranjit Hoskote has eloquently described as “an invisible river, one that has fed into the wider flow of Indian art but has not always been recognised as so doing.”

In his superb curatorial essay for Aparanta: The Confluence of Contemporary Art in Goa, the landmark 2007 group exhibition on the waterfront of Panjim which marked the return of Fonseca to prominence in the cultural fabric of his homeland (and also served to save the lovely 19th century Old Goa Medical College campus from being co-opted into a shopping mall) Hoskote explained some of the causes of this dissonance: “Goa’s special historic evolution, with its Lusitanian route to the Enlightenment and print modernity, its Iberian emphasis on a vibrant public sphere, its pride in its ancient internationalism avant la lettre, sets it at a tangent to the self-image of an India that has been formed with the experience of British colonialism as its basis. The relationship between Goa’s artists and mainland India has, not surprisingly, been ambiguous and erratic, even unstable.”

It is a strange, oftentimes surreal predicament. From its inception in 1878, the paradigm-shifting Sir JJ School of Art was sought out by vastly disproportionate numbers of Goans (as were other institutions set up in colonial Bombay at the same time, notably the Grant Medical College). By the turn of the 20th century, the great pioneer Antonio Xavier Trindade – the heavily feted “Rembrandt of the East” – was one of its first Indian faculty members, and streams of his countryfolk followed in his wake.

It is important to note that most of this grand artistic legacy has been either purposefully erased from the record, or deliberately co-opted into sketchy narratives that efface their origins. This is because of a grand overarching prejudice, because the Goa-Bombay artists always been irredeemably heterogeneous. Souza’s cohort was defiantly scruffy compared to the Shantiniketan bhadralok: Husain painted billboards, Ara was a houseboy. The very presence of these kinds of Indians has been treated as an affront to Indian art history, and there can be no doubt the establishment would have preferred to erase them from our consciousness altogether. It surely would have happened too, if it had not been for increasingly wealthy non-resident Indians, and their outsized impact on the 21st century art marketplace.

These are all-important cultural fault lines – and here we must remember that both Souza and Gaitonde died in effective penury only two decades ago – but there is plenty of culpability that is shared by Goa as well. Goans massively compounded the art historical crime that Souza pointed out way back in 1959, as both state and society have displayed an unimaginably cavalier disregard for our own heritage, in an astonishing abdication of responsibility that has few rivals anywhere in the world. Despite being the inheritors of an unrivalled artistic legacy that extends millennia, right to the dawn of mankind in this part of the world, the average Goan student learns exactly zero about this birthright. Even worse, the government has done nothing to rectify the crisis, and compiled no permanent collection to speak of, while also neglecting to constitute the museum framework required to properly display and explain the few meagre scraps it has managed to retain after generations of despoilation (for example, the Kala Academy’s small trove of excellent Gaitonde canvases has been “missing” for the past two decades).

In this giant mess, which shows no sign whatsoever of being resolved, the existence of the best part of Angelo da Fonseca’s oeuvre poses an epic challenge, as well as its potential resolution. This ultimate bridge figure, who was born into an aristocratic Luso-Indian family but spent most of his life in happy anonymity in a spartan ashram in Poona from the 1930s onwards, whose artwork has always fallen between the cracks as too Indian for rigidly Eurocentric Catholics and too Christian for nationalism-blinkered Indians, has been retrieved from the ash-heap of history at precisely the most promising juncture, into an era that appears poised to understand and appreciate his brilliant paintings for the same exact reasons that our grandparents found them hard to digest. This is a bolt of lightning that commands the rewriting of all of our cultural notions. Here is our universal master, and India’s most important early modernist.

Madonna, 1967, watercolour on watercolour paper. Courtesy Ivy da Fonseca.

**

The story of Angelo da Fonseca is inextricably intertwined with the profoundly confluential history of Goa. His ancestral roots are on the ancient island of Santo Estêvão – aka Santo Estevam or Jua – where the story is told that his father and mother kept losing their children in infancy, totalling an agonizing six or seven babies a row. Then, advised by an old-timer, they acceded to pre-conversion traditions and paid tribute to an ancestral temple in the hinterland. After that gesture, they were blessed with several children who dis survive, including the preternaturally talented youngest son, whom – in the tradition of well-to-do Goans of the time – they sent off to study across the border in British India.

Fonseca left home at no more than seven or eight years of age, heading first to the St. Paul’s School in Belgaum – where there were many other Goans – and later rooted himself, with consequential future implications, in the bigger and more important cantonment city of Poona at St. Vincent’s School. After graduation, he first tried becoming a physician at Grant Medical College (where he was singled out for excellence in drawing in his Anatomy class) but then gave it up to join the JJ School of Art.

All along, the artist recalls in his quirky, fascinating Indo-Christian Art in Painting and Statuary: A Historical Retrospect, that was published by St. Xavier’s College in 1953, he harboured an overwhelming ambition: “since my artistic instinct began to develop; and [I became aware of] the great variety of the artistic production that has sprung under the encouragement of the Church all the world over – from the frescoes of the Catacombs of purely Roman inspiration down to the statuary of the Gothic cathedrals and the great Masters of the Renaissance period – [they] could not but be contrasted with the poor stereotyped specimens we always saw in the churches of our country.”

Fonseca explains at some length, no less passionately for it being a flawed and decidedly dubious argument: “A Renaissance building under the sun of India, having the now-clad Himalayas on its background, looks incongruous to say the least, something unwholesome and morbid, if compared with the lofty specimens of our ancient religious architecture that try to emulate the high peak of Mount Meru or the majestic slopes of Kailasha. Why could not the Catholic Church find herself at home in India, since she is really Catholic, i.e. universal, Indian in India as she is European in Europe.”

Later in that meandering essay, the artist etches out what sounds like his personal manifesto: “The Indian Catholic has generally been brought up on products of the West – very cheap and unartistic products at that, as a general rule – and consequently our art is strange to him. But if the priests introduce the art of India in our churches, the layman will naturally take it to his home. But we artists must make an effort to create real devotional pictures, and not merely to put a halo behind the head of a beautiful woman or inscribe a label at the foot of an ordinary man. Let therefore devotion be the substratum of inspiration, and that fostered by the breezes that descend from the lofty Himalayas.”

By this point, Fonseca had suffered mightily for his convictions. After heading home to Goa, he found himself the object of severe opprobrium for painting ostensible “holy pictures” that were vastly different from those peddled by the colonial church. He was shaken, fled back to the city where he had spent happy schooldays, and took up residence in the austere, high-minded Christa Prema Seva Sangha in Poona that had been founded by the Anglican minister John “Jack” Winslow just a few years earlier in 1927. The patrician Goan was happy there amongst well-educated (indeed, often aristocratic) Englishmen seeking to understand India, and was eventually given charge of its grounds. Even after marrying, he would return every day to work there, often in the company of his close friends from Goa, the great poet B. B. “Bakibab” Borkar and the nationalist priest, Rev. Hubert Olympio Mascarenhas.

When he had first fled to Poona, there was no one else quite like Fonseca, but by 1953 a number of other artists had followed in his footsteps in the vein of “Indian Christian” imagery, even if very few had the depth or originality of his work. He does note that “Joseph Pereira is a budding artist of great promise” adding that “it is a pity that he leans more to the West than to the East. His paintings at times are left unfinished. He should be more Indian in his composition and even in this technique.” This is an important intersection from our standpoint, because Joseph is better known to us as Dr. José Pereira, the brilliant polymath with a relentlessly taxonomical bent. Towards the end of the latter’s life, the US-based scholar gave us an acute analysis of how Fonseca fits into art history. Since it is unpublished, and otherwise unavailable, I am quoting it at length here for the benefit of future scholars.

Annunciation, 1953, watercolour on watercolour paper. Courtesy Ivy da Fonseca.

First among non-Westerners, Goans adopted Western political institutions, like the parliamentary republic, independent nationhood (predicated on cultural identity), anti-colonial insurgence, and political party. They took over scientific disciplines, like botany, medicine, linguistics, and history, as they were practiced in the West. They pioneered in writing in Western languages, and in Western literary genres. They embraced Western music, Western architecture, religious and domestic, and painting. Architecture in Goa reached heights of excellence, but not painting. From the start and for long Goan painters remained fixated on the works of the Flemish Renaissance.

Bengal was Westernized, successfully, by the British. As Bengal waxed, Goa waned; in the 19th cent. It reached the nadir of its fortunes. Yet all was not lost for India’s west. To the north of Goa was a group of islands – under Portuguese rule but transferred to the

British – known as Bombay. This group developed into a metropolis that boasted being the first city in India. It embodied the Westernization that had been initiated in Goa earlier and was its mighty new avatar. By the 19th century the Bombay-Bengal dichotomy had been fixed, and was to condition the rise of modern Indian art.

Reacting to the imposition of illusionism in the art schools the indigenist (or orientalist) revival – the movement to create a nationalistic art not imitative of Europe but continuous with India’s past – was begun under Western mentors. In 1819 the murals of Ajanta, a cluster of 5th century Buddhist rock-cut monasteries in the Deccan, hidden in the jungle for centuries, were re-discovered by a British army officer. Ajanta soon became a model for all Indian artists to imitate. E. B. Havell (1861-1934), director of the Government School of Art in Calcutta, encouraged Indian students to develop a truly Indian art inspired by the creations of the past.

One of Havell’s students was Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1966), the archpriest of orientalism, and the founder of the orientalizing Bengal School. A leading member of the School was Nandalal Bose (1882-1966), pupil of Abanindranath and teacher of Angelo da Fonseca. Fonseca, avid indigenist, who belonged to the area of Bombay’s influence (as did the realist Angela Trindade) crossed over to the more nationalistic Bengal and became the disciple of Nandalal, so assuring Bengal’s victory; Angela continued unperturbed in her academic ways, immured in Bombay’s realist fortress.

In Nandalal the Bengal school reached its climax; through his intervention in the contest between Bombay and Bengal, Bengal was victorious. The weapon that assured his success was an eclectic vocabulary – a conflation of forms and techniques from every source in the subcontinent, beginning with the fifth century murals of Ajanta, and continuing with the palm-leaf and paper manuscripts and the cloth paintings of Tibet, Nepal, Orissa, Rajasthan and Bengal, even the murals of Sigiriya in Ceylon: nothing “indigenous” or “oriental” was excluded, not even Persian and Mughal and Chinese and Japanese paintings. Only European realism was taboo. This panoply arrayed against the West suited Fonseca admirably in his efforts to create a wholly indigenist Christian iconography.

This iconography was the one dimension lacking to Nandalal’s indigenist universalism, and it was the dimension that Fonseca provided. Christian iconography in the 19th century was influenced by what is known as the “Saint-Sulpice art,” after a Parisian church of that name. The most characteristic features of this art were mass-produced, plaster-cast and terracotta statues, with saccharine and mindless expressions, probably intended to represent religious ecstasy. Pain and suffering were excluded, at least from the saints and Virgins. They were invariably healthy and sexless.

Originating in the primal hub of Westernization, Goa, and resisting the allure of its Westernizing successor Bombay, the center of illusionist painting, Fonseca, attracted by the universalizing indigenism of the Bengal School, though himself of the Bombay area of influence, capitulated to the style of that School and added his own contribution of an Indianized Christian iconography. In other words, Fonseca’s originality of indigenist form, derived from his teacher Nandalal, combined with his own original indigenist Christian iconography, mark him as an all-India figure straddling the two schools, Bombay and Bengal.

***

Pereira – whom I was lucky to get to know well in the last decade of his life – was an inveterate encyclopaedist. He categorized and catalogued everything in meticulous – indeed obsessive – detail, and we are eternally indebted that his lens returned often to Goan culture in different dimensions: music, language, architecture, art. He wrote this assessment (which he told me later was “ironclad”) of Fonseca at what we now realize was almost the last possible moment, just a few months before he passed away in New York at 84. It had been nearly five decades since the older Goan artist had himself succumbed to meningitis in Poona and all those intervening years had whizzed by uneventfully, until the thunderclap decision by Ivy da Fonseca to gather all of her late husband’s artworks from three or four separate locations in the city now renamed Pune, and drive them down to Goa in 2006, with the understanding they would be available to scholars and on permanent display at the Xavier Centre of Historical Research.

It was an earthquake moment, even if proper reverberations have not been felt from it for many years. In today’s light, the paintings are flat out undeniable. The reality of their existence poses a luminously intense riposte to all the conventional wisdom about what lies at the heart of our collective identity as Goans, Indians, and inheritors of multiple cultural strands that encompass the world. When they first arrived in Goa, many important cultural visitors came to view them like pilgrims: Orhan Pamuk, Amitav Ghosh, Dayanita Singh, Vikram Seth. Art scholars also showed up, including Rupert Arrowsmith, whom I invited to India specifically to view this archive, after which he agreed that it’s “time to look at Fonseca again, and to recognize him as a cosmopolitan artist fully at home within the eclectic, transcultural landscape of Indian Modernism.”

One especially significant reaction was from Paulo Varela Gomes, the late architectural historian who did an excellent job in two terms as the Goa delegate of the Lisbon-based Fundação Oriente.

Goans have a special interest in awakening Indian and international attention to Angelo da Fonseca’s importance as he was one of Goa’s more significant twentieth-century artists. But there is something else at stake here, something of far greater consequence than regional pride or identity. Some of the drawings and paintings by Fonseca—those with Christian subject matter, perhaps his more engaging works—directly bring to the fore the political, religious and cultural concerns of the early twenty-first century in a manner that is unavoidable for those interested in the role played by art in society. Fonseca’s art deals with ecumenical ideals, with the necessity of dialogue between ‘civilisations’ and religions, a dramatically-pressing topic for our times. It also deals with the place of Christianity in India and in Indian history, an issue that has recently given rise to episodes of violence and persecution and is paralleled by other unfortunate instances of intolerance and brutality between communities in India and elsewhere. This should draw immediate and urgent scholarly attention to Fonseca’s art.

Nativity, 1954, watercolour on watercolour paper. Courtesy Ivy da Fonseca.

***

By happy circumstance, and then in adulthood by purposeful design, the story of Fonseca is intertwined with mine at multiple junctures going back 100 years to the British Raj and St. Vincent’s School in Poona. My maternal grandfather William Xavier Mascarenhas (whose ancestral roots are in Porvorim) was his classmate and good friend from those years, and the two remained steadfastly loyal to each other despite one becoming something like a recluse at the Anglican ashram, and the other being catapulted into the top job at his alma mater, the storied Engineering College where he became the first “native” Indian principal in 1938. There are lovely stories passed down in our families about how the most important international visitors to that institution were treated to a grand Luso-Indian meal cooked by Fonseca himself – who was known as an outstanding chef – during which the artist would join the gathering.

A few years after the artist died, my parents spent some years in Poona (it only became Pune in 1978) where I was blessed to have Ivy da Fonseca as my very first teacher. She taught me to read in very pleasant school years that remained indelibly rooted in my consciousness because much of what remained of my schooling in India was distinctly unhappy. Much later on, after Ivy and I had reconnected, and she had begun to spend time in Goa to try and assist the XCHR in creating its promised centre of scholarship for her husband’s artworks, we were honoured that she attended the baptism of my youngest son, to whom I was proud to give the name Angelo. All through those years more than a decade ago, the author of this book and I worked very happily together to achieve our mission to keep our promise to Ivy and ourselves, secure in the confidence that this great artist’s work would not continue to languish so unconscionably.

Sadly, it did not happen. Our path was disrupted, then wilfully diverted. Fonseca was wrenched from our lives, and the bitter truth is an additional generation of Goans has proceeded to pass all the way through school without an inkling of this great artist’s very real value to their lives. Only a few understood what was at stake, and for them it rankled very deeply. Amongst these was my late mother Naomi Mascarenhas e Menezes, the daughter of W. X. Mascarenhas and niece of H. O. Mascarenhas, who never failed to enquire after this important unfinished business, literally right until her voice was finally extinguished.

What a pity my mother never lived to see this moment, when Fonseca has once more risen utterly improbably out of nowhere to command our attention. Fittingly enough, that story is writ small in the specific history of the painting on the cover of this handsome volume. First painted for display in church, it was discarded by know-nothings who contended it was not suitable: not European enough, not Christian enough, far too Goan, far too Indian. Later, when entrusted to the Xavier Centre, Delio de Mendonça cleaned it up with his own hands, and ever since then – even from the distance of Rome – he has continued to toil in Fonseca’s name with tremendous humility and rare devotion. The result, in my view, is impressive beyond measure. We must be very grateful to him and Gerard da Cunha for this landmark publication. Viva Fonseca!

Excerpted with permission from Fonseca by Delio de Mendonça. Architecture Autonomous.

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